The Donair: Canada's Official Food?

In Book of Donair: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Halifax Street Food that Became Canada's Favourite Kebab, Lindsay Wickstrom explores the history of the donair, and the people who shaped this Halifax-born kebab into the iconic Canadian street food it has become. In this excerpt, she shares how a bitter rivalry between Halifax and Edmonton helped propel the donair to be declared the official food of Halifax.

Bonus: want to win a copy of Book of Donair? We've got it up for giveaway this week.

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“Edmonton is the true donair champion, the true mecca of donairs,” Omar Mouallem said, boldly concluding his presentation at Edmonton’s PechaKucha Night 2014. A PechaKucha is a storytelling art, originating in Japan, where 20 slides are presented with 20 seconds of commentary each. It’s an efficient, creative and personal way for people to share their work with the community.

Omar’s work was journalism. He went on to write an in-depth piece for the Walrus about the history of the donair in Alberta. That year he also wrote donair articles for Maclean’s and Swerve Magazine. In 2017, he wrote a piece for Canadian Geographic’s Canada 150 special issue, which officially made the donair one of CanGeo’s “150 icons of Canada.” A local paper had deemed Omar “Edmonton’s Fore-most Donair Scholar.”

It may surprise some Nova Scotians to learn that Albertans have been happily eating donairs since the early 1980s. They were introduced by migrant labourers from the East Coast, and have independently evolved, with their own unique style and attitude.

“There was no official attempt to make it Edmonton’s official dish,” Omar told me, via FaceTime.

“For the people who weren’t at that event and didn’t see the performance, I think they took it a little too literally. For the people live tweeting it, I think the satire, irony, cheekiness got lost in that, and a couple blogs started talking about it more sincerely than I intended.”

The next thing he knew, it was being discussed on CBC Edmonton’s morning show: “What is Edmonton’s official dish?” 

“So,” I followed up, “you are indirectly responsible for the donair becoming the official food of Halifax?”

He responded with a cheeky smirk and an evasive shrug.

“Your councillor got a little overprotective about this, but to see my work referenced in a civic document, it amuses me to no end. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t change the world!”

We both agreed that Edmonton’s true dish is the green onion cake. There has been an unsuccessful movement since 2013 to make it the city’s official dish.

 

The dish is more than just a regional sensation. Like the butter tart, it has its origins in a specific part of the country but it’s come to symbolize more than Ontario’s questionable and perverse love of raisins. Inside this mystery meat ... is Canada’s multicultural heart and soul.

Omar Mouallem

Omar’s PechaKucha presentation was in March of 2014, and by October of 2015, Halifax regional council voted 12-4 in favour of a staff report to consider the donair as a candidate for the official food. Coun. Linda Mosher said she was worried that Edmonton might lay claim to it.

“I’m not asking for a big report,” Mosher told her fellow councillors, according to a CBC story. “I don’t want this to be costly, but I think that this is unique to Halifax. It was invented here and it’s ours and they’re already calling it our official food.”

Coun. Bill Karsten argued: “Donairs have been served in Turkey and Syria and countries abroad for centuries. Different version, but a donair nonetheless.”

“If we don’t do this, won’t we all falafel?” Coun. Tim Outhit reportedly chimed in.

Mayor Mike Savage adjourned the discussion: “I don’t want to see any sauce on that report when it comes back.”

The staff report came back two months later. Its 43 pages cited articles from National Geographic, The Globe and Mail, tourism advertisements, a song by local rapper Classified, and even a quote from Anthony Bourdain, who had tried his first donair at the previous year’s Devour Food Film Festival. The report was inconclusive.

“In the absence of detailed staff analysis, including consideration of supporting processes to identify and evaluate other official foods or other official features, staff would not put forward a recommendation for a proclamation. It is at Council’s discretion to direct a proclamation by the Mayor.”

Coun. Waye Mason translated this for me as: “Do it if you want, folks, we ain’t touching it!”

“If Council wishes to proceed,” the report said, “a member of Council may move that Halifax Regional Council authorize and direct that the Mayor make a proclamation declaring the donair the official food of Halifax.”

And he did.

On December 8th, 2015, the donair was declared the official food of Halifax.

I asked Waye Mason about this, and he boiled it down to “silly season” at City Hall (it was almost exactly a year away from the 2016 election). “Folks start to bring forward feel-good motions, local issues, things that will get noticed.”

Mason had voted against the motion, citing better uses for tax dollars, but later tweeted that he had a donair for dinner that very night.

At a 2018 PechaKucha in Edmonton, Omar Mouallem addressed the rivalry he may have stirred up between Edmonton and Halifax donair claims:

“The dish is more than just a regional sensation. Like the butter tart, it has its origins in a specific part of the country but it’s come to symbolize more than Ontario’s questionable and perverse love of raisins. Inside this mystery meat ... is Canada’s multicultural heart and soul. To really appreciate the uniqueness of Canada’s great cuisine you must understand the rotating kebab’s history—how it evolved across the world’s continents before it took form as a spicy meat bomb wrapped up with a creamy sweet sauce in a tender pita.

“My fellow citizens, I’m afraid there are no number of donairs we can consume in this great city of ours to top the zealotry (of Halifax) so I concede it’s not our official food. No, it’s Canada’s.”

From Book of Donair, by Lindsay Wickstrom, 2020 MacIntyre Purcell Publishing. Appears with publisher's permission.

January 12, 2021
Books mentioned in this post
Book of Donair

Book of Donair

Everything you wanted to know about the Halifax street food that became Canada's favourite kebab
edition:Paperback
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