The decadent dessert known as a Nanaimo bar, named after a city in British Columbia, is composed of three layers – a crumbly base, a custardy middle, and a chocolatey top. You might think that stereotypically polite Canadians would all agree that no matter how they’re made, that Nanaimo bars would be universally honored as a delicious national treat. But you would be wrong.
The New York Times reported last week that Canadians reacted with outrage after its Instagram account posted a photo of some unconventionally looking Nanaimo bars along with a link to a recipe. One commenter called it “an insult to Canadians everywhere,” while another said that “you’d be laughed out of the bake sale with these counterfeits.”
What was the shameful transgression? According to some Canadians, the proportions of the layers were wrong: the base was too thick, and there wasn’t enough custard. And the top layer of thick chocolate ganache wasn’t smooth, but (egads) rippled.
This isn’t even the first time that Nanaimo bars have generated outrage in Canada. In 2019, Canada Post released stamps featuring five regional desserts, and the Nanaimo bar stamp was quickly criticized for its middle layer appearing too thick. One commenter even made the shocking suggestion that the filling appeared to be less like custard than – wait for it – peanut butter.
In our highly polarized world, there are plenty of other cases in which someone with a strong opinion about food decides that someone else’s version is wrong. CNN reported last year about a Malaysian comedian called Uncle Roger who went viral after posting a video showing that a BBC presenter making egg fried rice drained her rice through a colander after boiling it, and that she had rinsed it with tap water. “This rice cooking is a hate crime,” one outraged writer tweeted.
And in the most recent example I’ve learned about, the city of Bologna, Italy, has decreed what should be the proper dimensions of the long, flat pasta known as tagliatelli. Its chamber of commerce even keeps a solid gold replica of a piece of tagliatelli showing how wide the dough should be before cooking. The official recipe the city keeps on file states that when cooked, authentic tagliatelli should be 8 millimeters wide, and that 12,270 strands of it should be as tall as the Torre degli Asinelli, a Bologna landmark. “Any other size would make it lose its inimitable character,” the deed says.
I’m here to reassure you that you’re not doing it wrong, whether you like your Philly cheesesteaks with cheez whiz or provolone, or you prefer your North Carolina barbecue sauce to be made with vinegar or ketchup. It’s great to be passionate about what you like and what you don’t, but that doesn’t mean you should restrict others from experimenting and finding out what they enjoy. And if you let your palate be your guide, you might learn that finding a new way to prepare a recipe might lead you to a pleasing result.
Of course, if you stray too far from what’s generally accepted as the ingredients of a particular dish, you might want to call it something different. A carrot cake probably shouldn’t be called a carrot cake if it’s not made of carrots. (Go figure, I just found a whole bunch of recipes in which you can make carrot cake with pumpkin, butternut squash, zucchini, or even pineapple. Thanks, Internet!)
But I can’t think of a good reason that a slightly thicker piece of pasta, some rice that’s been drained through a colander, or even a cookie bar with a different proportion of layers should be castigated by people who believe that they’re the true arbiters of taste. So go ahead, make a Nanaimo bar with a deeper layer of chocolate or a dollop of extra custard. Instead of being mocked on social media or laughed out of a Canadian bake sale, you just might find yourself getting the nation’s stamp of approval.
What I Ate: Diablo cookie with chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne from Tacofino on Vancouver Island, Canada