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By Eli Herscovitch, January 24, 2011

[ Editor's note: Eli Herscovitch is a   well-known Winnipeg musician who  plays Soprano, Alto and Tenor Saxophones, Clarinet, Flute, Guitar, and Blues Harmonica. He was born in Montreal,received his Bachelor of Music from McGill University and Bachelor of Education from the University of Regina.  Occasionally, Eli is compelled to return back to his birth place and rekindle his links with family, friends, Montreal Bagels and Smoked Meat.]

In the year 1962,  President John F. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected, “Return To Sender”   by Elvis Presley was an instant hit, and the province of Quebec was experiencing a Quiet Revolution.  Business was good.

In Montreal, at the back of a large supermarket on St Laurence Street, immigrant employees were busy unpacking boxes of fresh fruit that just arrived from distant lands. Nearby, an old man stands, cutting meat on a wooden board.  His large knife rises and falls over a massive slab of beef with the steady rhythm of a heartbeat. Each slice is perfect.

Yes, there were slicing machines, but as long as the supermarket’s owner was still alive, Jack’s job was secure. After all, he’d been working there since they first opened. And business was good.

Jack was quiet and a co-worker once made a passing comment, “Hey, look at the old man with a blank look in his eyes”.  He couldn’t be have been  more wrong. While slicing, Jack was usually remembering his golden years and you might notice a tiny smile from time to time or a tear.

His family came from Bialystock, Poland where they were poor for many generations. His father was no exception.  For years he made a meager living by selling food from a small wagon, pulled by a lame horse. Every day he found a spot on the street where workers might pass, wanting a quick lunch that was not too expensive. His best item was always a delicious, home made smoked meat sandwich. His wife’s special recipe.

The poor folks of Eastern Europe called America the Land of Milk and Honey. Ha, that’s where they all hoped to go, and get rich quick! So when Jack’s family arrived in Montreal, his father immediately went into debt, to open a small restaurant on Park Avenue, just one block from Mount Royal’s beautiful park. Yes, his menu would offer more than milk and honey.  Of course, he would feature a delicious hot smoked meat sandwich, on fresh rye bread, with a large dill pickle (kosher style)!  That’s the way he always imagined it, but in Bialystock it was impossible for a horse to drag a meat steamer and a food cart.

Jack and his brother remembered their early childhood days as being wonderful. But in reality, it was tough going. At the start, when business was slow, their father complained bitterly and when things got better, he complained even more, saying that it was much too much stress to keep up with.

Their beautiful mother originally wanted to be a singer since she had an exceptional voice. Now she worked at the cash and cleaned tables, while young Jack and his brother played at her feet. Occasionally she looked down lovingly and said, “One day this will be yours and you’ll do a great job together, making it famous”. 

Uncle Mendel, their father’s brother also worked at the restaurant, but he was a problem. He loved life too much and it got in the way of working a “normal” ten hour day. His two favorite things were taking a drink and taking a “loan” from the cash register. Jack might look up while slicing behind the counter to discover, in shock, that his brother was gone. Mendel was “doing business” on the phone most of his working day, so if he got a hot tip on the horses, he would take a “short” break to visit  Blue Bonnets race track. After all, who could afford to miss out on a winning bet?

As soon as the boys were old enough, they helped by giving their “free” time. The older brother was the smart one, so he worked at the cash register while Jack swept the floor, until one day, by chance, it was discovered that he had a natural talent for handling his father’s large slicing knifes.
By the age of fourteen he was getting lots of friendly attention from the customers for his extraordinary skill.  Jack’s personality was shy and sweet and he was actually helping bring in customers!  Meanwhile, his older brother worked hard at the cash register day after day, invisible to all. 

 Both brothers graduated from Baron Byng High School. The older one was lucky and got a grant to study finance and economics at McGill University. He had big dreams, while Jack continued as before, working behind the counter. Life was good.

The delicious smoked meat’s reputation traveled far and wide, and the range of customers grew. There might be seated, a hungry worker, tourists looking for a taste of Montreal, politicians looking for votes, successful folks from the suburbs,  police on break time, the occasional gangster, also on break.  and people just dropping by for a bite and then off to visit their old neighborhood

The restaurant’s design was very basic. There were a dozen long tables with six chairs on each side.  When a seat became available, it was immediately taken by the next hungry customer, so you might be sitting beside anyone…. a dentist, a lawyer, or even a young Leonard Cohen. While holding a sandwich in his hand between bites, he Cohen migh have been musing over lyrics for his first big hit, Suzanne.

Business was going well, and then one day, their father had a heart attack when he noticed cash missing from the register. At the same time uncle Mendel disappeared and about a year later they heard that he was living in Florida.

 It was a heart wrenching shock for the entire family.  First, the older brother had to immediately quit McGill because now there was a serious worry about the restaurant’s survival. It was painfully clear that the only option was for the brothers to work as partners and keep the business alive. For Jack, it was like a dream come true; However, his older brother saw it as a nightmare that cut his future down by a thick slice or two. But there was little choice.

Both brothers knew it was impossible to step into their father’s shoes with such a large menu, so they made their first big decision together. The new menu would  be very basic and offer only the most popular item - smoked meat.  Either a fat sandwich with a dill pickle (kosher style) or a large plate of smoked meat slices, with rye bread on the side and of course a dill pickle. The new menu almost gave their father another heart attack! But there was no choice.

To everyone’s surprise, business improved! Jack cut slices of steamed beef as fast as lightning and their restaurant became a city legend.  Both day and night hungry customers lined up outside, waiting for a seat and a delicious taste of Smoked Meat Heaven

Thanks to Jack’s warm personality behind the counter, everyone felt at home- staff and customers.

One day a very old, but solid looking man got up after eating and loudly announced, “tomorrow is my 100th birthday!” The whole place got quiet and after a second or two Jack responded fr

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