Ask an expert - Nanaimo bar

Was the Nanaimo bar really named after Nanaimo?

The Nanaimo bar is a sweet treat enjoyed around the world, but the origins of its name are lost in a murky past.

It might seem obvious, at first glance, that the bar was named after Nanaimo. Then again, that might be mere coincidence.

It’s about as tough to get a firm answer on the subject as it is to determine where the original recipe came from.

Even staff at Tourism Nanaimo, the city’s prime promoter of the Nanaimo Bar Trail, defer to Nanaimo Museum, with its display dedicated to the bar.

According to the museum, the origin of the bar’s name is a mystery.

In a 1952 Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary cookbook, the bar is simply referred to as a chocolate square.

David Hill-Turner, museum curator, said the earliest printed reference to the Nanaimo bar is for a chocolate square recipe in a 1953 edition of an Edith Adams cooking column in the Vancouver Sun newspaper. By the way, Edith Adams, like Betty Crocker, was just a brand name. Adams never existed.

“Maybe it was because somebody submitted the recipe from Nanaimo,” said Hill-Turner. “Instead of calling it a chocolate square, we’ll call it a Nanaimo bar, but that’s just speculation on my part.”

The City of Nanaimo’s website links those seeking Nanaimo bar history to an article posted on Wikipedia, which says the bar originated in Ladysmith and that Mabel Jenkins, a housewife from Cowichan Bay, submitted the recipe for the annual Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook in the early 1950s.

The article also claims the bars were called Mabel Bars in areas south of Duncan, which were nicknamed Nanaimo bars by American tourists cruising local waters in pleasure boats.

“They probably called it the Nanaimo bar because it sounded better than the ‘Edith’ or ‘Mabel’ bar,” said Christine Meutzner, Nanaimo Community Archives manager.

Strangely, attempts to cross reference the Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute lead back to the Wikipedia article and the city website does refer to the article’s content as conjecture.

“There was no Ladysmith Women’s Institute, because I run those archives too and I checked it out,” Meutzner said. “It never existed.”

Perhaps Nanaimo Museum is right.

The bar and the origin of its name will remain the stuff of legend.

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