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 slope anywhere, 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, then a brisk walk – those bars are rich!
Susan Mendelson’s Nanaimo Bars
Adapted from The CanLit Cookbook, compiled by Margaret Atwood in 1987. I recently made these as a birthday gift for my nephew. Susan will forgive me for doubling the cocoa, deepening the custard centre, and sprinkling Maldon salt on top! Makes 1 8” x 8” pan/ 36 squares.
½ cup butter
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. cocoa
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup shredded coconut
½ cup chopped nuts
3/8 cup butter
¼ cup + 2 Tbsp. milk or cream
3 cups icing sugar
3 Tbsp. custard powder
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
a sprinkling of flaky salt (Maldon)
Line an 8” x 8” pan with enough parchment that it hangs over by 2’ on all sides.
Combine the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and cocoa in a double boiler over simmering water. Whisk well until it thickens, then add the crumbs, coconut and nuts. Mix well, and pack firmly into the pan, pressing down with the back of a spoon. Chill for 15 minutes.
Cream the butter in a mixer, then add the milk or cream and mix well – it will look curdled. Scrape down, then add half the icing sugar and the custard powder. Mix on slow to combine. Add the remaining icing sugar, blend to combine, then beat on high speed for 3 minutes until fluffy. Spread over the bottom layer, smoothing with a small palette knife. Chill for 15 minutes.
Melt the chocolate and butter over simmering water or in a microwave on 75 percent power for 1 minutes. Stir well, then smooth over the second layer. Sprinkle scantly with salt and chill.
Remove the square as a whole from the pan by lifting the parchment and placing on a cutting surface. Slice into small squares with a large knife, cleaning it under hot water in between slices.