A historical photo from above of a downtown street in Nanaimo in the 1890s.

Photo Credit: Nanaimo Museum A1-32

What’s In A Name? Nanaimo

Or, the city that made a dessert

The dessert that made a city

Nanaimo’s founders carried on the colonialist habit of smoothing out Indigenous names they couldn’t pronounce.

In the mid-1800s, a settlement sprouted up on Snuneymuxw territory around a Hudson Bay Company trading post. They called it Colvilletown. But that name didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It didn’t stick.

Soon after, the town was renamed Nanaimo. The name came from the Coast Salish word “Sne-ny-mo,” which means “big, strong tribe” or “a mighty people.” Sne-ny-mo became Nanaimo.

The trading post was trying to corner the market of the lucrative fur trade on VanIsle, but the discovery of coal nearby put fur trading on the back burner and Nanaimo on the map.

A century later, something else caught the world’s attention: a sticky and sweet treat called the Nanaimo bar.

You simply can’t talk about Nanaimo without mentioning Nanaimo bars. It’s probably Harbour City’s most famous gift to the world.

Many people have debated the origins of this wildly sweet dessert. Many enquiring minds have tried to unravel the mystery.

What is a Nanaimo bar, exactly? It has three layers—a base made of graham crackers, shredded coconut, finely-chopped walnuts, a creamy custard middle, and a chocolate topping.

The first known recipe appeared in the 1952 edition of the Women’s Auxiliary Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook. But that recipe was called a “chocolate square.”

Vancouver Island University’s Blue Thunder, Nanaimo Barney, and Waverly the Wave mascots dance in a parking lot on a sunny day.
Vancouver Island University’s Blue Thunder, Nanaimo Barney, and Nanaimo Parks and Rec‘s Waverly the Wave mascots dance in a parking lot on a sunny day.
Credit: Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture community media guide.


But was the recipe actually stolen?

Some believe it was “borrowed” from one published earlier in the Vancouver Sun.

Over the years, people have referred to the bars as a New York slice, a London fog bar, and a prayer bar.

But Nanaimo saw something tasty in the bar’s promotional potential. So the city enthusiastically claimed the Nanaimo bar brand. During Expo 86 in Vancouver, Nanaimo held a recipe contest and introduced a mascot named Nanaimo Barney. Because it was the 1980s, and why not?

The Women’s Auxiliary Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook is now a kind of holy book for Nanaimo bar lovers.

This good book of good eats now sits on display in a glass case at the Nanaimo Museum.