This is the first instalment in a weekly TVO.org summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
The story behind Ottawa’s signature food, the addictively rich flaps of fried dough known as BeaverTails, is especially fitting for the capital of a country known for its multiculturalism.
The snack comes from a family recipe handed down to entrepreneurs Grant and Pamela Hooker. The husband-and-wife team used it to start a modest business in the late 1970s after they’d moved to the countryside near Killaloe in eastern Ontario. When the burgeoning community of artisans in the district started a successful local craft and music fair, “We thought people needed something to eat,” Pamela says. “We thought we were doing it for the festival.”
But after a summer touring country fairs, the Hookers realized they were onto something big. “We went to — I think it was Bobcaygeon — and one guy came back five times,” Pamela recalls. “Lots of people came back second times and thirds, but this guy was really hooked. I thought, ‘This is going to be okay.’”
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The couple decided to open a retail outlet in Ottawa’s Byward Market, hoping to make “enough money to put windows in our log cabin,” Pamela says. They had no idea they’d one day have more than 100 outlets across Canada, plus international locations as far-flung as Japan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.
These days, BeaverTails are available with a huge variety of toppings — one eminently Instagrammable version comes with chocolate-hazelnut spread, Reese’s Pieces, and a peanut butter drizzle. But in the early days, there were just four variations: cinnamon sugar, the “Killaloe Sunrise” (cinnamon-sugar and lemon, a favourite of Pierre Trudeau), raspberry jam, and honey. These were the toppings suggested in the original recipe, which Grant inherited from his grandmother, a Bessarabian-German woman whose family immigrated from Romania around 1913.
The Hooker family knew the treats as keukla, but a Hungarian friend of the family noted they were akin to lángos, a baked treat most often served with savoury toppings like garlic and cheese; the similar Romanian langosi cu branza, is stuffed with feta. It’s a diverse pedigree for a distinctly Canadian treat.
The BeaverTail breakthrough came with the creation of Winterlude, a celebration of the season that takes place every year in the National Capital Region. That’s where the Hookers first met Rhéal Leroux, then chief of events for the National Capital Commission. During the first year of the festival in 1979, the Hookers ran a single booth on Dow’s Lake, beyond Winterlude’s more heavily trafficked areas, since food and beverage services that year had been licensed to another company.
“But the next year his tour was up, so we said, ‘Let’s see if we can get the contract to do it,’” Pamela recalls. “That was when we met Rhéal. He was visionary, the way he took on Winterlude, and he is the one who got us in. We were there because he believed in us.”
That was when the recipe was rechristened the BeaverTail, to give it a more Canadian feel. Pamela no longer remembers who came up with the name, but she says it was the clear winner, and soon the couple built four “Beavermobiles” from which to sell the treats at Winterlude. “They were all named: John, Paul, Ringo, and George,” she says. “That was the leap, because we introduced it to thousands of people.”
Today, “The signs that say ‘Welcome to Killaloe’ also say ‘Birthplace of BeaverTails,’” Pamela says with pride. “From the very beginning, fun is what the food is, fun is what the culture is, and fun is what it’s been.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.