Or bar, as this Canadian delicacy is more commonly known.
Nanaimo Bar by jamesonf, on Flickr
Nanaimo bars are a three-layered dessert. The first layer is a mixture of Graham cracker crumbs, butter, and flavoring elements; the second is a creamy custard-like layer that is usually vanilla-flavored; and the top is a mixture of chocolate and butter. They’re named for Nanaimo, a coastal city in British Columbia.
More or less everything else about these bars is disputed. (Well, I exaggerate. But not by much.)
Because of the pride Nanaimo has taken in the confection, combined with is popularity across Canada and in much of the Northwest U.S., a great deal of research has been put into the origin of these bars. Unfortunately, neither that research nor my own has managed to turn up so much as a likely point of origin.
The name attached at some point in the early 1950s. Similar recipes appeared under various names at various times, traveling under names like ribbon squares and New York squares, but I haven’t found any versions earlier than the 1954 reference in the January 18, 1954 edition of the Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald:
1/2 cup butter
Place softened butter, sugar, cocoa, vanilla and egg in a bowl. Set the bowl in a dish of boiling water. Stir well until butter has melted and the mixture resembles thin custard.
Combine graham wafer crumbs, coconut, and nuts, blending well. Add to custard mixture. Pack evenly in a 9-inch square pan, spread with icing.
Icing — Cream 3/4 cup butter, add 3 Tablespoons milk which has been combined with 2 tablespoons vanilla custard powder. Blend in 2 cups icing sugar. Spread over chocolate base, let stand about 15 minutes or so to harden somewhat.
Then melt 4 squares semi-sweet chocolate with 1 Tablespoon butter and spread over custard icing. When set, cut into bars.
What’s slightly strange are the various theories that didn’t pan out when other people were trying to research the origin. One story involved a hypothetical Women’s Auxiliary that didn’t seem to actually exist; another referenced an article in the Vancouver Sun that even the paper itself has been unable to locate; some attribute other original names, but I haven’t found it traveling under any of those names until after 1954. At this point, if someone said that the recipe showed up after a Sasquatch walked out of the woods and nailed it to the door of Nanaimo City Hall in 1953, I would have no evidence to contradict that.
But I can tell you that Nanaimo has embraced and adopted the recipe. If by some quirk Nanaimo bars were not natives of they city, they have surely been granted citizenship. The city has selected an official recipe and has a brochure that tracks iterations of the recipe available throughout the city (including a Nanaimo bar pedicure).
From left to right, that’s Vancouver Island University’s Blue Thunder; Nanaimo Barnie; and Waverly the Wave. From the Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture community media guide.
What it doesn’t appear to have is an official mascot named Nanaimo Barney, as has been mentioned in various books and posts online. According to the city’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Community Guide (no doubt assembled by Leslie Knope’s Canadian cousin, Leslie MacKnope), Nanaimo Barney is a mascot operated by the Coast Bastion Inn. (The guide spells it Nanaimo Barnie, but I’m going with the spelling on Barney’s headband. Or wrapper. Whatever.) The list also includes the A&W Root Beer Bear and the McDonalds Hamburglar, so it doesn’t look like inclusion in the list makes it “official” in any way.
But if you’re wondering, the Parks and Rec department’s mascot is Waverly the Wave. Nanaimo’s Parks and Rec department, I mean. I think we all know what the official mascot of Pawnee’s department is.
From the box of F.J. from Sun City, Arizona. Some cards suggest a family history in Missouri and Kansas.
Delicious Nanaimo Squares
- 1/2 cup butter and
- 1/4 cup sugar and
- 5 Tbsp. cocoa and
- 1 egg and
- 1 tsp. vanilla
over low heat and cook and stir until butter melts.
- 2 cups Graham cracker crumbs and
- 1/2 cup chopped nut meats and
- 1 cup coconut
and mix well and press firmly in an 8×8 inch pan.
- 1/4 cup butter with
- 3 Tbsp. milk in which you stir
- 2 Tbsp. instant vanilla pudding mix, then cream with
- 2 cups powdered sugar and
- 1/2 tsp. mint flavoring or vanilla and [something?] sugar
Cream well and spread over the first mixture.
Top with two squares bitter chocolate melted over low heat with 2 Tbsp. butter, spread over pudding layer and put in refrigerator, cut in little squares.
I made mine with pistachio pudding mix and they were just delicious. I make these and the melt in your mouth ones and the little jam prints and put in Pringles boxes, rep in refrigerator or freezer and can have when company comes.
From the kitchen of Mrs. Herr’s daughter Alice.
Apparently the current earliest reference is from a 1953 cookbook, which DOES exist (Edith Adams’ prize cookbook (14th edition)). It’s included in Elizabeth Driver’s bibliography of Canadian cookbooks, and its on display at the Nanaimo Museum. I couldn’t find any pictures of the cookbook or the recipe, though 🙁
I couldn’t find it either–it’s really a testament to how differently newspapers worked 60 years ago, isn’t it? If you mail something in to a newspaper today, they’ve got such a paper trail and there’s often a contract of some kind and they’ve got some manifestation of your consent to publish and yada yada yada. Back in the 1950s, someone mails something to the Vancouver Sun, they publish it without attribution in a cookbook and there’s no record behind it. Sometimes I long for those times, but not when I can’t find the source!
Maybe I was just feeling paranoid, but I thought it was odd that there were no references to the 14th edition anywhere I checked except on pages referencing this recipe. The omnibus stopped at 13, but I wasn’t aware of Elizabeth Driver’s bibliography–thank you for that resource! (She also edited the omnibus, I think?) So at least we have good authority on that point!
I did more digging. The Nanaimo Museum appears to have on display both the 14th edition of the Edith Adams cookbook (looks like maybe just a scan of the cookbook page) AND the mythological 1952 version, which names the recipe “Chocolate Square.” Unfortunately the Edith Adams version is too blurry to make out. Very frustrating!
Well done! Keep hope alive, we’ll get it 🙂