Smoked Meat in the City


The authentic Jewish answer to bacon?

The first time I went to Montréal, many years ago, I was somewhat shocked to discover that corned beef and pastrami were almost nonexistent on deli menus. The cornerstones of American deli eating were pretty much persona non grata. When corned beef or pastrami did show up on menus it was almost as an afterthought, listed down in a corner somewhere, clearly not important enough to earn itself a prominent placement. Instead there was simply something the locals referred to both reverently, and at the same time, matter of factly, as “smoked meat.” Smoked meat was it. Menus featured smoked meat sandwiches, smoked meat Reubens, smoked meat hash, smoked meat on, or in, just about anything else you can think of. (One well-known spot even served smoked meat egg rolls.) Montréal is indisputably THE smoked meat city.

Corned beef, smoked meat, and pastrami all have their origins in poverty. The core of Eastern European Jewish cooking in the second half of the 19th century and in the early years of arrival in New York and the rest of the United States was mostly one of poverty. Rye bread (much more affordable in northern and eastern Europe than the comparatively costly wheat), herring and mamaliga (essentially, Romanian polenta), were a few of the staples of Eastern European Jewish eating. Most Jews arrived in North America with little in the way of finances. Corned beef and company were what poor people could afford to purchase. When it came to cuts of meat, brisket (for corned beef and smoked meat), and navel plate (for pastrami), were all at the bottom of the list of desirability. In their natural state, all are tough, fairly fatty, hard to prepare, and far from graceful on the table. To make either cut tender enough to serve, takes a good deal of effort. Long curing and long cooking combine to make otherwise stringy, tough meat as tender and tasty as can be. Low cost, a lot of work, wonderful flavor. Perfect products for people on limited budgets.

Legend has it that what’s now known as Montréal smoked meat started with the Lithuanian tradition of curing beef brisket. It’s pickled like corned beef, then lightly spiced and lightly smoked, à la pastrami. Look at it as a continuum: corned beef on one end—not smoked, not spiced; pastrami on the other—heavily smoked and very spicy; smoked meat somewhere in the middle—a little smoked, a little spicy. At its best, like corned beef and pastrami, it’s pretty darned delicious. Schwartz’s in Montréal was always my favorite. I ordered mine “fatty,” old-school. Just a stack of fairly thickly sliced smoked meat between two slices of rye with yellow mustard. The bread, to be honest, wasn’t anything to write home about. But the smoked meat was marvelously memorable.

Every time since then that I went back to Montréal, I made my pilgrimage to Schwartz’s to eat some smoked meat. And every time on the way home, I’d lament that we simply could never find a Montréal Smoked Meat to sell in Ann Arbor that even came close to Schwartz’s. USDA regulations made it impossible to import the real thing. And the folks in the States who were making it, while their offerings were okay, they just didn’t have that “man I want more right now!” kind of flavor and texture.

Until now! Finally, I feel like we have a smoked meat on hand at the Deli that makes me want more. That stands, as it should, with our pastrami and our corned beef. The third leg in the deli world’s triumvirate of terrific cured sandwich meats. Thanks to the Fuchs family who own the venerable Wagshal’s in Washington, DC, I can now eat smoked meat as much as I like.
Bill Fuch’s seems to have had much the same experience I had in Montréal—while visiting the city for work, he too fell in love with smoked meat. Over the years he’d go back and forth and never found anything at home in D.C. that even came close to what’d he’d get when he was up in Quebec. Finally, he decided that he was gonna figure it out for himself. He spent close to three years testing recipes. I think he succeeded! What the Fuchs family are making at Wagshal’s is darned delicious. So much so that we now have it regularly on the Deli’s menu.
The Wagshal’s smoked meat starts solely with prime beef—Bill’s adamant that that’s the only beef good enough. They dry-age it for over a month, which reduces the weight drastically and intensifies flavor significantly. Dry-aging is what we do at the Roadhouse—a good four or five weeks—to achieve that same effect. Up until 50 years or so ago, it was the norm with all great butchers and steak houses. Unfortunately, very few places still stick with the old methods. To save money, they switched first to “wet aging” (where the meat is trapped inside plastic and doesn’t lose much weight), or to no aging at all. Everyone in the industry knows it makes a big difference. It just costs more.

After the beef has aged, the Fuchs then coat the brisket in a dry 16-ingredient spice rub, let it marinate for another month, and then smoke it for about 12 hours. The result is excellent! Tender, smoky, a bit spicy, but in a mellow sort of way. Really, it’s pretty fantastic. It’s got plenty of fat on it, just the way I used to order it up in Montréal. If you were really old school, you’d stand back by the meat slicer and grab any fat that got trimmed off and pop it right in your mouth. As with prosciutto, bacon, or Iberico bellota ham, the fat is where the flavor is!
I still want to go to Montréal—it’s a beautiful city! But all I have to do now to get really great smoked meat is drive the ten minutes from my house to the Deli. Eat a smoked meat sandwich on-site if you like. Put it between two slices of the Bakehouse’s Jewish rye. Or try it on a Reuben, a #13, or any other sandwich on the menu. Alternatively, buy a pound (or two) to take home. If you do the latter, be sure to heat it up before you serve so that all-important fat is soft, tender and succulent the way Bill Fuchs and a half a million or so people in Montréal love it best! Fortunately, now we won’t have to fly all the way to Montréal to get it!

Ari Weinzweig


When I was a kid growing up in a kosher home, the only bacon they let us have was “beef bacon.” I’m not even sure which cut was used for it, but I don’t remember it being anything remarkable (which I suppose says a lot). Although it was probably meant to pacify poor, deprived Jewish kids eating in kosher kitchens and living in a bacon-centric society, it didn’t work. Beef bacon was a sad ruse, a façade, a phony. I know now it was a bit like sending someone to a tanning parlor when they really longed to go the beach in Baja—nothing like the real thing and about as compelling as a trip to the post office.

But while eating this new arrival of Wagshal’s Montréal Smoked Meat and, at the same time, working to get ready for this year’s Camp Bacon®, it dawned on me that they could have given us a better alternative. One that might not have totally erased the drive to be intimately up close with cured and smoked, salty, slightly sweet bacon, but may have actually made the grade. See, a nice warm, really fatty, thick delicious, moist slice of this Montréal smoked meat provides, I would argue, the same sort of enticing, ethereal, nearly erotic, eating experience as bacon does. It’s simultaneously smoky, fatty, slightly salty, rich, a teeny touch sweet, warm, melt-in-your-mouth marvelousness that all of us expect from great bacon.

It is, of course, a completely different product. Beef brisket vs. pork belly. Sliced hot out of the steamer instead of sizzled on the grill. And yet, I’m telling you, it brings that same sort of culinary buzz. That “wow, man, I could eat this stuff all day! can I have another piece please!” sort of impact that bacon brings. The good news is that unless you’re on a pork-free diet, you don’t have to choose—you can have both! One next to the other! In fact, now that I’m writing this, I think I’m going to have to test out a smoked meat sandwich with bacon on it. There’s a lot to be said, especially here in Ann Arbor, for the beauty of cross-cultural experiences!