OFF THE BOARD: My beef with Schwartz’s

Off the Board/Opinion by

For 21 years I did the best I could to remain kosher as my parents raised me. The tradition was, and still is, a cornerstone of my dietary identity. But the allure of Montreal’s most renowned non-kosher Hebrew delicatessen – so famous that it appears as a landmark on Google Maps – was too much to resist.

And Good Lord, Schwartz’s is delicious.

With my first bite into that sandwich, however, I began to think about the implications of what we choose to eat. How do people define themselves by what they eat? Does it really contribute to their identity at all?

Being kosher is certainly not the only distinct dietary path. Some choose vegetarianism because every time they look down at a plate of golden roasted duck they picture a golden roasted Donald Duck. Others observe halal restrictions, vegan guidelines, or weight loss programs.

Furthermore, being kosher, much like any other dietary code, has a plethora of personalized approaches and differing levels of observance. I’ll spare you the fins and scales, but suffice it to say that, like any tradition passed down through the generations, it has its share of variations.

Much like in keeping kosher, theoretical questions exist in the ambiguities of other ideologies. Are you not a vegetarian if you eat fish? Should your vegetarianism be qualified as different because the motivation stems from the immoral policies of the meatpacking industry? So you ate some beef poutine once at four in the morning after last call at Bifteck. Should you just throw in the towel on your vegetarianism? All of these questions feed a unique dietary identity.

But the lunch line does not stop there. While vegetarians and the religiously motivated may reflect historical or political influence in their eating habits, anyone who eats sushi four times a week or can’t resist traditional Pakistani cuisine is representing themselves just as much by what they choose to eat. Every time you sit down for a meal or grab a bite on the run you are refining a dietary identity.

Critics have played the sceptical God card on my religious dietary identity, but in my experience it’s difficult to end an argument that way. They say you’re not being adventurous – not living – but I ate a turkey testicle once so don’t tell me I’m not living, alright?

Anyway, curiosity may be what led me down the road to questioning dietary identity in the first place, but it’s not what waits for me at the end. Whether or not the choices concerning where and what we eat are deliberate, over the course of three meals a day they contribute overwhelmingly to an aspect of our personal identities – just take a glance at the kids in line for Midnight Kitchen.

Ultimately, my beef with Schwartz’s – not withstanding the inexcusable lack of authentic spicy deli mustard – is not its standards, but rather the dilemma it creates in my search for a dietary identity. By hiding behind the mask of “Hebrew Style,” everyone’s favourite smoked meat shop represents, for me, the difficulty in defining myself by what I eat and, even more so, the question of whether or not I should bother doing so at all. The saying, “You are what you eat” has never held so true.