Critics question Nanaimo bar’s ratio

West-coast staple one of five ‘Sweet Canada’ stamps serving up traditional Canadian desserts

By Jesse Robitaille

Controversy arose quickly this April as aficionados of the three-layer, no-bake bar with a proudly Canadian name was depicted on a stamp with purportedly problematic proportions.

One of five Canadian desserts celebrated in the “Sweet Canada” series issued by Canada Post on April 17, the Nanaimo bar is just as rich in Canadiana as it is in sweetness. First appearing in the 1950s in its namesake city and ferry port on the east coast of Vancouver Island – Nanaimo, B.C. – the bar is comprised of a crumbly base beneath custard filling and chocolate ganache icing.

The Nanaimo bar stamp was issued April 17 by Canada Post alongside four other delectable Canadian classics.

“I’ve only had a few,” said collector Robert Timberg, who’s also the executive manager of The Royal Philatelic Society of Canada, “and they haven’t looked like the one in the stamp.”

Criticism about the stamp’s design focuses on the allegedly inaccurate ratio of its three layers as well as its seemingly discoloured centre filling, which should be a distinctive yellow owing to the recipe’s use of custard powder.

“It’s missing the yellow colour in filling only found from custard powder, and yes, there’s way too much of it,” said Ottawa-based pastry chef Adam Cenaiko. “The bottom layer is suspicious as well; no chocolate or walnuts?”

Provincial politicians, including British Columbia’s Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson, also voiced concerns.

“That is definitely not a Nanaimo bar,” Farnworth said, while Robinson added it was “probably an artist who has never eaten one” that’s responsible for the design.

ILLUSTRATED BY U.S. ARTIST

The entire five-stamp set, which also includes sugar pie, Saskatoon berry pie, blueberry grunt and the butter tart, was designed by Vancouver’s Subplot Design with illustrations by Mary Ellen Johnson, a U.S.-based realist oil painter known for her paintings of food.

“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. That factored in to our image decisions,” said Canada Post representative Hayley Magermans, who added the Crown corporation wanted “to represent the many adaptations and variations of each recipe that occur as professional bakers, chefs and those who love baking at home prepare them for customers, friends and family.”

“The fact that each stamp is depicted on the image of an old-fashioned recipe card speaks to the wide variety of Canadians who regularly make these delicious treats – all a little differently.”

LACKING STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY

The front (top) of the ‘Sweet Canada’ souvenir sheet features five traditional Canadian deserts on stamps. The back of the sheet (bottom) gives each of the iconic desserts’ histories.

Some purists, including Dr. Lenore Newman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the Nanaimo bar on the stamp “doesn’t even look structurally sound.”

While the bar’s base layer – coconut and chopped walnuts held together with buttery cocoa and crushed graham crackers – was common across the British Empire in the 1950s, its two top layers were “likely developed by a member or members of the Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary, and the first known recipe was published in 1952 in that group’s cookbook,” Newman wrote in a Canadian Food Studies journal published in 2014.

“The Nanaimo bar’s exact origins remain mysterious, but the real innovation that happened in Nanaimo was most likely the invention of the custard frosting,” wrote Newman, adding the bar was voted as Canada’s favourite confection in a 2006 survey by the National Post.

Perhaps owing to these mysterious origins, not everyone disagrees with Canada Post’s representation of the beloved bar.

“I couldn’t be prouder than to have the dessert recognized as one of Nanaimo’s many contributions to the world,” Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog told the Vancouver Sun, adding the tasty treat was served during a state dinner in 2016, when then-U.S. president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

“It’s popular because it’s really good. It is a signature dessert for this country, up there with the famous butter tart and the other desserts.”

Souvenir sheet official first-day covers were cancelled in two of the desserts’ namesake cities, Nanaimo, B.C., and Saskatoon, Sask.

FIVE-STAMP SET

Printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company using six-colour lithography, the Permanent domestic-rate stamps are available in booklets of 10 stamps as well as souvenir sheets of five stamps inspired by old-fashioned recipe cards. Souvenir sheet official first-day covers cancelled in two of the desserts’ namesake cities, Nanaimo and Saskatoon, are also available.

For more information about the “Sweet Canada” stamps, visit canadapost.ca.

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