Over the last century, a brazen few have usurped the title of Montreal's smoked meat pioneer. Most of the avowals were false — braggadocio by hucksters keen to corner the cured meat market. In a 2009 interview, Eiran Harris, the Archivist Emeritus of the Jewish Public Library, offered some fascinating, and definitive, insight into smoked meat's elusive origins.
"For many years deli lovers argued about the origins of Montreal-style Jewish smoked meat; was it Old Man Wiseman or Old Man Kravitz who introduced it? Well, it was neither. In 1911, 63-year-old Wolf Wiseman, father of highly respected doctor Max Wiseman, placed an ad in the Yiddish language daily, the Keneder Adler, in which he proclaimed: 'News for Smoked Meat lovers. Your old familiar sausage dealer makes known to the deserving public that he opened a first class delicatessen store at 35 Ontario Street West, where he will sell the best smoked meat, corned beef, salami sausage, and canned goods.'"
Harris' exhaustive research on the subject resulted in the discovery that neither Wiseman nor Bens founder Ben Kravitz introduced or even manufactured smoked meat: "The earliest ad in Montreal mentioning smoked meats, of which I am aware, appeared in 1876, announcing that they were being manufactured by the Canadian Meat and Produce Company, whose agents were McGibbon, Baird & Company of Montreal. These were not Jewish-style products."
The actual genesis was the arrival in 1884 of Aaron Sanft from Yassi, Romania.
"The actual genesis was the arrival in 1884 of Aaron Sanft from Yassi, Romania. He became Montreal’s first kosher butcher. Historians believe that modern day smoked meat originated in Turkey and was brought to Romania by invading Turkish armies. Romanian Jewish butchers improved the curing process resulting in an exquisitely tender delicacy."
So did Sanft introduce Montreal to the smoked meat we all know and love today? "That was exactly what he did. Although I don’t know the exact year he introduced it, I do know that he was the first to advertise it."
The interview, which should be read in its entirety by anyone even remotely curious about Montreal delicatessen history, also includes some technical information about smoked meat's unique forumula.
An inferior cut of beef may be improved with careful cooking.
"There were and still are several secret formulas based mainly on the combination of salt and spices used to coat the briskets. Variations in secret curing ingredients will affect flavour, but the most important aspect of a successful outcome is the cooking. An inferior cut of beef may be improved with careful cooking. Conversely, a superior brisket could be transformed into an outstanding taste experience with expert cooking. The secret formula is in the cooking as well as the curing. Expert trimming of the briskets by a butcher also contributes to quality."
"Traditionally, the dry curing process commenced with salt and spices being rubbed on the surfaces of briskets which were then piled into wooden barrels where they remained marinating in their own juices for a period of 12 to 20 days depending on the thicknesses, and being turned over a couple of times."
This resulted in the unique quality and flavour of Montreal-style smoked meat.
"The cured briskets were then hung up on racks which were placed in a smokehouse and cooked for six to nine hours depending on brisket size. Their progress was checked occasionally. This form of cooking caused a 25 percent loss in volume, but resulted in the unique quality and flavour of Montreal-style smoked meat."
You can read more about Harris' smoked meat research here.