In Montreal, I ate bagels instead of poutine. I had planned on visiting Mile End – the suburb described as the city’s coolest quarter – because my friend Susan lives there, I wanted to go to Drawn and Quarterly, and I continue to add to my (as yet unwritten) international taxonomy of hipsters. If Mile End is supposed to be the hipster capital of Canada, then I needed to see it.
It was described to me as the Montreal equivalent of Williamsburg: a formerly poor and fairly run-down, largely immigrant suburb, popular with artists, slowly being encroached upon by students, young middle-class families in search of beautiful but affordable homes near the city centre, and hipsters. It also has a substantial population of Orthodox Jews.
My friend Carina and I took the bus from Westmount – where we were staying with our friend, the bride-to-be – and walked up St-Laurent, all the way up the Plateau. It was early on Saturday morning, so we arrived in Mile End in search of breakfast. Having heard about the wars between two rival bagel bakeries in the area, we bought breakfast at Fairmount Bagel. It was, incidentally, the place recommended to us as the superior bakery.
And the bagels were delicious. I now know that the traditional Montreal bagels are white (with sesame seeds) or black (with poppy seeds), but our cinnamon and raisin bagels, fresh from the oven, were some of the best I’ve ever had. I was also starving and frozen by the time, so that may also have influenced my verdict. In contrast, the bagel I tried a few hours later – for the purposes of science, you understand – from the rival St-Viateur bakery, seemed not as good. St-Viateur is also the subject of Donald Bell’s comic novel Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory (1973).
These Mile End institutions are testimony to the many groups of immigrants who settled in Canada, particularly during the early twentieth century. Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe settled in Montreal partly because it offered jobs and security. The city’s Jewish population grew from around 7,000 in 1900, to nearly 64,000 in 1941, with many of them settling in Mile End and surrounds. The Orthodox Jewish community began to grow there during the 1980s.
Until this visit, I didn’t know that Montreal bagels are distinct from other varieties: they are smaller, flatter, with bigger holes, and are baked in wood-fired ovens. They have a complex, sweeter flavour, and a drier, more chewy texture. In fact, there is now a restaurant in New York which sells Montreal bagels.
In her excellent We are what we eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Modern Americans, Donna R. Gabaccia explores the evolution and changing of immigrant cuisines in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. She traces the history of the bagel there: how it shifted from being made almost exclusively by Jewish delis for Jewish customers in the 1890s, to being a ubiquitous snack food available throughout the country by the 1970s and 1980s. She writes:
The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish or chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their Sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll.
However, bagels found an enthusiastic audience among other immigrant communities, particularly in New York, where the bagel came gradually to symbolise the city. Eating cream cheese and smoked salmon on these bagels transformed them from being a part of a Jewish baking tradition, to signifying its multicultural heritage.
I wonder to what extent the same is true for Montreal? And it feels likely that this city in a country with an official policy of multiculturalism – although in a province which has a far more conflicted attitude towards this policy – would embrace this immigrant food as one symbol of what it means to be from Montreal. (In much the same way that a café near to these bakeries sells a souvlaki version of poutine.)
I think, though, that these bagels are also taking on a new meaning. Gabaccia notes that the mass production of bagels from the 1970s made them more widely available, but also turned them into an altogether softer, sweeter, and easier bread to snack on. Bagels made in factories by Kraft – and not hand-rolled in small bakeries – lacked the texture, crust, and savouriness of the product first made in the northeast.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has recently been a renewed enthusiasm for Jewish deli foods. Julia Moskin writes in the New York Times:
Artisanal gefilte fish. Slow-fermented bagels. Organic chopped liver. Sustainable schmaltz.
These aren’t punch lines to a fresh crop of Jewish jokes. They are real foods that recently arrived on New York City’s food scene. And they are proof of a sudden and strong movement among young cooks, mostly Jewish-Americans, to embrace and redeem the foods of their forebears. That’s why, at this moment in 21st-century New York, the cutting edge of cuisine is the beet-heavy, cabbage-friendly, herring-loving diet of 19th-century Jews in Eastern Europe.
Much of the recent enthusiasm around the rediscovery of the hand-made and the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that) has been driven by hipsters (whatever we may mean by them). In a series of posts about the anthropology of hipsters – and the hipsterdom of anthropologists – Alex Posecznick notes that one of the defining features of ‘the hipster population’ is a rejection of ‘mainstream, capitalist and individualist norms in favour of tactile crafts, free-trade coffee and styles that physically mark that rejection.’
For the hipsters of Mile End, the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries exemplify this refusal of the mass-produced, and the adoption of the local, the ethical, and the somehow ‘real.’ But, as Posecznick acknowledges, this never-ending search for cool in the form of the authentic can also been seen as representing no real break from other forms of capitalist consumption:
They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat.
My point is that the bagel’s meanings have changed once again: those produced in small quantities in small bakeries now suggest gritty, cool urban living, as well as a return to old-fashioned, wholesome ways of making food. The irony, though, is that this shift of meaning has occurred within the context of the gentrification of once-poor, often (Orthodox) Jewish, neighbourhoods, where rent increases have meant that their populations are becoming increasingly homogenous: largely middle-class, mostly white.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
I never expected to receive an email from the Wayne County Airport Police. I had been so disoriented by the unpleasantness of immigration, crossing from Canada to the United States, that I’d dropped my travel notebook in Detroit airport. I’d only discovered its absence when unpacking in Ann Arbor and, as with most deep, unhappy losses, had only begun to realise how much I missed my small, black Moleskine diary a day or two later. But it was found, and a policewoman emailed to ask if it was mine. It arrived in a Fedex box six times its size within the week.
The diary would mean very little to anyone, I think. It contains addresses and phone numbers; lists of places to visit, things to buy, books to read, what to pack. It also includes recipes and descriptions of food I’ve eaten in Australia, Europe, Canada, and the US. It was these that I was particularly sorry to lose. In Kingston—a few days before arriving in Michigan—I’d written down the recipe for apple pie made by Elva McGaughey, my friend Jane’s mother, and an encyclopaedia of information on the home cooking of Ontario families.
That it was apple pie was significant. A week previously, Jane and Jennifer and Jennifer’s small son Stephen and I had picked apples in Québec’s Eastern Townships. We drove from Montréal, through bright green, softly rolling countryside. The sky was low and it drizzled. At the orchard, as Stephen snored gently in his sling, we filled deep paper bags with McIntosh and Cortland apples.
Several people pointed out to me that the saying should be, really, ‘as Canadian as apple pie’ because—in their view—the best pie is made with Macs, a popular variety developed by John McIntosh, who discovered these tart, crunchy apples on his farm in Ontario in 1811. The Mac now constitutes 28% of the Canadian apple crop, and two thirds of all the apples grown in New England. It is—as I discovered—excellent for eating straight off the tree, and cooks down into a slightly sour, thick mush in pie.
Today, the Mac is one of only a handful of apples grown commercially. Industrialised food chains demand hardy, uniform, easily grown varieties which can withstand long periods of storage and transport without going off or developing bruises. Until comparatively recently, there were thousands of apple varieties to choose from. Writing about the United States, Rowan Jacobsen explains:
Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalogue of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904 by the pomologist WH Ragan, lists 17,000 apple names. I wonder if a small part of the enthusiasm fueling the current rediscovery of old varieties—even neglected apple trees will continue bearing fruit for decades—is due to the multiple meanings we’ve attached to apples over many, many centuries. They feature prominently in classical and Norse mythology, where they are symbols of fertility, love, youth, and immortality, but also of discord. They are fruit with doubled meanings. The apple in fairytales represents both the victory of the evil stepmother, as well as the beginning of our heroine’s salvation: her prince will kiss her out of the coma induced by the poisoned apple. In her novel The Biographer’s Tale, AS Byatt represents the two wives—one in England, the other Turkish—of the bigamist Victorian explorer Sir Elmer Bole with green and red apples. The fruit in the Garden of Eden—since at least the first century CE described as an apple—bestowed both knowledge and banishment.
If the name McIntosh seemed oddly familiar, then it may be because of a now-ubiquitous Californian brand: the Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984, was named ‘Apple’ by Steve Jobs—apparently then on a fruitarian diet—and after the Mac apple, a favourite of one of the company’s top engineers. It is appropriate that these sophisticated machines which offer access to so much knowledge—licit, illicit, open, secret—should be named for apples.
In Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin describes being woken early—at half past six—on winter mornings before school. His nursemaid would light the fire in a small stove by his bed:
The baked apple—Proust’s madeleine for twenty-first-century theorists—both opens up Benjamin’s memories of childhood during a period of acute homesickness, but, as a child, it contained the ‘fugitive knowledge’ of what lay ahead. It could fortify—sustain—him on the journey to school, between the dark warmth of home and the noise and brightness of school.
Notebooks contain the same fugitive knowledge: they are both guides for future action, and repositories of information, memory, fact gathered over time and place. They travel in pockets and backpacks and book bags from Drawn and Quarterly, accruing meaning, emotional and intellectual. They belong to time present, as well as time future and past.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.