I’m not a purist with much. I’m not a purist with food. Generally speaking, the more wacky culinary combinations you come up with, the happier I am. Cucumber basil lime sorbet? Yes, please! Pineapple black bean enchiladas? Delicious. I have my limits. I’m willing to try bacon in my ice cream, but not oysters. But generally, I’m very flexible.
But I think we all probably have some dish that you just can’t mess with. Back in college I once made something with red potatoes, I couldn’t even tell you what it was anymore, but I remember Cammy thinking it was a crime against nature. Her comment on trying my dish was something along the lines of, “It’s good. But this is not what you’re supposed to do with red potatoes.” For me a big one is the use of whole wheat tortillas in enchiladas. Or brown rice or whole wheat pasta in dishes that normally call for their whiter counterparts. It’s one thing if you make a whole new dish and throw some whole wheat spaghetti in there. But don’t just throw marinara on there and expect me to not taste the difference. Then there’s my mother’s tendency to add salsa in dishes where it doesn’t belong. Like lasagna. It’s just not right.
Well I discovered a couple weeks ago, that Canadians have a recipe you don’t mess with: Nanaimo Bars.
If you haven’t tried Nanaimo Bars before, let me recommend that you go out and try them right now. There’s an official recipe online, go try it. We’ll wait. They are that good; you don’t want to miss them. I love Nanaimo Bars, but, of course, being an American, I didn’t grow up with them. I didn’t discover them until I was in my late twenties. (I first heard about them on a soap opera message board of all places. Incidentally, new rule: anyone who makes fun of my soap obsession cannot eat my Nanaimo Bars!) But it seems for Canadians (and I have a whopping sample size of two) they have a special place in their memories.
The first time I made them after coming to Indiana my friend S. walked into a party and gasped, “Who made Nanaimo Bars and can I hug them?” She practically got misty over them talking about how they were just like the ones her grandmother used to make (her grandmother is from Nanaimo). I felt all warm and fuzzy at helping her revisit nostalgic memories.
What I didn’t know, because no one told this hapless American, is that you really shouldn’t play around with that recipe. And here’s the thing: the interwebs are full of all sorts of different flavored Nanaimo Bar recipes. My Newfie friend sent me a bunch of variations (all folklorists have at least one Newfie friend—Newfies actually care about folklore) from a bakery someone in her family used to own. So when my friend D threw a tacky party I decided to make Cherry Nanaimo Bars. They use maraschino cherries, which, let’s face it, are inherently a little tacky, and the middle layer of the bars turns an almost neon pink color, so they look extra tacky. Also, they are delicious.
Except the reactions from my Canadian friends, S and K were much like Cammy’s response to my red potatoes. “They’re good, but this is not how you’re supposed to make Nanaimo Bars.” Now I don’t think either was that offended; both ate several. K’s favorite part is the bottom later, the recipe for which was unchanged. But you could just tell from their faces they were thinking, “Why would you do that to a Nanaimo Bar?” K informs me that mint ones have become common enough to be acceptable. But neither had seen cherry ones before and… let’s just say no one asked to hug me for making them.
Clearly in our culinary experimentations, we need to be careful not to tamper with other people’s childhood memories. No matter how well we do it, they will not thank us.