10 May 2008

Montreal: Juicy tidbits of deli history

According to the Montreal Gazette, a search for a deli founder's history turns up some juicy tidbits from 100 years ago, including stories in the New York Times (1907) and Washington Post (1908)

The story is a fascinating read for anyone connected to Montreal's Jewish community, or for anyone who likes deli food!

Here's the history of Montreal delicatessens in numbers: 100 years, millions of sandwiches, at least a billion antacid tablets.

The latter two statistics are educated guesses. But because Annie Rees Roth went looking for the father she never knew, we know that the British American Delicatessen, Montreal's first, opened 100 years ago today.

The event was heralded by an advertisement in the Jewish Times. Under the assertion "I Am the Man" and beside a photo of the man himself - Lithuanian expatriate, by way of New York, Hyman Rees - the British American Deli opened its doors on May 9, 1908, promising "strictly fresh Smoked and Corned Beef of every description, which I receive daily from the N.Y. markets."

Sandwiches cost a nickel. And for the first time in Montreal, you could sit down and eat smoked meat on the premises.

Schwartz's would not open till 1927, but there were two earlier purveyors of the eastern European specialty: Aaron Sanft's butcher shop on Craig St. (now St. Antoine St.) and Chicago Hygienic Kosher Meats and Fancy Grocery, which, in 1904, advertised "lunches put up and delivered on short notice."

Roth, 86, has photos of the three-storey building where the deli was located on the main floor at 501 Main St, now St. Laurent Boulevard. The story recounts her "Father File" the results of research conducted with help of an internet-savvy neighbor named Rosalee Kovalsky. "Using cyberspace to shake the family tree has yielded a bountiful harvest - and surprises."

Her father arrived in New York from Lithuania at 14, obtained his US citizenship on Sept. 28, 1904 and opened a deli in New York a year later. Roth found a New York Times story in January 1907 of his arrest for not paying $6 a week alimony to his first wife. and quoted letters he wrote from jail:

"I thank you very much for the arrest from last week," he wrote. "You done me a good favour. I was very tired from fixing up the store and I needed the rest."

In 1908, the Washington Post interviewed the former wife, although Rees was already in Montreal arranging to bring in New York-style deli.

Read more here.

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