Too Much on the Bottom and Not Enough in the Middle: Nanaimo Bar Outrage

Too Much on the Bottom and Not Enough in the Middle: Nanaimo Bar Outrage

Too Much on the Bottom and Not Enough in the Middle: Nanaimo Bar Outrage

Too Much on the Bottom and Not Enough in the Middle: Nanaimo Bar Outrage

This week was the first anniversary of the official declaration that the coronavirus was a global pandemic. But a number of Canada Letter readers have recently emailed about a very different issue: the correct layer proportions of Nanaimo bars.

It all started with a photo in an Instagram post from The Times’s Cooking account of an example of Canada’s favorite no-bake squares. “Canadians, this one’s for you,” it read.

But many Canadians were quick to point out that it had way too thick of a base layer — a mixture of butter, cocoa powder, nuts, shredded coconut, graham cracker crumbs and lots of butter. The yellow middle layer — lots more butter, more sugar, Bird’s custard powder and heavy cream — was mingy, the critics said. And instead of being as smooth as an ice rink, the melted top layer sported a ripple pattern.

“These are an insult to Canadians everywhere,” one person commented. “You’d be laughed out of the bake sale with these counterfeits,” offered another.

Several news outlets in Canada sought out Nanaimo bar experts.

“With something as specific as the Nanaimo bar, you have to be honest about the actual delivery of the true product,” Steve Walker-Duncan, the chairman of the culinary arts program at Camosun College south of Nanaimo in Victoria, told the CBC. “If you’re going to do something different, you can call it a Nanaimo-esque bar, or in the style of a Nanaimo bar.”

The Instagram post linked to the account of Sara Bonisteel, an editor in Cooking, and a photo of a more generally accepted style of Nanaimo bar. (For the record: She did not make the squares of contention.)

Almost two years ago, Sara wrote a terrific article about the pride of British Columbia’s kitchens, and she also posted a recipe, a process that involved having a caterer in British Columbia ship sample bars to New York for analysis and inspection.

[Read: A Bite-Size Square of Canada’s History, Culture and Craving]

She told me that she was a bit surprised about the online heat the Instagram post generated in Canada and that she agreed with the critics.

“This particular photo brought drama but didn’t do the Nanaimo bar justice,” she said. “They’re a delicious treat. And I am glad that such a topic can be the centerpiece of such a lively debate, especially after the last few years where debate seemed to be very heavy. To be able to have a national debate about a treat, it’s kind of refreshing.”

While Sara did not create the bar of scorn, she said that its out-of-whack portions might have been a result of its coming from the edge of a pan. “When you press down that bottom layer, it does sort of pop up the sides if you’re not a Nanaimo-bar-making expert,” she said.

She too rejects the swirling pattern on the top layer of the bar shown in the post, although her experience has been that it’s tricky to get the melted chocolate to set “completely smooth, like freshly Zambonied ice.” She finds that banging the pan on a counter several times after layering the top on helps, however.

Credit…Canada Post

Cooking’s Instagram bar isn’t the only one to come under criticism. In 2019, Canada Post released an unusually shaped stamp featuring a Nanaimo bar with the opposite condition: Critics found its yellow middle layer way too thick.

“We understand there are some strong views on the layer proportions, but we also understand there are many views of these beloved treats across the country,” Sylvie Lapointe, a spokeswoman for Canada Post, told me. “That factored into our image decisions.”

Daniel Bender, a historian who teaches food studies at the University of Toronto, found the extent of the reaction this week extraordinary.

“I can see why people felt like, well, there wasn’t enough custard,” he said. “But it’s probably more interesting about why we actually got so upset about it.”

His theory: “It was a bit of a mixture of being pleased that the Americans are noticing us and also being delighted when they got it wrong. There’s nothing better than when the Americans misunderstand Canadians.”


  • Superb photos and videos by Pat Kane, who is based in Yellowknife, combine with an article by Peter Kujawinski, a former American consul based in Canada, to tell how the city successfully shielded its Indigenous elders from the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Catherine Porter reports that vaccination has not loosened the restrictions that have made life severely constrained for residents of long-term care homes over the past year. “You always hear people say, ‘Oh, they lived a long life,’” the daughter of one resident told her. “Right now, they aren’t living. They are existing.”

  • Shawna Richer, who recently joined The Times as an editor in Sports from The Globe and Mail, wrote about Justin Bieber’s new video, a “love letter” to the Toronto Maple Leafs: “This is not the rapper Lil Wayne, who is from New Orleans but front-running for the Green Bay Packers in song. Bieber has been obsessed with the Leafs since he was a kid, with the twin-size bedsheets and wallpaper to prove it.”

  • Also from the Northwest Territories comes the story of how the Łutsël K’é’ Dene worked with the federal government to block diamond mining by establishing Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve, an area that still allows them to exercise their traditional hunting and fishing rights. It’s part of an article by Somini Sengupta, Catrin Einhorn and Manuela Andreoni on how Indigenous people in many countries are now leading the way on conserving nature.

  • Since leaving Microsoft, Nathan P. Myhrvold, the company’s former chief technology officer, has started coming to Canada to photograph snowflakes. But he’s not using the phone on his camera, Kenneth Chang found. It took Dr. Myhrvold 18 months to design and build a special snowflake camera roughly the size of a bar fridge that can make super-high-resolution images while minimizing melting. A Canadian photographer who uses a store-bought camera and photographs snowflakes on a black mitten said of Mr. Myhrvold’s system, “I think it’s a little over-engineered.”

  • In Opinion, Charlie Warzel writes about Aron Rosenberg, a former teacher in Montreal who went cold turkey and completely cut himself off from the internet as part of his research for an education Ph.D. at McGill University.

  • Five former elite swimmers have accused Canada Artistic Swimming of failing to provide a safe environment and of neglecting abusive behavior by coaches. Their allegations of being bullied, harassed and psychologically abused are being made by other athletes in the sport around the world, Jeré Longman and Gillian R. Brassil found.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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