Monday, October 4, 2010

Food Politics 1900 Montreal- class, ethnicity, and power

Trans Island and Queen Mary in Montreal, there's a Metro were the Steinberg's store was in the 1960's.

My mom used to like to tell me the story of Old Lady Steinberg, who started her grocery empire by selling fruits on the street.

A nice parable, of the potential of life, of how hard work and brazen behavior was the recipe for success.

Funny, as I research Flo in the City, my story about a girl coming of age in the 1910 era in Richmond and Montreal, I got to thinking about street vendors.

I swear I saw a weiner cart or whatever it is called in a photo of 1910 Montreal.
But Montreal has no such street carts and never had in my memory. That's a New York thing.

As Montreal and New York had similar patterns of immigration in the early 20th century, I assume that street vendors were barred in Montreal, for political reasons, early in the century.

So I looked up the keywords "street vendor" in Google news archives, Montreal Gazette.

And I am right.

It's complicated, too. Most street vendors were young children, girls and boys, selling newspapers, small wares, or working as boot blacks. A minimum age was recommended for these workers, especially the girls as this was 'a bad school again." (Indeed, the Powers That Be wanted to push girls out of that field entirely.)

With respect to food, the articles I found made no mention of carts selling grilled meats and such. But there were plenty of street vendors selling ice cream and fruits. (Come to think of it, ice cream vendors, with their tinkling bells, were common in Montreal streets in the 60's and there were some fruit stands too.)

According to one era article most of these vendors in the 1900-1910 era in Montreal were Greeks, Italians and Syrians. And the Food Inspector was kept busy handing out handbills showing how to keep their food clean. Indeed, "Dr Dagenais favours a ban on the foreign push-cart dealers" reads one headline. They were a big nuisance, too, so noisy, shouting all the time. The fire department was also concerned: "Along certain parts of St. Lawrence and Ontario Streets wooden shanties have been erected without permits, frequented by street vendors of fruit, candles and candy. Some shanties are used as barber shops."

And then, in 1909, a new by-law was proposed, that street vendors be taxed 200 dollars a year, up from 50 dollars, the same amount corner grocers are taxed. Grocers, of course, were most interested in this by-law, as street vendors were cutting into their business. One alderman, Fraser, voted against it saying "We are imposing an impossible tax on a class of men who do a little business. We should not forget we all have a small beginning at one time. You are trying to tax a class of traders out of business."

The by-law passed, on the second reading. Street vendors were to be taxed 200 dollars and 5 dollars for each employee.
And then there was one, Mrs. Steinberg. She must have been one ballsy lady.

And even more interesting, owners of concert halls, halls for theatrical productions and MOTION PICTURE houses were to pay 500. in taxes.

I have written before (using an article from New York Dramatic Mirror) about how traditional theatres were worried because these newfangled motion pictures were cutting into their business, especially when it comes to the cheap seats.

Hmm.. Suspicious tax.

Ontario Street 1910. (McCord Museum collection) See,at the right, a vendor's cart.

Well, I still have no idea about why they didn't sell weiners on the street, although it's easy to guess. It was banned for health reasons, but the butchers had a hand in it. My grandmother was the daughter of a French Canadian butcher, a master butcher. She had a dowry of 40,000 dollars. Butchers were powerful and influential in the era.

Funny, a while back, in July, I wrote in my blog how I got bored one warm night and drove down to the Montreal International Jazz Festival and grabbed a hot dog off the street (vendors are allowed at the Jazz Festival) and it was so YUMMY, especially as I don't eat hot dogs as a rule. I only eat fish and chicken and occasionally organic beef or pork. And on this occasion the mustard dispenser was broken and the woman vendor fixed it by putting her fingers into the jar. Gross. And I still garnished my dog with mustard.

Ps. I wrote an essay on Montreal grocers on my website, that is a very popular page.

By the way, my opinion: These days, its the small organic farmers who are being red-taped to death, as they pose a threat to the mega grocers and the food-industrial complex. Ostensibly to protect the consumer, these small businesses must bend over backwards to have their foods certified organic, making it hardly worth it for them to be in business. But now I notice, they are getting around it by calling their wares artisanal. I like it. I also buy it!! I am big into this movement, as are many city dwellers. For the taste, more than anything.