Nanaimo bars. Yum.
One of my favourite desserts is Nanaimo bars. The mix of chocolatey and coconutty goodness with creamy vanilla filling is irresistible to my tastebuds. Every Christmas, my mom sends me home with batch that my wife and I ration throughout January. For years, a key ingredient for the delectable yellow filling was Harry Horne’s Custard Powder.
Canadian Grocer, May 7, 1920.
Its advertising claims may be debatable, but it made mighty fine desserts. Besides custard powder, the brand (later reduced to Horne’s) lingered on for decades on products ranging from barbecue sauce to seafood sauce. Its last owner, Select Food Products, appears to have stopped making the custard powder the mid-2010s, but a sales sheet listed on its website indicated a Horne’s branded gravy was still available as of 2020.
While researching the early days of Loblaws last year, I found a section in the September 9, 1932 edition of Canadian Grocer highlighting the exhibits in the Pure Food Building at that year’s Canadian National Exhibition. Located on the same site as the current Food Building, it served as the focal point of the fair’s food displays and samples from 1922 to 1953.
The company with the most displays in this section? Harry Horne.
Canadian Grocer, July 3, 1914.
Flipping through back issues of Canadian Grocer, it appears Horne started as a food distributor. The location listed in this ad is, as of January 2020, a Gabby’s restaurant. Foster Clark’s custard powder is still available in Australia (what would an Aussie version of the Nanaimo bar be like?).
The Globe, May 8, 1926.
Some of Horne’s advertising reflected the prejudices and stereotypes of the day.
By 1932, the company had a storefront operation at 1297-1301 Queen Street West, a site currently occupied by the Parkdale library branch.
Other displays featured in this section included Borden, Kellogg’s, Kuntz Brewery, Libby’s, Lipton’s Tea, Ovaltine, Peek Frean, Procter and Gamble, Tea-Bisk, Welch’s Grape Juice, and Weston’s.
The Liberal (Richmond Hill), August 14, 1952.
Horne survived the accident, and passed away six years later.
Weston-York Times, September 27, 1973
A pair of Nanaimo bar recipes from a community cookbook section. Note varying amounts of custard powder used. The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a detailed history, placing the first published recipe in a 1952 Nanaimo hospital cookbook, but notes there are plenty of other claimants.
Toronto Star, September 24, 1978.
Harwood’s recipe for Nanaimo bars first appeared in the Star four years earlier, in a feature on ballerina diets. According to the February 20, 1974 article, Harwood’s dessert “established her culinary reputation in the ballet field.” By contrast, Veronica Tennant was known for “sole baked in white wine, then bathed in a cream sauce with green grapes and broiled until delicately golden.”