Smoked Meat Wars

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
–Attributed (spuriously) to Mark Twain

I’ve always thought the above quote’s connection to Twain was dubious because he, an inveterate traveler, knew something about the winter weather in Montreal. But, no stranger to irony, Twain might have appreciated my latest truly profound observation: The best Montreal smoked meat I ever ate was in New York City.

If I didn’t offend my lantzmen up north with the last post, “Beer and Hockey” (June 22, 2013), this ought to do the trick. Decades ago, visitors from Montreal started a tradition of bringing me bagels and Schwartz’s smoked meat. Make no mistake: I relish a hefty pastrami sandwich from Katz’s on Houston Street or the 2nd Avenue Deli (with two locations, oddly, neither on Second Avenue); and although I’m partial to the fluffier Montreal bagel over the Gotham variety, a toasted bialy with a schmear of cream cheese suits me best of all.

For the record, as I understand it, smoked meat is prepared with the whole brisket whereas pastrami is supposed to be made with the leaner beef navel or plate. But the more important difference to me is the unique mix of salt and spices used to cure the meat and how long it’s aged, which largely accounts for the great disparity between good and bad smoked meat and pastrami.

Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, on Boulevard Saint Laurent in Montreal since 1928, claims to marinate its briskets “with a secret blend of fine herbs and spices” for 10 days, using no chemicals or preservatives. Now, I do savor the club rolls (cold cuts grilled on a bun) at Lester’s on Avenue Bernard and the Snowdon Deli on Boulevard Decarie, even the scaled-down “Special” at Wilensky’s on Avenue Fairmont. But when it comes to smoked meat, the gold standard for me was always Schwartz’s.

Mile End's Lean Smoked Meat

Mile End’s Lean Smoked Meat

That was until my latest delivery, and the comparison with the product from Mile End Delicatessen on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn (with a sandwich shop on Bond Street in Manhattan). To be fair, the vacuum-packed, thinly shaved meat from Schwartz’s takeout annex was at a disadvantage from the start in a contest with the plump, freshly cut slabs of Mile End’s pricier artisan-style beef. In my imagination, this — certainly not the rubbery pink slices that pass for viande fumee at many Montreal restaurants — is what it must have tasted like in the 19th century. Rich in flavor and color, not a crumb of the six ounces of Mile End smoked meat survived our four-person taste test that Sunday evening.

Montrealer Noah Bermanoff opened Mile End in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn three and a half years ago, and quickly became somewhat of a sensation in the grueling New York City restaurant scene. Well done, Noah. Soon I’ll be ferrying your smoked meat up to friends and relatives in Montreal.

Disclosure: I’m a philistine in deli circles because, whether it’s pastrami, corned beef or smoked meat, I always order the leanest available and slather the sandwich with spicy New York-style mustard to ensure moistness. Any nutritionist will tell you that there’s ample fat in every bite (especially for someone with coronary artery disease).

Japan in Winter

Despite my best intentions, this seems to be turning into a travel-and-photography blog. I’ll always try to publish posts on other subjects, but if I fail (for a while) then so be it. I recently spent the better part of two weeks in Japan, a few days in historic Kyoto to adjust to the time difference (14 hours later than New York in February) and the rest on the northern island of Hokkaido. There were several reasons for this winter voyage: to enjoy the cultural delights of Japan’s former royal capital, which happened to be dusted by an unusual snowfall at the time; to experience the renowned powder skiing in the trees and bowls of Niseko and thereabouts; and to show my support for the Japanese people in the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami two years ago.

Kyoto's Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine

Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine

Kyoto’s pleasures include exquisite Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines, the Imperial Palace Park and the charming Gion (Geisha) district, as well as wonderful gardens and markets. I won’t provide a blow-by-blow of the visit, but an assortment of pictures is available on my photography website:

Niseko and other ski areas on Hokkaido have become an international destination because of the flakes that appear to fall continuously, thanks to the proximity of the Sea of Japan and cold winds from Siberia. (Sapporo, a charming mini-Tokyo in the snow, hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics.) The mountains’ top elevations are not particularly great – Fujiesque Mount Yotei reaches less than 6,300 feet high – and the terrain is hardly steep enough to satisfy most extreme skiers. But the combination of untracked pow and neatly spaced trees is pretty palatable to an old warrior like me. To see a compilation of some of my favorite runs, play this YouTube video:

Chile Today, Hot Tamale (or Avalanche in the Andes)

Atop the Chillan Crater

Atop the Chillan Crater

Returning from the South American winter to the heat of New York in late August, I imported a vicious cold, which I can just partly blame for the delay in publishing this post.  My other excuses include a large backlog of work and personal duties, a small kitchen flood and other domestic irritants, time-consuming photo editing, and general procrastination.  Still, the 11 days I spent traveling around Chile and skiing in the backcountry of the world’s highest mountain range outside of Asia were the experience of a lifetime that I won’t ever forget.

Day One  I arrived early in the morning, stored most of my luggage at the airport, and took the local bus to downtown Santiago.  Founded by the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, this metropolis of more than five million inhabitants lacks the colonial charm of Quito.  Yet, unlike the lofty Ecuadorean capital up north, Santiago occupies a basin near sea level, separated from the Pacific Ocean by a coastal range of mountains and treated to views of the snow-capped Andes that would awe even the proud residents of Salt Lake City, Calgary and Denver.  Its roads and other infrastructure are fine by regional standards, although the city could stand more urban planning and some California-style emission controls.  (The Mediterranean climate and seismic risk reminded me of the San Francisco Bay area.)

Santiago and the Andes

Political graffiti on run-down buildings in central Santiago invoked deposed socialist president Salvador Allende, while the fascistic uniforms of the Carabineros were reminiscent of dictator Augusto Pinochet.  But Chilean politics were not on my agenda, so I toured the historic Plaza de Armas, peeked into the grand Catedral Metropolitana, and boarded the hop-on-hop-off bus for a spin around the urban sprawl.  The malls and tony neighborhoods we passed held scant interest for me, and I had precious little time for museums (except the one specializing in pre-Columbian art, which was damaged in the earthquake of 2010 and shut when I tried to visit).  But a sweaty, muddy hike up to the Virgin Mary statue atop the Parque Metropolitano rewarded me with spectacular vistas of the city.  Exhausted, I retraced my route back to the airport, where I reclaimed my bags and checked into the ultra-convenient Holiday Inn.

Days Two to Four  The resort town of Farellones is less than 25 miles from Santiago, but because of the narrow switchback road the trip took more than an hour for our group of seven skiers, two guides and driver, hauling a trailer full of ski equipment and other baggage.  We still had most of the afternoon left to warm up on our skis in the flat light of Valle Nevado and undergo the necessary avalanche training.  Lucky for us, a recent storm had salvaged a hitherto woeful season – seemingly a continuation of what we suffered in much of the United States last winter — covering enough rocks for enjoyable skiing.

With elevations and vertical drops similar to large resorts in the northern hemisphere, Valle Nevado, El Colorado and La Parva featured wide-open European alpine slopes (that is, above the tree line but sans glaciers) and the heavy snow associated with North America’s  Pacific coast.  My comparatively narrow all-mountain K2s and aching lower back would soon be put to the test, I feared correctly.  Aside from the sluggish fixed-grip chairlifts that looked like hand-me-downs, we would depend on T-bars and Pomas.

A Backcountry Descent

At El Colorado the next day, however, we made use of another conveyance: our Mercedes-Benz van.  Beneath sunny skies, our lead guide Mo shepherded us under the rope and outside the ski area proper to some of the most wonderful terrain I’ve ever descended.  Snow conditions were highly variable, ranging from dense powder to crud and crust, as we worked our way down to the paved road.  There, our driver Fernando waited to shuttle us back to the base lifts.  The highlight of the following day at La Parva was a steep ascent to ski some chutes and look for powder at higher elevations, made even more challenging by the need for most of us to carry backpacks laden with skis and avalanche equipment.

Day Five  We spent the prior night at a 19th-century hacienda turned hotel in Los Andes, about 50 miles north of Santiago on the main route to Argentina.  The good news: another storm was tracking toward the mountains.  The bad news: the road to Portillo was closed due to snow and wind.  Instead of skiing at the legendary Chilean station, we went horseback riding at a mountainous local vineyard, viewing ancient native petroglyphs along the way.  And ate a hearty traditional country lunch.

Chile’s cuisine favors meat, although the country’s long coastline provides ample seafood for ceviche (a Peruvian import) and other dishes that I prefer.  The churrasco, grilled beef on a bun, is a guilty delight with or without cheese; my order tended to feature chicken, plus tomato and avocado.  Their fruits and vegetables grace North American tables during the winter, but the Chileans don’t appear to bring in our summer produce.  The local carmeneres and cabernet sauvignons are good all year round to wash down the most filling of foods.  We ate all of our meals as a group, including the sole “pescatarian,” and drank plenty together.  The pisco sour (another gift from Peru) was our cocktail of choice.

The Road to Arpa

Day Six  Arpa cat-skiing more than compensated for our Portillo disappointment.  The trip of scarcely more than 20 miles by four-wheel-drive vehicles brought us through an otherworldly landscape of cacti coated in fresh snow, followed by a white-knuckle climb of hairpin turns to the Arpa lodge at an altitude of almost 9,000 feet.  With Aconcagua – whose summit elevation of close to 23,000 feet makes it the Americas’ tallest peak – in the background, we combed the all-natural snow on five cat runs (with most of us opting to pay extra for the fifth).

Days Seven to Nine  The trip from Los Andes to Chillan, more than 200 miles south of Santiago, took all day.  In a country nearly 2,700 miles long, we traveled less than half the way to Patagonia.  The deeply rutted side road to our hotel hadn’t been cleared of the latest snowfall, forcing our driver to hook up chains on the drive wheels.  But the minor ordeal was well worth it.  Although significantly lower in top altitude than its Farellones siblings, Nevados de Chillan boasted contoured lift-serviced terrain, smoking fumaroles and treed runs at lower elevations.  I dare say that, under proper ownership, it could be one of the great ski resorts of the world.  A local shop even repaired my rock-damaged bases overnight at a very reasonable cost.

Mo’s Avalanche

In the morning, we rode the old, slow lifts and explored the groomed and off-trail acreage under a warm sun.  Then we hired a snow cat to ferry us up the side of one of Volcan Chillan’s two active cones, where we hiked up to the rim.  This, and the descent of more than 5,000 feet that followed, must rank as the highlight of the trip.  We posed for a photo on the edge of the crater, volcanic fumes and Andean peaks as our backdrop.  On the way down through out-of-bounds land, Mo triggered an avalanche on one of the steeper pitches but managed to ride it out.  With some trepidation, we detoured around the slide debris and carried on safely to the base.

Our last day of skiing was slightly more mellow yet still involved a remarkable out-of-bounds circuit that I pushed myself to do twice, despite the chills and aches of a nascent viral infection.  Nearing 56 years of age, would I ever ski here again?

Day Ten  The group of seven skiers, all but one native to North America, ranged somewhat in age (from 36 to 60 years old), physical fitness, and technical ability.  With a little patience on our part, this caused no problems on the mountain that the guides couldn’t manage.  Yet the sole female in the group had taken a disliking to me, and fortunately waited until the voyage back to Santiago airport before erupting.  After stopping to visit the colorful Chillan market, we traded barbs at lunch.  She proceeded with a full-blown lambasting, calling me “skinny,” an “ugly American,” and wishing colon cancer on me.  Well, at least I don’t have to worry about her and her husband looking me up on their next trip to New York.  Needless to say, the van’s cabin was quiet until we reached our destination and (selectively) bid our farewells.

Valparaiso Houses

Day Eleven  Having stored my ski equipment at the airport the night before, I was picked up at my hotel by a local guide for an excursion through the Casablanca wine country to the Pacific coast.  After I visited Pablo Neruda’s fascinating homestead at Isla Negra, we talked about his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, of the Chilean Roberto Bolano and other South American literary greats, en route to Valparaiso.  The colorful, hilly neighborhoods of this port city, whose decline began with the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, make it one of the nation’s cultural treasures.  Tear gas was in the air from the student and worker riots that day, so we left for the more bourgeois pleasures of nearby Vina del Mar, with its casino and luxury residences.  Depleted physically and otherwise, I was quite ready to board the aircraft for my long overnight flight back to summer.

To see more photos of Chile visit

The Woman from Harbin: An Almost-Perfect Trip to China

They’ve got a wall in China
It’s a thousand miles long
To keep out the foreigners they made it strong
I’ve got a wall around me
You can’t even see
It took a little time
To get to me

–Paul Simon

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

WHEN I STARTED THIS BLOG I made an unstated commitment to post when moved to do so, instead of on a regularly scheduled basis.  On the other hand, delving into the personal was one of the last things I intended.  Yet here I am, baring my soul about a recent trip to China while it’s still alive in my aging memory.

The opportunity to tour China arose because of the invitation of Susie, my high-school sweetheart and a good friend for most of the four and a half decades since we met in fifth grade.  Susie’s base is Montreal but, as an executive with a global corporation, she and her family have lived abroad, in places as distant as South Africa and Poland.  After her husband Daniel fell to cancer several years ago, she did a stint in my adopted home town of New York; her two children, Emily and Max, now adults and on their own, she’s currently stationed in Shanghai.  At her urging (and with a timely break in the parade of earnings announcements vital to my work as a securities analyst), I planned a 10-day visit that also took me to the historic cities of Suzhou, Xi’an and Beijing.

Susie was a most gracious host, showing me the delights of China’s booming commercial metropolis: the dignified architecture of the Bund; Pudong’s pyrotechnical skyline across the Huangpu River; the French Concession, with its time-worn colonial residences where clothes hang outside to dry; the parks where groups of locals engage in singing and ballroom dancing, even matchmaking, all in public view.  Shanghai is a great dining city too, and we enjoyed both Eastern and Western meals.  There and on the journey ahead I would partake of juicy dumplings, lamb soup and Beijing duck, marveling from a safe distance at such novelties as roasted scorpion on a stick.

On my own I covered every exhibit in the first-class Shanghai Museum, housing superb collections of ancient Chinese bronze and ceramic works, hanging painted scrolls and calligraphy.  One day I rode the bullet train to and back from nearby Suzhou, once home to the country’s greatest clockmakers and now reputedly the world’s largest manufacturing site of digital cameras and laptop computers.  There, surrounded by industrial sprawl, remain some of China’s finest classical gardens, with poetic names like “Garden of the Master of the Nets” and “Humble Administrator’s Garden.”

Pudong Skyline

As Susie well knew, Shanghai is an ideal introduction to China for the novice, a place to get accustomed to its ways and recover from jet lag.  To facilitate my journey onward she provided maps and papers with the addresses of hotels and restaurants written in English and Mandarin for the taxis, booked drivers to take me to outlying sites, even loaned me a China Mobile phone with a lifeline to her bilingual assistant Connie.  I couldn’t have been more fortunate.  Only five days remained, and I had a lot of ground to cover to see as many of the glories of this ancient land as possible.

THE APRIL WEATHER was excellent for traveling: warm temperatures during the day and cool at night, with practically no rain during my entire stay.  The semi-opaque air was another story entirely.  According to different accounts I heard, it was dust blowing in from the Gobi Desert and fog mixed together, good old-fashioned pollution, or some other combination thereof.  This was tolerable for breathing, worse for photography.

In a China that is both rapidly modernizing and still under firm government control, I was almost unaware of the scandalous details regarding Bo Xilai, the deposed Communist Party chief of Chongqing.  Our Western media have been captivated for weeks by this tale of corruption, wiretapping and notably Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, portrayed by some as an Asian Lucrezia Borgia for her alleged poisoning of a British businessman.  Still, political censorship in China is nowhere near as absolute as it used to be, and I had no problem staying current on all of the major events in business and sports.

The everyday folk I encountered were never hostile, occasionally curious and friendly, but mostly indifferent to my presence.  I rarely felt unsafe, nor did I even lose anything of value (other than the tube of toothpaste that Beijing airport security confiscated from me before boarding my flight back to the States).  At the major destinations, mobs of Chinese tourists — who tend to spit loudly and often don’t respect another’s physical space — could be oppressive.  Yet I understood that rising affluence has given many a first chance to discover their own country, which the American majority takes for granted.  They’re in a hurry.

A couple of flight delays that I endured were a minor inconvenience, never deterring me from my appointed rounds.  To take in all the sights, sounds and smells without interference, I avoided tour guides, pedicabs and even taxis whenever possible.  I walked until my feet, legs and back ached, along Suzhou’s old canals, in the Muslim souk of Xi’an at one end of the Silk Road, up and down the steep course of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, around the lakes of the Summer Palace and through the picturesque hutongs (alleys) of Beijing.

The Forbidden City

So I hit all of the highlights on my route, and now could cross the China trip off my bucket list.  But I had very little meaningful human contact in the final days, knowing only a handful of Mandarin words in a country where few outside the major hotels speak any English.  Armed with a Nikon and an iPad, I brought home nearly 300 pictures of the trip and don’t have a single one with me in the frame.  And here too, many people went about with earphones plugged into their music players, almost oblivious to anyone whose path they crossed.  I might as well have been one of them.

ON MY LAST DAY of sightseeing, I was fumbling with a pair of maps outside the north gate of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the enormous palace compound for two imperial dynasties, when a woman’s voice asked me from behind where I was from.  Turning around, I told her I was American.  She was of a younger but indeterminate age, with a sweet, sad face that seemed to me more Mongolian than Han Chinese.  Petite and conservatively dressed, she said she was visiting from Harbin, a city in the extreme northeast of China.  There, she told me, I would be one of the few Westerners anybody ever sees, other than the odd Russian.  The woman said she had spent three hours in the Forbidden City; I had spent four.  But I will never know anything more about her, except for what my imagination conjures up.

Terra-Cotta Soldiers

Suddenly, she asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee.  By then I had become inured to girls in touristy areas calling out, “Hello, Mister,” trying to steer me to expensive, supposedly authentic tea ceremonies and the like.  Outside Xi’an — where more than two millennia ago the tyrant Qin Shi Huang ordered the production of a whole terra-cotta army and other figures to guard his mausoleum – a pretty tour guide set me straight when I politely declined her services: “You think you so smart.”  (In hindsight, it would have done me good to explore the site in her company.)

When a 55-year-old man is approached like that by an unfamiliar woman, it’s natural for his guard to go up.  This was out of the question.  She was too aggressive, her English ability suspicious.  I had a lovely wife waiting for me at home.  There was no time.  “Look,” I said, “I’m leaving early tomorrow and I only have a few hours left to see Beijing.  I need to finish my walking tour.  But it was very nice meeting you.”  After shaking her hand I rambled off toward Prince Gong’s residence, which turned out to be a beautifully restored, scaled-down Forbidden City, overwhelmed by tour groups.

By the next morning the woman was beginning to haunt me.

What was she hustling me for: a sugar-daddy night on the town, a Green Card?  Or maybe she was just a more mature version of the schoolgirls on an outing to the Suzhou Museum who asked me, an exotic American, to pose for pictures with them, wanting just to practice English with a native speaker.  She was a human-rights activist trying to recruit me, perhaps, or a government agent posing as one.   Did I really want to find out?  I, who never missed taking a pill the entire trip, tracks his personal net worth in real time, works out at the gym every two days and logs in his activities, pictured myself as a Prufrock, measuring “out my life with coffee spoons.”  I switched from T.S. Eliot to Henrik Ibsen (“When we dead awaken.… We see that we have never lived”) before my cliché alarm sounded.

Schoolgirls at the Suzhou Museum

Still, didn’t my drive and self-discipline ultimately afford me the wherewithal and savvy to arrange (with Susie’s invaluable help) such an adventure on short notice?  Haven’t I visited dozens of countries and connected with people all over the world?  Shortly, like Odysseus, I would be returning home to my Ithaca, my Penelope, where all would be right – and that alarm went off again.

On the final flight leg back to New York from San Francisco, I went into the aircraft lavatory and spontaneously cried.  It bewildered me, because I had been so pleased with everything, but for a moment the tears washed away a lifetime of jadedness.  Soon enough she will fade from my recollection; I’m already having trouble visualizing her face.  But the China trip could’ve been perfect.  What would I have risked to spend a half hour with a diminutive stranger who braved rejection to meet me?  Why didn’t I join the woman from Harbin for a cup of coffee?

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