Canadiana Classics, Part I: Nanaimo Bars: A Fat Slice of History


First appeared in Grainews on April 2022
I lived in Vancouver in my twenties. Yaletown didn’t exist yet, other than as hulking rows of empty warehouses to be bicycled past quickly. Granville Island was an industrial wasteland, the Fairview Slopes didn’t, and False Creek was still a reclamation project. Elsewhere in town, the Ridge Theatre became known as the city’s repertory theatre, home to second run and art-house films. It showed midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, classics like Casablanca, and weeks-long series by Kurosawa and Hitchcock.

Going to the Ridge was a one-screen double-bill trip. The popcorn dripped with butter, and the concession stand’s most famous offering was Nanaimo bars from The Lazy Gourmet, owned by Susan Mendelsen and her then-partner, Deborah Roitberg. Susan started selling the bars to pay her way through a social work degree. Since then, The Lazy Gourmet has celebrated over 40 years of catering in Vancouver. Susan’s first book, Mama Never cooked Like This, was a joyful celebration, including Nanaimo bars. Susan included the recipe in her Expo 1986 cookbook as well, sealing its fate as a Canadian classic.

The Nanaimo bar, a 70-year-old Canadian dainty, has cracked the bastion of “old-money” food, the New York Times food pages. In 2019, writer Sara Bonisteel called it “a geological cross section… Its base is sedimentary…[with] a buttery silt… yellow buttercream… on the brink of liquefaction. And its top crust of chocolate… thaws like the Arctic tundra.”

Scholar L.L. Newman, who exhaustively researched the history of the Nanaimo bar, learned that the sweet was first mentioned in print in the 1947 Vancouver Sun, likely developed by a member of the Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary, and published in that group’s 1952 community cookbook. It appeared in The Sun again in 1953, where it was also called “London Smog”, in a recipe contest under the paper’s “Edith Adams” moniker. It was most likely a mill town recipe, having first appeared in Nanaimo and across the Georgia Straits in Milltown. It has become an iconic Nanaimo bakery item that lures tourists to explore the city’s “Nanaimo bar trail” in pursuit of the best bar.

Prairie cooks had a similar sweet, also called “London Smog,” that appeared on dainty trays at midnight suppers and wedding lunches. Prairie cookbook author Jean Paré included Nanaimo bars in the first book of her long-running Company’s Coming series, 150 Delicious Squares. From Drumheller to Nova Scotia, the Nanaimo bar appeared under pseudonyms like Mabel’s Squares and Victoria Specials in cookbooks and on home tables.

Nanaimo bars are indicators of the era’s faith in newly emerged processed imported foods: Bird’s custard powder, Baker’s chocolate, Fry’s cocoa, Graham crackers, Tropic coconut. With ingredients like that, it’s hard to make the case for Nanaimo bars as a Canadian classic, but as Margaret Fraser of Canadian Living once wrote, we know that at some point a Canadian cook came up with it. So first we eat (Nanaimo Bars are in the Recipes archive!) , then a brisk walk – those bars are rich!

“Prairie cookbook author Jean Paré included Nanaimo bars in the first book of her long-running Company’s Coming series, 150 Delicious Squares.”


“Bread & Water is an emotionally arresting, beautifully written series of essays.”

~ Jurors’ Citation, Saskatchewan Book Awards, University of Saskatchewan President’s Office Nonfiction Award

“Food is a wonderful agent for storytelling... and Bread & Water demonstrates this brilliantly.”

~ Sarah Ramsey, starred review, Quill & Quire

“[Bread & Water is] An amazing feast... riveting... eloquent.”

~ Patricia D. Robertson, Winnipeg Free Press

“[Bread & Water is a] sensuous experience; she brings her poet’s eye and ear to everything within her purview.”

~ Professor emerita Kathleen Wall, Blue Duets

“A deep love of the art of cooking that includes the language of fine dining (cassoulet, confit) even if the lamb was raised in Olds and she picked the rhubarb herself... she impressively manages this collision of worlds with a wholesome, approachable style.”

~ Megan Clark, Alberta Views

“These finely focussed poems [in Wildness Rushing In] invite us into a sensuous and emotionally rich landscape.”

~ Don McKay, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize

“The writing [in Wildness Rushing In] is honed and textured, the senses so alive that you can practically taste the language. There are moments of brilliance rare in a first book.”

~ Jurors’ Citation, Saskatchewan Book Awards

“dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s stories [in What Can’t Be Undone] are written with a poetic edge. Her descriptions, particularly western landscapes, are often luxurious, lending themselves a kind of nuanced impression, a delicate fingerprint on the reader’s mind. "

~ Lee Kvern, Alberta Views

“[Foodshed is] A rich encyclopedia of facts, farm-gate lore and original recipes... a politically engaging narrative in which Hobsbawn-Smith articulates the challenges and joys faced by small-scale producers... don’ t let the alphabet theme fool you. This is no tame nursery rhyme; it is a locavore call to arms.”

~ P.D. Robertson, The Globe & Mail

Taste Canada Book Awards Finalist
Taste Canada Book Awards Finalist



Skip to content