Tonight I made another small step toward assimilation into Canadian culture. Well, Canadian childhood culture, at least.
Shortly after we arrived here, I saw in the coffee shops and the occasional restaurant a dessert called a Nanaimo Bar. This piqued my curiosity, since I knew of the port of Nanaimo, a city on Vancouver Island, as well as the name of a Street and Station I often see on the local busses and hear in a somewhat taunting tone on the Skytrain’s automated announcement system.
During the showing of “A Souvenir of Canada”, a movie based on the book by Douglas Coupland during the Vancouver International Film Festival, the image of this box flashed on the screen, and several in the audience gave gasps of recognition and laughed. Here’s the current definition of Nanaimo bar I got from the Wikipedia:
The Nanaimo bar is a Canadian dessert. A type of chocolate cake, it receives its name from the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, where it first became known in the 1930s. It consists of a crumb-based layer, topped by a light custard which is covered in soft chocolate. Many varieties are possible by using different types of crumb, flavours of custard, and types of chocolate.
According to historical legend, a group of friends in Nanaimo, who would later found the Harewood Ladies’ Auxiliary, found the recipe in the Vancouver Sun under the name “chocolate fridge cake,” and popularized it under the name Nanaimo bar. However, a search through the newspaper’s archives failed to turn up the recipe, so its ultimate origin is unknown.
Recipes for similar desserts are found in various places and under various names in North America and Europe, but only in Canada is it so widely known, and it is known to Canadians only as the Nanaimo bar.
The City of Nanaimo takes its Nanaimo bars very seriously; the city’s mascot is known as Nanaimo Barney and has the shape of a giant Nanaimo bar. The city also has an official recipe for the bar. In 1985, Mayor Graeme Roberts started a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe; the unanimous winner, submitted by local resident Joyce Hardcastle, was declared the official recipe and is available as a handout from the City.
I’ve tried them in some places since then. They have differed slightly, but in general they are all sweet, have different ratios of filling to topping and crumb bottom layer, and some have more coconut in that layer than others. The chocolate also varies from recipe to recipe. It’s been fun to try different versions to compare them, even though it’s kind of like an adult ordering a twinkies or marshmallow treats. When I saw the box at the IGA, I decided it was time that I tried making them first as the average Canadian has probably tasted them. Then, I’ll try the original recipe.
The instructions (in English and French, of course), essentially call for the contents of bags A, B, and C corresponding to the base, filling and topping respectively, mixed with butter in different amounts. No baking is involved, as the box says.
The results were achingly sweet and the filling had an unpleasant grainy texture. You wouldn’t want to read the ingredients on the side of the box, and it’s likely more than one case of type 2 diabetes resulted from ingesting too many of these, but I guess that a rite of passage of sorts has been achieved, albeit about 30-odd years too late. I’ll never be a native Canadian, nor will I have had a childhood with these in it, but they are a fun new discovery.