Montreal: Irwin Shlafman, the owner of Fairmount Bagel, boasts that his bagels were the first in outer space, when his astronaut cousin brought them to the International Space Station.
He also says Fairmount, founded in 1919, is the oldest bagel joint in town.
Just don’t tell that to his arch-bagel-rival, Joe Morena, the jovial owner of nearby St-Viateur Bagel. He contends that his bagel place, opened in 1957, is Montreal’s longest continuously running bagel outfit, since Fairmount was closed for a time.
“His bagels went to the moon, yeah, sure,” Morena said. “But the oldest? Give me one iota of proof!”
The two men are competitors in the business of Montreal bagels, which have a distinctive flavour from being boiled in honey-infused water before being baked in a wood-burning oven.
These days, however, Shlafman and Morena are united against a common threat — environmentalists, who want to abolish the pollutant-producing ovens where the bagels are made.
The battle heated up late last year when rumours began to circulate that a City Hall official was planning to ban the ovens, which emit fine particles that can aggravate respiratory ailments like asthma. Angry neighbours had complained to the city and some were boycotting the vaunted bagel shops.
Coming to the defence of the bagels were fans, who treasure the carb-heavy snack as an essential part of the city’s Jewish history and social fabric.
Montreal bagels have become a global culinary emblem of the city, alongside smoked meat and poutine, and are doughy unifiers in a majority French-speaking province buffeted by identity politics.
But choosing between Fairmount and St-Viateur has long been a fault line in Montreal, akin to a New Yorker choosing between the Yankees or the Mets.
The Montreal bagel has such a hold on the Canadian psyche that fears of its demise spurred a national outcry. “The Death of the Montreal Bagel?” asked a story last year in The Globe and Mail, a leading national newspaper.
Joseph Rosen, a humanities professor from the area, said the issue was so polarising that neighbours on either end of the bagel rift were no longer speaking.
“People were shockingly divided,” Rosen said. “The bagel is one of the few things that bring Montrealers together, like Leonard Cohen or the Montreal Canadiens hockey team.”
Sarah Hanneman, who lives next to Fairmount, said the smoke from its oven was so bad she couldn’t bear opening her window in the summer and had trouble breathing. She stressed she has nothing against bagels.
“They should get rid of the wood-burning ovens and market their bagels as green bagels,” she said. “But every time the city suggests banning the ovens, people cry, ‘You can’t take away my bagels!’”
For the moment, the bagel war is at an impasse. City Hall is considering a regulation that would require businesses with wood-burning ovens to install purifiers. Fairmount Bagel said it had already done so, while St-Viateur has installed a filter in one of its seven locations.
But the authorities in the area have banned new businesses from installing such ovens, causing alarm that the art of Montreal bagel-making could disappear.
Such is the pull of the Montreal bagel that a Japanese tourist once arrived in a limousine in front of Fairmount Bagel, holding a map with a line of dots leading from Osaka to the bagel shop. And St-Viateur once received an order for 20 dozen bagels for Prince Charles. Morena thought it was a joke until a British naval officer arrived to pick them up.
Messing with the Montreal bagel would come at too high a price, said Bill Brownstein, a veteran columnist for The Montreal Gazette, whose book about Schwartz’s, a venerable Montreal deli, was turned into a musical.
He noted that, in a province that recently passed a law banning teachers, judges and police from wearing religious symbols like turbans or skullcaps while at work, the bagel had become a secular symbol of civic pride. That, he added, was helped by its manifest superiority to New York bagels.
“New York bagels are like rolls with holes, they are tasteless,” he said. “Toronto’s are even worse, they taste like paperweights or hockey pucks. In the minds of Montrealers, every other bagel is ‘Meh.’”
Some New Yorkers retort that Montreal bagels are sweeter, and therefore more like doughnuts than bagels, a criticism that Lesley Chesterman, a leading Montreal food critic, called “absurd.” (In fact, baking bagels Montreal-style now has New York adherents.)
Morena began rolling bagels at 15, after his family emigrated from Salerno, Italy. He was given the Yiddish name “Yossel” by St-Viateur’s Jewish founder, Myer Lewkowicz, a Holocaust survivor.
Eventually, Morena took over the business. The bagel was a powerful example of immigrant success. “Look at me — I’m an Italian guy running a Jewish business,” he said.
While the origin of the bagel is the subject of Talmudic-style debate, Shlafman of Fairmount traced it to a 17th-century Jewish baker, who made bagels as an homage to a Polish king. But other experts say the bagel is a relative of the pretzel.
Fairmount has had a few milestones. In 1952, Shlafman recalled, an elderly Jewish man came in with a bag of sesame seeds, complaining that poppy seeds got stuck in his dentures. Soon, the news spread among the close-knit Jewish community, and the sesame seed bagel became a Montreal fixture.
Today, Fairmount, like bagel stores elsewhere, sells varieties like blueberry and muesli bagels. On a recent day, long lines snaked outside both shops, which are open 24/7. Fairmount Bagel’s front door doesn’t have a lock.
And which bagels are better — St-Viateur’s or Fairmount’s?
“Who makes the better bagel,” said Montreal’s mayor, ValErie Plante, “is a question which Montrealers will forever debate.”