Last week, I woke up to a text from a friend that read, “RED ALERT!” Bleary eyed and with a sense of dread descending upon me, I opened it to see a screenshot of the Liberté cream cheese FAQ page. Under the question, “I can’t find Liberté cream cheese anymore, has it been discontinued?” was a short paragraph explaining that the company had indeed stopped making it.
I was in shock. This cream cheese has been a mainstay on the tables of Jewish Montrealers for years. I couldn’t imagine it not being part of the bagel culture of the city.
Liberté cream cheese is part of a long legacy of foods brought to Montreal by Ashkenazi immigrants that changed the food culture of the city. Dishes like bagels and smoked meat are no longer exclusively Jewish foods, and have become iconic, beloved by Montrealers of all backgrounds.
The first members of the Jewish community of Montreal settled in the city in 1760, after the British conquest of New France. The community remained small until the 1880s when large numbers of Eastern European Jews arrived in the city. They initially settled in Old Montreal and Chinatown, in the southern part of the city, but as more immigrants arrived, they moved up Boulevard Saint-Laurent into the neighborhoods of the Plateau and the Mile End. These neighborhoods would ultimately become the center of Ashkenazi Jewish life in the city, until the 1960s.
It was in the heart of this community that Liberty Dairy Products was founded in 1936 by the Kaporovsky family. It was located on the corner of St-Urbain and Duluth, in a building that now houses the iconic Montreal sandwich shop, Café Santropol. The company was called Liberty to honour the Kaporovsky family’s hope upon seeing the Statue of Liberty during their passage through Ellis Island. Wanting to fill the need for kosher dairy products, they sold cream cheese, along with cottage cheese and sour cream, and delivered it to customers with a horse and buggy.
The company was sold in 1971, and was renamed Liberté, signalling its Quebec origin. Liberté is now part of the Yoplait group and is partly owned by General Mills. Over the years, the company has added yogourt, kefir, and goat’s milk to their offerings. In its nearly 90 year history, Liberté has grown from serving the Jewish community in a working class, immigrant neighbourhood, to becoming one of the most well known Quebec dairy producers.
On visits to Montreal’s renowned bagel shops, St-Viateur and Fairmount Bagels, Liberté cream cheese always had a prime place in the fridges that stock cream cheese and lox. Although you could find Philadelphia cream cheese, most Montrealers would skip it for the black and white tub of this local product. According to Robert Morena, owner of St-Viateur bagels along with his father and two brothers, Liberté cream cheese has been carried at the shop for over 30 years and it has always been a popular choice. When asked about it no longer being available, he said, “One thing is for certain we are sad it’s being discontinued.”
Not only was the tangy taste of Liberté cream cheese special, but its texture was light and soft, not unlike the cultured cream cheese of yore. This made it perfect for the quintessential Montreal experience of standing outside one of the iconic bagel shops, ripping apart a piping hot bagel and dipping it directly into a container of Liberté cream cheese. You just can’t do that with a container of Philadelphia cream cheese.
In trying to understand why this had happened, I emailed the company asking for more clarification. In reply, they said, “[..] overall general demand was insufficient to warrant its continued distribution.” And yet, the overwhelming sentiment to this news (at least in my Instagram DM’s) was devastation and shock. This is a good reminder that we need to regularly keep buying the products we love.
Walking into St-Viateur Bagels this week, there was an empty space where the familiar Liberté cream cheese tubs once were. A bagel and schmear in this city used to bring together two local products for a uniquely Montreal dish. Today, we have lost a product with important links to the Jewish food history of Montreal, a beloved food that will be sorely missed.