Joseph Rosen (@TheJosephRosen) teaches at Dawson College in Montreal and has written for publications such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve Magazine, the Montreal Gazette and Shtetl Montreal.
In late October, the city of Montreal declared what some considered a war on the bagel. Jean-François Parenteau, a member of the city’s executive committee whose responsibilities include the environment, said that wood-burning businesses unable to meet emissions bylaw requirements would be forced to switch to gas or electric. The decision, which came a few weeks after a bylaw banning the burning of wood in homes took effect, would affect approximately 70 businesses, including Italian pizzerias, Portuguese chicken joints and bagel bakeries. Bagel-shop owners have invested in various filters and chimney scrubbers – one claims to have spent more than a quarter of a million dollars – but they haven’t been able to sufficiently decrease emission levels. Mr. Parenteau indicated there weren’t any remaining options and the city would move fast.
When I heard the news, I blew a gasket. Wouldn’t this mean the death of the Montreal bagel? In a fit of fury, I logged onto Facebook and declared that I would stop voting for Mayor Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal – one of the most progressive municipal governments in North America – because of this one issue alone.
The declaration started a virtual neighbourhood war. My community usually agrees on hot-button issues – Syrian refugees, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, even Bill 101 – but the fate of Montreal bagels tore us apart.
People started rage posting – more than 300 comments appeared on my wall in 72 hours. On one side, pleas for the lives of trees, warnings about global warming, concerns about pollution, attacks on gluten; on the other side, accusations of gentrification, appeals for civic traditions and comparisons to the CAQ’s proposed ban on yarmulkes and hijabs.
There are a few immediate reasons to defend the traditional way of making bagels. I don’t want to start a war with the Italians, but no one comes to Montreal for the pizza. Our bagels, however, are famous around the world. There’s no such thing as a “Montreal-style” bagel. There are Montreal bagels, and then there are bread-like items with a hole in the middle. This isn’t controversial – it’s just bagel science. The bagel is a symbol of Montreal’s uniqueness in the world – and beyond: In 2008, Montreal bagels went to outer space.
Second, these seemingly insignificant snack items are a testament to the Jewish history of Montreal. Isadore Shlafman, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, opened Montreal’s first bagel bakery in 1919, then moved it to its current address in 1949 and renamed it Fairmount Bagel. Myer Lewkowicz, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, started working for Mr. Shlafman, but opened nearby St-Viateur Bagel in 1957. The rival shops – each claims the title of Montreal’s best – and their bagels mark Montreal as a world-class Jewish city. Even New York Jews (if they’re honest) will admit that our bagels are better than theirs.
If I’m being honest, this is a pretty personal issue for me. I live in Mile End, a historically Jewish neighbourhood halfway between these two wood-burning bagel shops. I feel more at home here than anywhere else. In part because of the Jewish history: My father went to Talmud Torah here, and the bagels are part of family legend. My uncle, who taught me bagel protocol (you cut and freeze them as soon as they cool), always claimed the poppy seed bagel is the original.
As the war continued to rage on social media, I decided to visit the owner of Fairmount Bagel to ask him about fire. Yitzhak Nissan Shlafman – named after his grandfather – confirmed my uncle’s story: Poppy seed was the original bagel – until 1952, when a customer arrived with a satchel of sesame seeds. Mr. Shlafman will switch to gas if he has to – and if the other bagel bakeries do it at the same time. But he said fire “obviously lends some character to the product.” He told me it takes a year to learn to tend the fire by hand. In the fall, the wood gets wet, in winter it’s frozen and in spring it can have a little moss on it, so the baker, who is personally responsible for every bagel, has to adjust to each season. “Everybody who works here is an artist!” he said. A third-generation family business is a rare thing these days. The shop feels like a remnant of a world that’s disappearing.
By banning the traditional method of making bagels, we risk erasing something unique and specific to the history of Montreal. Which explains why the bagel apocalypse is such a big deal: It’s part of a larger trend that’s transforming our cities. It looks and smells like gentrification. As real estate prices rise, our neighbourhoods are becoming cleaner and prettier, but local places are closing, replaced with generic chains that threaten to make Montreal feel the same as other cities. St-Viateur Bagel is hanging in there beside a DavidsTea and across from a Lululemon. I don’t want to live in a neutral, homogeneous no-place. It’s rare in this quickly globalizing world of chains and franchises to have a sense of place and history. Sure, we need clean air. But human health also requires a sense of belonging. And this is just what felt threatened by the wood-burning ban.
How can we argue against the “cleaning up” of cities? It seems like a no-brainer, but look at New York ever since Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned it up in the nineties. It has become an increasingly generic playground for the children of the wealthy – and Amazon’s recent announcement that it will add a new campus in Queens will likely make the city even more unaffordable. My own neighbourhood is getting prettier – but I can’t shake the feeling that this is all for the significantly richer people moving in. We’ve seen how international money has transformed Vancouver’s real estate; in Montreal, it’s begun, too, with the French from France using their superior currency to buy up homes in the Plateau. Every time I see the white Porsche Cayenne on my block, I feel my precariousness as a renter.
The death of the fire-cooked bagel is part of a global process. We’re witnessing the end of the industrial city in North America. We’re transitioning from coal-based manufacturing to digital economies, from carbon to glass, from particles to light waves. Along the Lachine Canal, abandoned factories are turning into glass-lined condos. In Mile End, the “schmatta district” – where Jews once produced “rags” and textiles – has been transformed into a video-game and internet-startup hub. Money is flowing into the city as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others invest in artificial intelligence. But one only need look at San Francisco to see where all this is headed: a city that becomes unlivable for all but the digital elite.
Our cities are changing – fast. Talk to old-timers from San Francisco and New York. Their cities are gone. And people feel threatened because it’s happening here now. For the first time, I understand something about the conservative Quebeckers who want to keep the crucifix in the National Assembly: They want to preserve the local against the homogenizing tidal wave of globalization.
I’m attached to the fire-cooked bagel because I’m attached to the dirtiness of my city. I don’t want my city sanitized. After decades of pasteurization, we discovered the microbiome and realized that humans need bacteria. Parenting manuals now say kids should splash in the mud to develop their immune systems. Sanitation became a moral imperative when Protestants declared that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Well, Montreal is more French-Catholic and Jewish than WASPy – and has always been a dirty city. We used to be known as Sin City North! There’s a reason why the biggest jazz festival in the world doesn’t happen in Vancouver.
When I moved here, after visiting dozens of times from Vancouver and Toronto, my uncle passed on an insider tip: “This is Montreal, Joey, here you can do what you want. Want to screw in an alley? Go ahead!” I was shocked to hear this from my 70-year-old Jewish uncle – but in that moment, I saw how much of a Montrealer he was. This is a law-breaking city. We make illegal U-turns like they’re going out of style. But lately, people have been getting tickets for jaywalking. Jaywalking! The hallmark of urbanity! Is nothing sacred? I don’t want Montreal to become like Toronto the Good or Vancouver the Pretty. God forbid Sin City North becomes Silicon Valley North. Keep Montreal dirty!
Tragically, my love of traditional, local dirt is at odds with more prosaic health science. According to Health Canada, 1,540 premature deaths annually in the Montreal region are related to air pollution; the Institut national de santé publique du Québec says 909 of those are related to fine particulate pollution. Vehicles produce 818 tonnes of the stuff each year, residential wood burning 701 tonnes and industries 241 tonnes.
Chicken, pizza and bagels are a distant fourth. The 70 food establishments on the island that burn wood produce about 60 tonnes of fine particulate pollution a year. Those concerned with environmental health will get more bang for their buck if they focus on Quebec’s maple-syrup industry, meat farms or retail shops that import their wares by plane. For urban pollution, it might be more effective to address diesel delivery trucks, enforce idling bylaws and improve public transportation. Although I suppose it’s easier to challenge small family businesses than big industry – such as the centrally located tobacco factory owned by Japan Tobacco International.
Still, there is a logic to attacking pollution from all directions. Mile End is one of the densest neighbourhoods in Montreal – and Canada, for that matter – with 12,000 people per square kilometre. And the bakeries don’t produce bagels just for locals; since 1989, Fairmount has been selling to Costco, which compromises the romantic idea of a local business doing the same thing it’s done for 65 years. When I lived on St. Urbain, across from Mordecai Richler’s novelized childhood home, I was around the corner from Fairmount and never smelled any smoke. My neighbour sent his kid to the daycare right beside Fairmount and doesn’t want the wood fires banned. But a friend who lived behind one St. Viateur shop told me she couldn’t leave her windows open in the summer without getting a sore throat. When the bagel shop cleaned its chimney, her backyard got covered in soot, which the cat tracked into the house. Another friend complained that her clothes would smell of smoke if she dried them on the clothesline. They didn’t want their names used, for fear of harassment by bagel extremists.
City councillors wouldn’t show me their research or speak with me on the record – apparently the bagel is a hot potato – but eventually, the media contact for the executive committee at city hall e-mailed me to inform me of what appears to be a change in policy: “We are not planning on banning the wood burning oven. … We will not rush any measure that would harm these Montreal landmark[s] because we know that Montrealers are attached to these restaurants.”
Saved by the bagel lobby! I should’ve rejoiced, but it felt strange to be the victorious conservative, resisting the rational march of progress. I also felt bad for the people who can’t open their windows in the summer.
My guess is that the city is postponing under pressure. Montrealers, God bless them, are attached to their dirty traditions – and to what makes this city so unique. But the ban will come eventually. Public health will trump local tradition, and the wood-cooked bagel will die in my lifetime. Eventually they’ll be made using 3-D printers by the AI-possessing robots that have colonized Montreal. But until then, let’s love every fire-toasted poppy seed.