You’ve probably seen it in cafés and bakeries, particularly ones in Canada and the Pacific Northwest: a sugary square with a chocolate-y graham cracker crumb base (sometimes with nuts or coconut), a blob of butter icing with custard powder mixed in, and a slab of dark chocolate for a lid. It’s a Nanaimo bar, the pride of Canada’s dessert case. But where did it come from?
It’s obvious, you might say: Nanaimo bars are named after the city of Nanaimo, located on Vancouver Island in Western Canada, so they must come from there. Not so fast: The answer, in fact, is far more complicated. The recipe was almost certainly dreamed up by a Canadian, but dozens of different people have been credited with inventing the Nanaimo bar—which may or may not have been invented in Nanaimo at all.
Most sources seem to agree that the first cookbook to feature a recipe for something called a Nanaimo Bar was the Edith Adams Prize Cookbook in 1953, a copy of which is displayed at the Nanaimo Museum, and so Adams often gets the props. However, Edith Adams was a fictional personality in the style of Betty Crocker—her name was made up and slapped on a homemaking column that appeared in the Vancouver Sun. Readers were able to submit their own recipes to the newspaper, and indeed a recipe for London Fog Bars, with the alternate title of Nanaimo Bars, was published in the newspaper earlier in 1953. Some of these recipes were rounded up for each annual Edith Adams Prize Cookbook and published under the same (fake) name, which means the real author of the first published recipe is unknown. (And since the recipe was published under both London Fog and Nanaimo Bar names, it’s possible that multiple people submitted recipes.)
Meanwhile, in 1954, a very similar recipe for “Mabel’s Squares” was printed in a book titled The Country Woman's Favorite in Gloucester County, a remote part of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The eponymous Mabel was the mother of Mrs. Harold Payne, who sent in the recipe, and was from Nova Scotia. Could this person have had a copy of either the Vancouver Sun or Edith Adams’ cookbook? It’s unlikely, yet not impossible.
But also consider this: A year before any of these recipes were printed, a cookbook published by the Nanaimo Hospital auxiliary on Vancouver Island featured three recipes that were not quite what we know today as the modern Nanaimo Bar, but similar. They weren’t called Nanaimo Bars—they were called Chocolate Squares (in two separate recipes) or Chocolate Slices. But do they technically count as Nanaimo Bars if they're made in Nanaimo?
To further obfuscate matters, in the 1980s, a former member of the Nanaimo Hospital auxiliary said that they had gotten the recipe from a 1936 Vancouver Sun recipe for Chocolate Fridge Cake, but no one has ever been able to find that recipe in the Sun’s archives. Some folks have even purported that they started up in 19th-century Nanaimo. None of this has solid sources, though—they’re just whispers.
Then there’s Jean Paré, the author of the Company’s Coming line of cookbooks and the alleged “Undisputed Queen of Canadian Squares,” who claims that the bars, in fact, originated in Alberta, where they were called Smog Bars—which recalls the London Fog Bar name. "Everybody made them: graham-cracker crust, cocoa, Bird's Eye custard in the filling," she has said. Paré, who was born in 1927, grew up in Alberta, and remembers her mother and grandmother making them before she left the province in 1947. (It’s been theorized that the smog/fog/London references in the names are owed to the use of Bird’s Custard Powder in the icing, which is made in England.)
Unfortunately for Paré, however, an exhaustive search of surviving Albertan cookbooks of the 1920s and ’30s by Nanaimo bar scholar Lenore Lauri Newman turned up no reference to Smog Bars or Fog Bars, so one can only go on Paré’s word alone, should one choose to. Of course, it’s possible that the first appearance of the Nanaimo bar recipe was in a publication that’s been lost to history—or has yet to be discovered by the very specific people who are interested in the histories of Canadian desserts.
By the time the 1986 World’s Fair—better known as Expo 86—was held in Vancouver, B.C., the event had an official cookbook featuring three kinds of Nanaimo Bars. The book was written by a woman named Susan Mendleson, who owned a Vancouver café called the Lazy Gourmet. Mendleson, who had sold the treats when she was in college, began serving them at her restaurant as well, and between these two events, they became popular locally.
News of their namesake being all the rage over in the big city eventually reached the town of Nanaimo, and their mayor held a contest for the best Nanaimo Bar recipe. Following this, BC Ferries, which links Nanaimo to the mainland, began selling the desserts on the boats. Local Starbucks stores began selling them around Christmas, and local Costcos offered them in sheets. Nanaimo considered all of this to be a prime tourist draw and latched on, with restaurants there concocting cheesecake versions of the Nanaimo Bar, deep-fried versions, martini versions, etc. (Today the city offers a "Nanaimo Bar Trail" that allows you to eat your way through the many local versions.) Before long, the treats became irrevocably linked with Western Canadian geography. And after the Expo 86 cookbook, the recipe was almost invariably printed under the name Nanaimo Bar, never again to be a Fridge Square or a Smog Bar.
All of this said, it is also possible that making a chocolatey bar with icing in the middle was an organic, obvious process to many individual bakers, who didn’t need to compare notes with one another to come up with it. Maybe the point is moot and there’s no true inventor of Nanaimo Bars. Maybe they just belong to the world.
Whoever thought of it first, and whenever that happened to be, the Nanaimo Bar has staked out a reputation as "Canada’s Favourite Confection," beating out such contenders as Coffee Crisps, BeaverTails, Cherry Blossoms, McCain's Deep 'n' Delicious Cake, and Tim Hortons' Iced Capp. The treat has become popular in other places too—including Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, cities throughout Minnesota (where they’re sometimes called “prayer bars”), and Australia. Somewhat surprisingly, they’re also commonly found in Vientiane, Laos, especially in little cafés along the Mekong River.
Despite Newman’s research, the mystery of the Nanaimo Bar endures. For now, when asked where the Nanaimo Bar comes from, all we can really say with conviction is: Canada. (Probably.)