In a Dessert, the Soul of Canada


Photo by Jennifer Ward Barber/

To celebrate the Olympics with Nanaimo Bars, click here for a recipe.

Like many expat Canadians, I often feel compelled to introduce Americans to the wonders of my home. Last Monday evening, as I watched a Canadian Olympian receive a gold medal on home turf for the first time in history, I knew it was an occasion for Nanaimo Bars.

Before I mine the lore of a sweet associated with the town of Nanaimo, in British Columbia (the province hosting this year's games), let me offer a window into the mysterious cuisine of a nation whose anthem proclaims it the "True North, Strong and Free." What do inhabitants of this vast expanse of frozen earth eat? Well, we might not guard our gastronomic inheritance like the French, or protect our artisan traditions like the Italians. We don't have many distinctive ingredients like Asia or the tropics, and we don't have Vegemite, haggis, or hundred-year-old eggs to shock and awe. To the extent that our food is known throughout the world—and it's not, in case you were wondering—it's often defined, like the rest of our culture, with clichés. I usually take references to Tim Hortons, maple syrup, and cheesy, gravy-drenched poutine in good humor, although if someone asks me to repeat the word "about" one more time, I might throw a Timbit at him.

The Nanaimo Bar creation story, as with many national dishes, is a contested one.

When I first left Canada and was asked about its food, this lack of originality bothered me. From Frederick Phillip Grove to Margaret Atwood, Canadians have always explored what it means to survive, and navigate, Canadian-ness. I was no different. But years spent working in restaurants from Winnipeg to Vancouver, serving plates of "Manitoba soul food" (kielbasa and perogies), Alberta beef, and Digby scallops, taught me that I can be proud of diversity, if not of a unified tradition. I've come to appreciate the hodgepodge of my country's cuisine, whether cooking bannock, the staple biscuit of our First Nations people, or eating the Icelandic sweet vinatarta in Gimli, Manitoba's own "Little Iceland."

It took leaving Canada for me to start thinking about these things more seriously, and in many ways, for me to start feeling more Canadian in general. When I moved to upstate New York, I had to change the way I spelled, giggle politely at the aforementioned pronunciation of the sound "out," and watch expressions grow blank when I said I was from Manitoba. I've defined the word "keener" for many an American (it means someone who's very eager), and educated hockey fans trying, painfully, to identify on their mixed-up mental maps of Canada the hometown of the opposing team. With food, I've discovered I can't buy Shreddies cereal to make my family's traditional nuts 'n' bolts at Christmas. I have to rely on my friend from Kingston to bring me Red River Cereal and creamed honey when he visits. These hardships may be minor, but when I'm home I tear into my poached pickerel and smoked goldeye fresh from Lake Winnipeg, drench my pancakes in Saskatoon berry syrup, and relish tourtière on Christmas Eve. These once-common foods became much dearer to me when I left.

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Photo by Jennifer Ward Barber/

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Jennifer Ward Barber is an intern at, where she helps produce the Atlantic Food Channel. Follow her on Twitter, or visit her site, Fresh Cracked Pepper, where she writes about food, life, and triathlon. More

Originally from Canada, Jennifer moved to the U.S. to study journalism at Syracuse University. She graduated with her MA from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in June of 2009.

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