Montreal Bagels Do It Better
by Lily Hoffman Simon
The Mile End neighborhood in Montreal was the heart of the Canadian Jewish immigrant community. The region brought bagels and smoked meat to Canada and beyond, giving new life to Jewish food. The legacy of this Montreal Jewish community is now hitting New York, with the opening of Mile End, a delicatessen in Brooklyn based on the renowned Jewish cuisine of Montreal. The opening of this deli is more than just a tribute to Jewish Canadian roots, however—it also reflects the tendency to turn elements of Diaspora culture into trendy, consumable commodities.
Mile End, the restaurant, is a hot topic among North American Jewry, inspiring mentions in Tablet magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. The Montreal community is excited as well, claiming that the restaurant’s opening marks the validation of the long-asserted opinion that Montreal bagels really are superior to the fluffier Southern alternatives. The deli acknowledges the supremacy of Montreal cuisine and illuminates the essential contributions of the Jewish community to North American culture. It is no news that Jewish pride is based on food, but to what extent? And to what extent is the American recognition of Jewish culture based on the ability to consume culture?
American society is based on consumption and an emphasis on a supposed multi-culturalism. In order to maintain distinct cultural practices in a society that tends towards assimilation, groups are forced to turn their respective cultures into something others around them can understand; overwhelmingly, this happens through the commodification of cultural elements. This makes sense—if North America is based on consumption and capitalism, a cultural experience needs to be something people feel is attractive enough to invest in, which tends to mean buying. People can bop around in global food markets and stores, producing a sense of cosmopolitanism and international connection through exposure to different kinds of dress and cuisine. The opening of the Mile End deli contributes to this pattern by transforming the traditional Jewish experience of eating smoked meat into a trendy experience. The Mile End neighborhood itself is undergoing the same kind of cultural commodification. The area is now one of the hippest, multi-ethnic regions in Montreal. The roots of Jewish Montreal, culture, and cuisine are slowly being appropriated by consumption-driven cosmopolitanism.
The same logic goes for the way Jews experience other cultures. Take the example of eating Chinese food on Christmas. This North American Jewish tradition offered poor Eastern European immigrants the opportunity to feel worldly not through the mass extravaganza of spending that surrounds Christmas, but instead through cultural (and literal) consumption of exotic Oriental food. Not surprisingly, Mile End restaurant is going to be serving Chinese food this Christmas.
Jewish food has played a huge role in Jewish cultural development, making it a perfect gateway for non-Jews who wish to experience something Jewish. But a Jewish experience and understanding goes deeper than simply eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Experiencing a culture should include a deeper understanding of where it came from and how a particular cultural element developed, among other things. A connection to a culture and its true continuity cannot come only from consumption. It must come from real engagement with and understanding of a culture, and how it evolved. Mile End restaurant is perpetuating a superficial connection to Judaism, which has a necessary place—but that alone is not enough for Jewish continuity.