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.

nanaimo for amc.jpg
Photo by Jennifer Ward Barber/

My first encounter with a uniquely Canadian food actually goes back even farther than that. I'd eaten Nanaimo Bars—a three-layered sweet consisting of a cookie base, custard middle, and chocolate ganache topping—my whole life. It showed up on Christmas goodie platters every year, but I didn't discover the dessert's origins until I moved to West Africa, where I lived and worked on a hospital ship docked in Benin. For our monthly community night that December, all 300 crew members got into groups and performed short skits about how we celebrated the holidays in our various countries. The South Africans surfed. The Brits recited a hilarious, irreverent poem. Us Canadians donned toques and sang "Let It Snow"—and one of the women served her homemade Nanaimo Bars. (The others seemed to understand her choice; I was content having learned something new about our homeland.)

The Nanaimo Bar creation story, as with many national dishes, is a contested one. Some sources date the bar to 1930, calling it a descendant of the Chocolate Fridge Cake popular at the time. Practically Edible, an Internet food encyclopedia, suggests it is more likely that the recipe first appeared in 1952, when a Mrs. E. MacDougall published a method for "Chocolate Slices" in The Woman's Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cook Book. In A Century of Canadian Home Cooking, Carol Ferguson says the recipe was then printed in the Vancouver Sun under its current name. Others say the bar was actually created in a town south of Nanaimo by a woman named Mabel Jenkins, who submitted the recipe to the annual Ladysmith and Cowichan Womens Institute Cookbook. The cookbook is said to have made its way throughout island communities, eventually spreading to restaurants and the rest of the country. One uncontested fact is that in 1986, the mayor of Nanaimo held a contest to find the best version of the bar. The winning rendition, submitted by a woman named Joyce Hardcastle, became the "official" recipe.

I passed through the town of Nanaimo five years after returning from Benin, during a month-long solo cycle tour of Vancouver Island. I hadn't had a slice of that rich, sweet bar in years, having eschewed it for what I deemed more sophisticated after-dinner indulgences, like scotch and dark chocolate. But I popped into a cafe to try it in its birth place. The square I bought revealed all the decadence I had remembered: the firm chocolate topping broke when I bit into it, giving way to that familiar, almost cloying yellow custard and chewy, coconut-graham base studded with nuts.

Most importantly, it was almost exactly like my mother's, and succeeded, with all its over-the-top sweetness, in transporting me momentarily home. This week, I'll watch the end of our beloved Olympics from my small room in D.C., put Vancouver's Be Good Tanyas on the stereo, and share the bars with my housemates—hoping to give them a small taste of Canada too.