The Paradox of the Nanaimo Bar

The most evil of industrial foods?

They looked soooo good.  And what a bargain! According to the label, I was looking at 1.48 kilograms (more than 3 lbs!) of Traditional Nanaimo Bars:”delicious, creamy pastry filling generously layered on top of a traditional chocolate and coconut base and covered with velvety smooth chocolaty topping” for all of $7.99!

I was standing in the “bakery” section of Superstore, your basic mass warehouse-supermarket chain where nothing has seen anything resembling a bakery in days.  I had not taken leave of my environmental ethics or of my senses; I was looking for a treat.  The Skipper and I were headed off sailing for the weekend, and this time, we weren’t going to eat out at all.  I had carefully planned for 4 days of simple meals, easily prepared under sail or on the Coleman stove (found one at a garage sale fo r$2! Score!).  Pasta, salmon, salad, sandwiches, cereal, eggs, etc.  But I know that treats–both sweet and salty–are important for the morale of all sailors when confined to the small cockpit for hours each day.  All that fresh air seems to make us hungry more often, and we do more snacking and eat smaller meals than we do at home in our regular routine.  Portability and easy storage is also key, and finger foods, or foods that can be eaten with minimal cutlery straight out of the container, are most welcome when everything is sliding about on the waves.

So I felt nothing but glee as I walked out the store juggling my giant cardboard box of fake “chocolaty” goodness.  I knew the Skipper would be overjoyed–nanaimo bars are his favorite and rarest indulgence.  And I wasn’t going to pack ALL of them; that was the best part.  These babies could be easily frozen, and then we could take them out and savour them occasionally for weeks to come.

Over the weekend, then, we licked the chocolate-coconut crumbs from our fingers each night (and afternoon) and rolled our tongues around the slightly oily “cream” filling as we tried to eat the squares in as few bites as possible, before the heat from our hands melted the chocolate coating.  And I contemplated the paradox of the nanaimo bar.

I realized, of course, that what we were eating was an almost completely non-food product.  And most of our time is spent trying to eat nothing but real, whole food.  I wondered out loud to the Skipper, “do you think we could make a real food version of the nanaimo bar?  You know, with butter, real chocolate, etc?”

But as soon as I posed the question, I realized its futility.  You see, most of the time, the industrial food that we talk about is based on some kind of traditional dish.  Frozen pizza, chicken burgers, canned spaghetti, deli meats, string cheese….you know what I’m talking about.  Children don’t know these can be–were once always–produced from scratch in the home kitchen for hundreds of years, and most modern tastebuds don’t even recognize the original flavours.

But the nanaimo bar is a different beast.  This was a square invented by a housewife in the 1950s, and it owes its existence to the unique baking/non-baking, melting/non-melting properties of margarine.  It would cost a fortune to make these puppies from quality, organic ingredients, and the Skipper and I agreed, they wouldn’t taste at all the same.  This is not a treat of the real, it’s an industrial indulgence and should be appreciated for exactly what it is.

I recently shared my philosophy about such things in a comment on the inspiring Seattle-based blog, Sustainable Eats.  Annette was lamenting the busy start to the school year and the food shortcuts that become necessary sometimes when life gets crazy.  I could relate, but I realized that I had become far more relaxed about these moments in the last few years.  I have come to believe in an 80/20 principle.  I believe that it matters what we do MOST of the time, not what we do ALL of the time.  I think that when we first awaken to the seriousness of the crises that confront us we often head straight into panic.  We want to change everything in our lives so as not to contribute a moment longer to the troubles of the world.  But I know for me this quickly turned into a longing for purity, an attempt to create a life completely apart from the everyday evils.

In my experience, that attitude leads quickly to two things: burn out and a sense of doom.  Because it’s not possible, in any way, to escape the world as it is today.  There is no such thing as purity.  Scientists have found toxic chemicals that are only produced in one region in China deep in the most pristine Arctic permafrost ice.  Those few remaining indigenous communities in the world trying to stay true to a traditional way of life do so with the full knowledge of the alternative that is knocking at their doors.  We’re all a part of this world and all of its industrialized craziness whether we like it or not.  And if we try to escape, if we search for purity, depression, anger, and bitterness seem to be the inevitable result.

So what do I do, then?  I do the best I can, and I enjoy–with JOY being the key word–the changes I can make in those areas that are in my control.  Like growing my veggies and fruit, supporting those who are trying to produce food in sustainable ways, and campaigning actively for changes to the larger system.  But I also pay tribute from time to time to the realities and pleasure of the industrial system.  It’s evil, but it has its perks.  The way the world is going, these perks are likely to be fleeting, and they deserve, in my opinion, some appreciation for their cultural time and place.  It’s entirely possible that our grandchildren won’t ever taste a Twinkie or be able to understand what margarine is/was.

So whatever your favorite industrial indulgence, enjoy it.  Not often, and with the full recognition that you are working to eliminate it, but enjoy it–without guilt and in solidarity with your cultural community.

And then go back to what you do 80% of the time.  Which for us is eating food as real as real can be.  Like this!

Crab! Hauled by hand off our sailboat 1 km from home using the bones and scraps from our salmon filetting. Ultimate sustainability!

PS: Apparently everything I’ve just written about Nanaimo bars is a lie.  According to the City of Nanaimo website, the best recipe is made from butter, sugar, cocoa, nuts, eggs, etc. and the most industrial ingredient is Graham crumbs.  I must say those aren’t the ingredients on the label in front of me!  But we may have to test my theory and try the recipe… 🙂


3 thoughts on “The Paradox of the Nanaimo Bar

  1. I totally agree that our sustainability efforts must be sustainable, meaning that if we become so extreme in our practices that we drive ourselves crazy, we won’t be able to keep them up for the long-term, which defeats the whole purpose.

    My industrial indulgence is chocolate chips. Mmmmmm.

  2. I’m glad you looked up the recipe because as I was reading this, I was thinking “I’ve totally made these from scratch and they really do taste better than superstore’s imitation.” Real butter, real cocoa, it can be done.

    But yes wanting purity, wanting all our food to be without question is idealistic and would be wonderful but in our world of plastics and chemicals, it isn’t possible. It’s just so frustrating when you go to the grocery store, you pick out veggies as a healthy food and know that deep down they aren’t that healthy, the way they are grown and sprayed. It really is discouraging.

    During this time in my life, my industrial pleasure is chocolate covered digestive cookies. Yup, gets me through the night!

  3. Mmmmm…chocolate…A theme for all of us? 🙂 Amanda, Hobnobs are one of my favorite indulgences too–takes me immediately back to life in Britain. Lovely. And I’m so glad to hear that the recipe is worth a try!

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