The next morning we bounded out the door like toddlers, marveling at the storm’s aftermath now shimmering like crystals under a bluebird sky. We slid and shuffled along the snowy sidewalks in our snowboots, side-stepping children being towed by their parents on mini sleds in lieu of strollers. Why not?
So, how did we fill our morning bellies? Our first stop was the St. Viateur Bagel shop. What a surprise! I have never seen a bagel production line of this kind. A massive heap of bagels emerged from a cavernous wood-fired oven. No toasted bagels and cream cheese here. If you want to lather on your favorite spread, grab a container of cream cheese or lox from the refrigerated case. The line moved nimbly as groggy customers chose from multi-grain, sesame, rosemary and sea salt, “all-dressed” (everything), matzoh and a few other staples. The bagels are much less fluffy than their Manhattan cousins, with a crisper crust. I like them far better, though it’s best to pick up a sack and take them home for serving with your own toppings.
Up next, and quite upon accident, Wilensky! Nolan suggested venturing into what he thought was an appliance repair shop. Plus, “anything with a ‘sky’ on the end is usually cool.” This is why I love my brother-in-law. We observed a scribbled award on the door, where the famed Joe Beef claimed that Wilensky sandwiches embodied the Mile End neighborhood in one single bite. Ah, tis’ food!
We peered through the dusty windows, and entered awkwardly. We perched on the bar stools next to old-timer customers. Nolan ordered “the best sandwich you have”, and we all followed suit. No less than 1 minute later, a toasted yellow bun wedged with bologna, salami, and swiss or Kraft cheese landed in front of us, resting on a sheet of parchment paper. We nibbled on the sandwich gingerly, which was paired with a pile of sour pickles and meat-sticks in a jar.
My curiosity got the best of me. I couldn’t understand how this simple, fast-food-esque establishment had acquired such esteem. The interior was plastered with newspaper articles celebrating Wilensky’s 80+ years of excellence. I asked the sweet lady behind the counter, and the story unfolded.
“Are you a Wilensky?”
“Yes, I’m Sharon Wilensky.”
Sharon described how her grandfather opened the family business in the 1930’s, when Mile End was a textile industry. Wilensky was dishing up cheap, rapid-fire and satisfying food to factory workers for decades before modern fast food hit the American diet! Wilensky was cutting-edge. The yellow buns have been made especially for the deli counter since Wilensky’s inception. The pickles too. I’d imagine, in fact I hope, that also goes for the meat. In a depression-era foodscape, Wilensky was also a hero.
Sharon’s dad, Moe, used to make his own sandwiches using his favorite combination of meats. The Moe Special quickly became the “only thing to order at Wilensky, otherwise, don’t tell anyone you ate here.” Wilensky has a poem to help unseasoned customers like us order:
When ordering a Special
When the textile industry closed and Mile End swooped into hipster fashion (much like Williamsburg, Brooklyn), Wilensky’s dedicated clientele was steadily replaced by tourists, whether intentionally or by chance. Still, Sharon says some of the original customers, like Carl, are regulars; “can you imagine eating at a place that hasn’t changed one bit, while everything outside the door has been completely transformed?” Well ok, the former barber shop and bookstore, which were once housed inside, weren’t as successful (or hygenic?) as the deli counter. But, the rest of the interior and the menu remain unchanged.
Thank you Sharon Wilensky for sharing a piece of Mile End’s treasured history with us, through food!
Next we roamed through Vieux-Montreal, the historic old city. We found hot chocolate, mulled wine and maple taffy to warm our shivering bones. We tucked into a cave-like bar for the boys to thaw out with whiskey and a pint of Unibroue ale.
My friend Jeff likes to use the word “explorimenting.” With Bobby’s play on that word, stay tuned for the next explorimunching chronicles!