Our Tarts, Ourselves

Butter tarts are strangely modest in their excess, a two-dollar decadence. But like that Canadian myth of innocent blandness, a butter tart’s surface hides something much more complex.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The...

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The hall was perfumed with syrup and lard. There’s this manner people pick up after eating six or seven butter tarts, a wanly smiling listlessness. They move in trembles and jolts. My body felt like the sack crumpling around a bag of sugar. But degrading, delirious gluttony was what brought us all together. Midland, Ontario’s third annual butter tart festival had drawn nearly 20,000 people, more than the town’s entire population. I was watching celebrity judges work their way through the homemade category at a local cultural centre, or half-watching them, since competitive baking turns out to be light on spectacle. Volunteers brought leftover pastry chunks out to the audience, each sample amending the standard sugar, syrup, butter, and eggs to follow this year’s “freestyle” theme—we had citrus, raspberry coconut, tarts embellished with pumpkin or pecan, another combining chocolate and peanut like a sturdier Reese’s Cup. Midland’s lone drag queen did her rounds, caramelized by bronzer.

There was a debate about the propriety of eating one baker’s little Canadian flags. The artist Jillian Tamaki tried a cherry almond butter tart—very light, nicely browned crust—and called it “classy.” Like me, she was here because of the cartoonist (and Hazlitt contributor) Michael DeForge, who successfully pestered the festival into making him a judge via Twitter: “I am a New York Times bestselling author and the subject of at least one Wikipedia entry. In the time it took me to type out these responses, I ate two and a half butter tarts.” A squad of friends had traveled up from Toronto, including Michael’s publisher Annie Koyama and the other young cartoonists Ginette Lapalme and Patrick Kyle, and eating nothing but desserts left us unable to sit still for longer than three seconds. DeForge wandered over, official duties ended, and peeled the judging smock off his Prince T-shirt. “I feel like I just rubbed grease all over my body,” he said. The sugar coma was descending. “I think I soiled my apron the most.”

DeForge had been running 10 miles a day, but his main form of training was an exhaustive survey of local butter tarts. The @TartQuest Instagram account documented dozens of subtleties in pastry recipe, Michael’s black nail polish posed against golden filling. He captioned one photo: “That a bakery that already offers a perfectly fine regular butter tart would also sell this crumbly, crummy pecan variation reflects a sort of pathology, I think. Reviewed for completion’s sake.” Jillian Tamaki, DeForge’s partner in both food criticism and life, served as the unseen artistic director. Months later he was able to draw a map of Toronto’s tarts, complete with one sad little cartoon tooth. There was something perversely funny about treating desserts like work. Before leaving for Midland I mentioned this adventure to a mutual friend, who laughed that the whole project was “deeply fucking weird.”

You could say the same thing about butter tarts in general. Even that name is mystifying: The filling of a typical recipe contains far more sugar than butter. They share certain similarities with the francophone sugar pie, or those British desserts teeming with treacle, or an American pecan pie, minus the nuts and the extreme sweetness, but butter tarts have long been associated with rural Ontario—Jillian told me they were much scarcer in her native Calgary. Butter tarts sometimes get used as a signifier of “Canadian-ness” in the same lazy way as ancient CBC programs, where the truest Canadian is always Anglo—a habit Anupa Mistry recently called, on this website, “this basic binary of national identity: white, hockey-playing Tim Hortons guzzlers and an indistinguishable horde of immigrants.”

In a rapturous Guernica essay about chicken tenders, the Eater editor Helen Rosner called them a “perfect food,” and then went on: “Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland.” Butter tarts court blandness too, but they exist at the inverse of perfection, forever irking or disappointing somebody. How much crust is too much? Should the filling be richly clotted, as liquid as pooling caramel, or sit inside its shell like a demure pudding? Some call tarts without raisins false and schismatic, their obscure grievance akin to those Catholics convinced the papacy has actually been vacant since 1958. And sniping at each other about tiny arbitrary differences is still a popular Canadian sport.

Butter tarts seem oddly nebulous for a national dish, generic name and all. They lack the symbolic silhouette of a muffin or a donut; imagine bagels divorced from their communal lore. When I was growing up in Toronto, the local bakery had its birthday cakes shaped like football fields or candied ziggurats, and my own family would sometimes travel miles for the ideal croissant—that crisp crunch revealing warrens of dough—but we got butter tarts six to a pack at Loblaws. I can’t remember if they came with raisins or not. It didn’t matter. The flavour never changed.

The display of eating-as-identity has helped to circulate historic recipes that some Canadians never tried before, rewritten to modern tastes. At the anachronistic Toronto restaurant Boralia—one of this country’s rejected names, which also included Ursalia, Vesperia, Superior and Transatlantica—you can order bison “pemmican” bresaola, red fife bread, stuffed onions, or pigeon pie. Several years ago Arsenal Pulp Press published Andrew George’s cookbook A Feast for All Seasons: Traditional Native Peoples’ Cuisine, with moose rib soup and deep-fried bannock. And in many North American cities, poutine now congeals into a sponge for liquor at night’s end. Last autumn I went to Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon and had their foie gras version. The restaurant serves working-class Quebecois food at decadent extremes, from entire pigs’ heads to duck magret looking like the last island in a drowned world, but this mutation felt almost intuitive. Quivering atop warm fries, the liver, curds and gravy melted together into a lusciously quicksilver form.

As far as I knew, butter tarts still came in brittle six-packs from the supermarket, maybe a little bakery up near cottage country if you were lucky. There were no dessert menus promising “deconstructions” of them. You can buy poutine-inspired kimchi fries in Toronto, but you can’t find butter tarts filled with red bean paste or pulped plantains. So when I followed Michael and Jillian on a survey of my own before going to Midland, I was struck by the number of bakers tinkering with a very familiar snack. The butterscotch tart I brought home from Bakerbots, which collapsed upon leaving its box, was sweetly insipid, but several blocks away at Karelia Kitchen I got one crowned by a perfectly sugary top crust, the thick goo inside flavoured with rum and blackcurrant. In 2014, over 50,000 butter tarts had been sold at that festival. I had the feeling that it wasn’t simply nostalgia fuelling the demand.

*

Canada’s food history has always bent to a dialectical tension between scarcity and abundance. The first humans who lived in this land were hardly arrived before megafauna creatures, their primeval bulk heedless of spears, began to disappear with the glaciers. North America’s indigenous peoples learned how to hunt other animals, the hares and foxes and seals and caribou, but they also developed elaborate techniques of preservation, realizing that one bison carcass might need to last a long time. Traditionally a mixture of dried meat, grease, and berries, pemmican packed huge amounts of energy and nutrients into a chewy jerky; passed to Europeans through the Canadian fur trade, it remained vital on polar expeditions centuries later. (Chocolate was a more incongruous staple of that era, since it kept nearly as well and traveled the vast distances between trading posts lightly.) The fur voyageurs would gather at Fort William for frenzied banquets every July, drinking like they were already back in Montreal.

Elizabeth Simcoe was an artist and writer married to the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, as the British called it then. He gave the family name to Ontario’s Simcoe County; she left behind a diary. During 1793, this emissary from what would soon become the most domineering empire in the world cheerfully described the taste of porcupines, squirrels, and raccoons (like lamb with mint sauce, she wrote). Another entry suggests the settlers could find few alternatives: “At the close of the day they came on a Surveyor’s line & the next morning saw Lake Ontario. Its first appearance Col. Simcoe says was the most delightful sight at the time they were in danger of starving & about 3 miles from York [now Toronto] they breakfasted on the remaining Provisions. Had they remained in the woods another day it was feared Jack Sharp would have been sacrificed to their hunger. He is a very fine Newfoundland Dog who belonged to Mr. Shane.”

In its cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians, our government tried to uproot their tables as well; many treaties blocked access to traditional game and crops. A ruptured family has no recipes to pass down.

Between 1815 and 1855, one million people followed the Simcoes to British North America—often after reading travel accounts that exaggerated the colony’s riches and leisure. According to the recent anthology Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, once their rations ran out, many settlers subsisted on dishes similar to the local First Nations diet: “herbs, roots, bark and berries found in the woods,” soups, game and fish. Their European backgrounds became an ever more distant abstraction. Under the new national identity these colonizers created, blueberries or wild rice had always already sat there waiting for their hand, just like the continent itself. The Anishnaabeg and the Haudenosaunee first collected maple sap in birch bark containers to sweeten their food, and later used kettles to boil it down, but maple syrup is, invariably, merely “Canadian.”

In its cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians, our government tried to uproot their tables as well; many treaties blocked access to traditional game and crops. A ruptured family has no recipes to pass down. Long after she was taken from her parents and sent to a residential school, the Carrier leader Mary John recalled: “I was always hungry. I missed the roast moose, the fish fresh from a frying pan, the warm bread and bannock and berries. Oh how I missed the food I used to have in my own home. At school, it was porridge, porridge, porridge, and if it wasn’t that, it was boiled barley or beans, and thick slices of bread spread with lard. Weeks went by without a taste of meat or fish. Some things such as sugar or butter or jam only appeared on our tables on feast days and sometimes not even then.”

Meanwhile, as Canada’s cities grew in size and wealth, hotels and taverns competed to offer the most absurdly indiscriminate menu. In 1864, the British journalist George Tuthill Borrett described his breakfast at Montreal’s St. Lawrence Hall: “I found myself in about two minutes surrounded by a multitude of little oval dishes, on which were fish, steaks, chops, ham, chicken, turkey, rissoles, potatoes (boiled, roast and fried), cabbage, corn, cheese, onions and pickles, besides plates of hot rolls, buns, crumpets, toast and biscuits, flanked by a great jug full of milk and an enormous vessel of coffee … There was a Yankee next to us who ordered much the same as I had thus unintentionally been burdened with, and what was our astonishment to see him take six soft-boiled eggs, and breaking them on the edge of a tumbler, drop in successively their respective yolks, and then, after two or three whirls of his spoon in the glass, gobble them up as an ‘appetizer,’ with a gurgle of delight that was quite musical.”

If that sounds almost suspiciously generous, it bears mentioning that nobody seemed to like Canadian food too much. From 1886 to 1948, this was the only country in the world that banned margarine entirely, an insecure attempt to guard its own pitiful dairy industry. During the 1870s, common butter from Quebec and Ontario sold for much less than American, French, or Irish varieties. In his historical study A Propensity to Protect—definitely the most entertaining book about Victorian dairy policy—W. H. Heick writes that, aside from the best Eastern Townships product, Canadian butter “was considered in Britain as useless for anything other than greasing axles or shearing sheep,” the complaints including dubious cleanliness, “a lack of uniformity in colour, taste, texture, size and shape of package,” and our use of coarse local salt rather than fine English stuff. The Conservative MP Darbey Bergin, who called margarine a “highly purified kind of soap,” warned the nation: “This compound of pork, of diseased animals, is also made from the various fats that are picked from kitchens and gutters and the vilest purlieus of the different cities.”

Butter tarts are strangely modest in their excess, a two-dollar decadence. They don’t have frescoes of icing, or decorative cherries, or a macaron’s need to be fussed over and indulged. They wouldn’t want to make a spectacle of themselves. Like that Canadian myth of innocent blandness, a butter tart’s surface hides something much more complex.

The earliest extant butter tart recipe was published in 1900 by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital, attributed to Mary MacLeod of Barrie, then as now the largest city in Simcoe County. Implying that the crust will always be secondary, it was simply called “Filling for Tarts.” She made sure to mention raisins, but MacLeod didn’t specify the type of sweetener—few people could afford sacks of cane sugar in the 19th century, when all those proto-tarts were baked, so most cooks used maple sugar instead. You still see it on recipes today, as nostalgic homage. Our national dessert: A confection of Canada’s famously shitty butter and the sugar we owe to people Europeans evicted. Butter tarts are strangely modest in their excess, a two-dollar decadence. They don’t have frescoes of icing, or decorative cherries, or a macaron’s need to be fussed over and indulged. They wouldn’t want to make a spectacle of themselves. Like that Canadian myth of innocent blandness, a butter tart’s surface hides something much more complex.

*

The day before Midland’s Best Butter Tart Festival, I got on a bus to Barrie so I could wait around for a second bus. I was underdressed for that morning’s thick, slimy rain, beneath which the horizon seemed to dissipate into a distant void. What could I eat that would be the opposite of a butter tart? I walked through the Barrie bus terminal and the Smoke-n-Ticket, across desolate intersections, past the Ranch, “Canada’s largest country bar,” with the architecture of a military base that stockpiles whiskey instead of ammo. “Fuck yeah, Tim Hortons!” someone said while he waited for coffee. “I’ve been in jail too long.” Returning to the bus stop with my plastic ramekin of chili, I boarded our ride to Midland just as Nickelback came on the radio. It felt … comforting?

The rain was still coming down when we arrived. I didn’t call a cab, wanting to get a sense of the place. Midland is a landmark of Catholicism in Ontario—there’s a church consecrated to the memory of 17th-century martyrs, and a reconstructed Jesuit mission—but it reminded me of some British seaside towns I’ve wandered through, with those hushed tea shops and one long lane blurring from street to road to highway, from the high street to the outskirts, each sidewalk falling away like scales. I followed it there, passing a Christian bookstore, the Georgian Bay Native Women’s Association, the inevitable Pizza Pizza, and a Chinese restaurant named Double Happiness. Staying at Midland’s second-cheapest motel, I discovered, would save me $40 for butter tarts in the morning. A group of bikers had just rode in, but they did have one smoking room left. Too bad for the convenience store next door that I was already committed to this weekend’s bad decisions.

Jillian and DeForge picked me up a few hours later; one of the other Torontonians had invited people over to their family’s cottage. We went past a cemetery with teens performing some candlelit ritual. The sky was now nothing more than a desaturated smudge. Night makes the twee Englishness of rural Ontario feel eerie and atavistic, as if every scattered noise might be a whistling ceremonial sickle. Driving over those dark backroads, we could only see a few feet in front of us, far enough to discern the occasional dead rabbit. Jillian and I simultaneously blurted out: “This is just like Lost Highway.” No one was inside when we arrived. The cottage had a cache of old VHS tapes, and somebody decided that it would be much funnier to just watch the trailers and then eject them. Robert Blake’s face flickered into view, modeling history’s creepiest makeup tutorial: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” It was Lost Highway.

Nothing so unnerving happened at the festival itself, unless you count that person offering their “butter tart pizza,” a massive quasi-tart with a wilting crust made from pizza dough. There was also a deep-fried variation, and a natural-cosmetics shop selling butter-tart-flavoured exfoliant and body polish. Its owner, Kathy Kowalsky, who had been experimenting with combinations of brown sugar and cocoa butter, told me: “Five years ago I opened up an organic spa in Midland, and it showed me that, oh, okay, I’m not just the tree-hugging weirdo, people actually like this stuff.” They liked the more traditional recipes, too: Doo Doo’s Bakery from Bailieboro, the champion of last year’s “professional” category, sold out of 200 dozen tarts in 90 minutes. Everyone nearby seemed to be fulfilling some idle pastry fantasy. St. Mark’s Anglican Church advertised their contribution as “The Blessed Butter Tart in Town.” It was nicely caramelized on top, with big juicy raisins, but so runny and unruly that eating one felt like opening a reliquary of molasses—even at a bake sale, the devil finds work.

I preferred the delicately balanced tart from Grandma’s Beach Treats in Wasaga, with a butterscotch chip rising to its surface. By this point, having eaten something like 4000 calories in butter and sugar, I was just staggering around looking at the tangential distractions of any larger festival. A Ugandan children’s choir performed at one end of the street; the other held a steampunk boutique. Goths craned forlornly away from the sun. We drifted inside an antiques shop called the Crow’s Nest, Midland’s leading retailer for the kind of doll that will murder you in a horror movie. They hung down from the ceiling, limbs rigid, staring at us. Someone said they saw a bat in there once. When Patrick Kyle and Ginette Lapalme disappeared, nobody noticed at first. I began to picture a futile search, the skeptical official queries, and then, weeks later, the two new dolls on sale at the Crow’s Nest, mysteriously and vividly resembling a pair of twentysomething Toronto cartoonists.

Toronto crew only managed to reunite right before the home baker competition, and our sugar-induced madness was slackening into a sluggish tart dependency. The announcer introduced DeForge’s many fellow judges, including a two-time Juno Awards nominee, the Toronto Star’s food editor, and Captain Ed Conroy of the S.S. Keewatin, the world’s last surviving Edwardian steamship, now a floating museum in neighbouring Port McNicoll. He walked onstage wearing full naval uniform and saluted. We limply reached out for their leftover tarts. One used Canadian ice wine; another was based on black forest cake. The “freestyle” theme seemingly made each baker try to create the least traditional recipe imaginable. (“Some of those entries really perfectly incorporated some odd and surprising flavours into their filling,” Michael later emailed me, “but some of the tarts that ranked very highly amongst the other judges just felt like pastries that happened to look like butter tarts.”) When we were passed a tart with peanut butter, banana, and bacon, somebody said “I can’t do this.” It ended up winning the whole category.

I couldn’t talk to the triumphant baker Hisako Niimi at that moment, because another judge started leading the room in a butter-tarts-themed rendition of “Sweet Caroline,” but I eventually got a chance to ask her about herself. She wrote back: “When I withdrew from the joint management of [her Ottawa bakery] in March, six years had already passed since I arrived to Canada. I lost the store and I lost the boyfriend with whom I had a long-term relationship … At the same time, I found by chance the website for the Best Butter Tarts Festival in Midland. I thought I should challenge this contest! One of my flavors was Elvis Presley’s favorite combination: peanut butter banana bacon. I thought natural sweetness from banana, strong peanut butter flavor and salted crispy bacon would make a nice taste and crunchy texture that would suit butter tarts. I also wanted to make this flavor successful for Elvis Presley’s honor.” Niimi added: “Unfortunately, I have never had any family recipe for butter tarts. So I decided to create butter tarts to my taste instead of going the traditional way.”

The next morning, I rode back to Toronto with Michael, Jillian, Patrick, and Ginette. We listened to Bjork the whole way down: It takes courage to enjoy it / The hardcore and the gentle. Changing lanes, Jillian turned to Michael and joked: “Are you done appropriating white culture now?” When we reached the city again, she handed me a single Timbit with the manner of someone giving methadone to a heroin addict. The thing was, I really couldn’t stop eating butter tarts. I went searching at the perplexingly expensive Pusateri’s grocery store a few days later. They carry this Bakerberry tart marbled black and white, Belgian chocolate infusing the cakey pastry, like a gourmet Crème Egg. I got a block away from the store before tearing apart its little paper box. The filling was overwhelming, a sumptuous richness turning bitter at the edges. I thought it might linger on my lips forever.

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