When I grew up in Toronto in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of my classmates in day school were the children of recent transplants from Montreal, and they brought with them nostalgia for the Jewish foods of their home city like Montreal bagels and smoked meat. But I longed for a Montreal food of a different kind — a Montreal smoked turkey at Passover. Heavily spiced and delicious cold, we ordered them from Montreal and they were the centerpieces of our seders. It was a special treat, not in the least because smoked turkey wasn’t the kind of the thing you could make at home (at least not easily).
The tradition started with my paternal grandfather who was in the shoe business. He started receiving smoked turkeys every year from a customer who gifted hams to his other clients but knew my grandfather kept a kosher home (one year, he sent us a ham by accident). It became an integral part of our Passover dinner table and we continued the tradition for many years.
Eventually, I moved to the U.S. and didn’t want to deal with getting a smoked turkey through customs. I tried to track one down on the internet and failed. My culinarily-minded uncle assured me that one could still get them: “Levitt’s turkeys! There are ads for them in the Canadian Jewish News every Hanukkah!” But as time passed, this seemed like a false memory.
This summer, a friend of mine taught me how to smoke a chicken using our barbecue, and the idea began percolating in my mind that maybe I should try to recreate the Montreal smoked turkey at home. The challenge was getting the recipe and figuring out the technique. I emailed Leavitt’s Catering in Montreal (note the spelling), asking for tips for a DIY Montreal turkey. Immediately, I got a call from Harvey Leavitt. “You’ve got the wrong Leavitt,” he said, “You need the ones who spelled it wrong. And anyways, they are out of business.” He gave me the contact information of the last owner, Murray Brookman.
When I spoke with Brookman, he dismissed the idea of making the Montreal turkey at home. “It can’t be done.” He explained that they used to inject the turkeys with a mixture of spices and then hang them in the smoke house for a day. The unique taste came from the spices they used for the classic Montreal smoked meat. No one else made turkeys like Levitts’ and inn their day, they were very popular, he said. “We used to sell 700 or 800 hundred a year, Jews would buy them for Hanukah and non-Jews for Christmas. And don’t say it was an old family recipe, because it wasn’t.”
I was undeterred. My uncle conquered with the spice mix and suggested I dry brine the bird for 3 days. “If it works, I might make one for Pesach,” he said.
So at the beginning of January, in between the snowstorms, I spent a Thursday smoking a turkey on my BBQ. I figured the chill of New Jersey in January would replicate Montreal weather better, though I suspect my neighbors found it entertaining that I was shoveling out space amidst the snowdrifts to take my grill out of the garage. I started dry brining the turkey a few days earlier, using a smoked meat rub I found on the internet.
Smoking food requires indirect heat and a turkey is pretty large, so getting the right configuration of burners and racks took some effort. Once it got going, though, it smelled fantastic, with the light flavor of apple wood filling the air. For some unknown reason, after 6 hours, the internal temperature stalled at 150 (too rare for poultry, which needs to cook closer to 160-165), so I finished it in the oven, which meant the breast dried out a bit, but no one I served it to on Shabbat complained. My dad said it came pretty close to the taste and texture of a Montreal smoked turkey, but I am not so sure. Whether it is authentic to the Levitts’ tradition or not, it was delicious.
Smoked Turkey at Home
One bag of wood chips (apple worked well)
Heavy-duty aluminum foil
A large aluminum pan
1 large plastic bag (you can find ones large enough for turkeys around Thanksgiving)
1 turkey (err on the side of a smaller one, which will cook before it can dry out. I used a 12 pounder)
2-3 batches of smoked meat rub, about 1 batch of rub for every 5 pounds of turkey
1) About 4 days before you want to smoke the turkey, take it out of the freezer and slather most of the rub onto the turkey, along with several tablespoons of kosher salt (hold onto any leftover rub for when you cook the turkey). Place into a plastic bag and refrigerate. It will brine and defrost at the same time. Every day, massage the spices into the skin.
2) On the day of cooking, soak some of the wood chips in a large bowl of water. After an hour, place them in packets of aluminum foil, into which you poke holes for the smoke to release. Add more wood chips to the water — you will need to make new packets several times during the cooking. While you soak the wood, bring the turkey to room temperature. Mix the leftover spices with canola oil, and use them to baste the turkey during cooking.
3) Preheat the grill to high, then turn off two of the burners. Place the turkey (in the roasting pan) over the burners that are off, and place the wood chip packets over the remaining burners. Close the grill and resist the urge to peek too often. The packets should soon start to smoke—replace them if the smoke dies down.
4) Every half hour or so, baste the turkey. If the wings or breast look done, cover with aluminum foil. Aim to keep the temperature of the BBQ between 275-325 degrees, but this may be hard to do if the weather outside is very cold. Assume about 20 minutes a pound, but give yourself enough time for it to be much longer. After a few hours, begin checking the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. I think 160-165 degrees is probably fine — too much higher will dry out the turkey. Allow to rest before serving.