Three layers of delicious decadence. Creamy custard set between a top tier of chocolate ganache and a coconut-graham crust.
The dessert has long been a confectionary favourite, with the informal squares being served at bake sales, cafés and around family dining tables. Variations exist, but whether the filling is yellow, mint or mocha, whether the crust contains walnuts or pecans, this no fuss, no-bake treat is simply delectable.
But for a dessert as cheerful and uncomplicated as the Nanaimo Bar, it certainly has a foggy past. With an obscure history that points to different regions and reflects the social and economic landscapes of its supposed inception, the origin of Canada’s favourite treat is somewhat mysterious.
The Nanaimo Bar as we know it would make its debut in Edith Adams’ 1953 cookbook. Adams, a persona created by the Vancouver Sun, acted as the newspaper’s expert on all things cooking, baking and homemaking. Various women would take on the duties over the years and a Sun staff food blog even reveals how the “s” at the end of her last name was no mistake. She stood for all women--the women who impersonated her and the (mostly) women who were her audience. However, her overall naming served a more practical purpose, as none of the letters hung below the font baseline and made printing the paper easier.
“Her” tenure would span 75 years, beginning in 1924 and ending just before the new millennium. For decades, Vancouverites received advice from the domestic figurehead, whose brand would spawn cooking classes, a demo kitchen and the aforementioned cookbooks. But while Edith Adams is thought to be responsible for the first appearance of the dessert with its modern name, “Nanaimo Bars”, the actual recipe made its debut one year earlier.
The 1952 Women’s Auxiliary Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook featured the “Chocolate Square.” Though under a different name, the recipe resulted in a bar of chocolate, custard and coconut-graham crust, connecting the treat to what we enjoy today, as well as to the city of Nanaimo.
One might think that would settle the matter, but the bar--about as un-fussy as a dessert can be--has a history marked by speculation and hearsay. Whisperings of its origin include it possibly being an English treat, going by the moniker, “London Fog Bar." Others point to a Maritime confection, known as “Mabel’s Square” and even an Albertan sweet, called a “Smog Bar.” Rumours tied less to geography, posit the bar was referred to as a “Chocolate Slice” or “Chocolate Fridge Cake”, while some suggest the Vancouver Sun featured recipes with graham cracker bases as early as the 1940s.
It is difficult to know exactly where and when the dawn of the Nanaimo Bar began, but the nature of the dessert seems to solidify its genesis as a postwar treat.
World War II saw a real effect on the way Canadians consumed food. Rationing influenced what and how people on the homefront ate, with habits often tied to patriotism or the war effort. For example, Canada’s Food Guide (first implemented during the second World War) began as a campaign to strengthen Canadians through nutritional means. It’s original slogan was even, “Eat right, feel right--Canada needs you strong.” Additionally, a price freeze was enacted on such staples as sugar and butter, impacting how people cooked.
In the years following the war, food once again became plentiful and, in turn, influenced Canadian food habits. The postwar era was one of prosperity after years of restriction, excess after going without and even the desserts of the time mirrored that. Items, such as treat squares, rose in popularity with basic baking ingredients readily available. The Nanaimo Bar, a decadent--if no frills--sweet, certainly fit into that category.
But for all of the conjecture surrounding its history, the treat has become a stalwart feature of Canadian and, most specifically, British Columbian, dessert fare. Expo ‘86, which saw the World’s Fair held in Vancouver, contributed to its notoriety. Not only was it included in the official Expo ‘86 cookbook, curated by The Lazy Gourmet founder, Susan Mendelson, but it’s said that she was the first to sell the dessert commercially. That same year, the City of Nanaimo held a competition to seek out the best recipe for the sweet, with the city’s own Joyce Hardcastle coming in first. Additionally, the seaside town would debut their mascot, none other than Nanaimo Barney, and even promote the "Nanaimo Bar Trail" where visitors could sample the dessert in different establishments.
The fanfare around the Nanaimo Bar has continued over the years--from its hazy beginnings, perhaps in a church basement or postwar kitchen, to it now being served aboard BC Ferries and sold in sheets at Costco. It was even depicted on a Canada Post stamp in 2019, as part of their Sweet Canada series. But for all of the claims made, the cryptic tales of its fruition, one thing is clear: the Nanaimo Bar is a truly delicious treat.