Any true Montrealer knows that living in this city comes with a series of food-related debates — the most important one being Fairmount Bagel vs. St-Viateur Bagel. This dispute is so perpetually fierce that we recently posted a breakdown of the objective differences between the two in hopes of getting to the bottom of this bagel battle. However, if you thought this carbohydrate contest was strictly a present-day issue, you should brush up on your bagel history. As it turns out, these versatile, wheel-shaped pieces of dough have been a touchy topic in Montreal ever since they arrived here. Thus, we decided it was time to shed some light on Montreal’s long and storied love affair with bagels — quit living in bagel ignorance and read on.
Despite the apparent complexity of this feud, the Montreal-style bagel itself is pretty simple. In general, the bagels are made with relatively basic ingredients: flour, malt, and eggs. The dough is shaped into rings before being poached in honey-infused boiling water and baked in a wood-fired oven. This recipe and cooking process was brought to Montreal by Jewish immigrants from Kraków, Poland. In comparison with the New York-style bagel, the Montreal-style bagel is less dense, thinner, and sweeter — but that’s a rivalry for another article.
Part of what makes the Montreal bagel’s history so disputed is that no one can agree on who was the first to bring bagels to the city. All we know is that the first bagel bakery in Montreal was opened by Isadore Schlafman in 1919. The makeshift shop, appropriately named “The Montreal Bagel Bakery,” was set up in an alley adjacent to St-Laurent street. Around that same time, competitor Chaim Seligman was selling his own bagels by the dozen out of a horse-drawn carriage.
Schlafman’s son, Jack Schlafman, eventually did business with Seligman but the two had a falling out. As legend has it, this was the beginning of Montreal’s big bagel brawl. Soon after, Isadore Schlafman ditched the alleyway shop for a bigger, better location: a cottage on Fairmount street that he renamed “The Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery” in 1949 — the same location that is still stuffed to the brim with Fairmount bagels today.
A few years later, Chaim Seligman joined forces with Myer Lewkowicz, born near Kraków, Poland, to open the very first St-Viateur Bagel Shop in 1957. Situated about a block away from The Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery, the competition was on. In their quest to out-bagel one another, the two shops divided bagel enthusiasts across the city. The dust has yet to settle to this day.
While the question of who makes the better bagel is still up for debate, one thing is for sure: biting into a Montreal bagel means biting into almost a century’s worth of bagel controversy. The good news is, the next time you are out brunching with friends and someone brings up the subject, you will be equipped to give them the gift of Montreal bagel history.