This is the second instalment in a weekly TVO.org summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
Last July, Toronto mayor John Tory officially declared the peameal bacon sandwich the city’s signature dish. In a public vote, the beloved bunful of porky perfection beat out street meat, Jamaican patties, and burritos for the honour.
Toronto historically was so well known for its pork products that it earned the nickname “Hogtown,” largely owing to the international success of local purveyor William Davies. Shortly after his arrival from England in 1854, Davies founded an export business that by the end of the century had become “the largest pork-packing enterprise in the British Empire,” according to Allan Levine in his book Toronto: Biography of a City.
American chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain on a 2012 visit to the city said Toronto should’ve kept the nickname as a badge of culinary excellence: "I want to go to Hogtown. A magical place, for magical animals, where a pig is always turning slowly, slowly on a spit somewhere close, and the scent of bacon lingers like wildflowers in the air.” And not just any bacon, one assumes, but that distinctly Canadian delight, peameal bacon.
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So how did Toronto come to be associated with the sliced, fried end of a cured pork loin? The practice of brining meat to preserve it goes back a long way: by the late 1700s, pork was routinely cured in an immersion of salt, potassium nitrate, and molasses. But in The Female Emigrant’s Guide (first published in 1854), U.K.-born author and pioneer Catharine Parr Traill says this mixture won’t ward off “a small dusky beetle” that lays its eggs in the meat; instead she recommends a coating of bran, sawdust, wood ashes, or oats.
Yet another option — a layer of ground dried peas — gave peameal bacon its name. Legend credits Davies as the first to substitute cornmeal, which still today gives peameal bacon its distinctive crunchy exterior. But it was Carousel Bakery at the St. Lawrence Market that popularized the sandwich locals and tourists alike go hog-wild for.
When Carousel started dishing up its now-famous nosh, says co-owner Robert Biancolin, “we were the only ones doing it. Originally my father was in the butcher business; he used to cure his own peameal. When he noticed customers passing over the butt end of the loin in favour of the centre cut, Biancolin explains, “he started to slice it up and fry it.”
In the early days, Carousel served their sandwiches on Kaiser buns, but when their usual supply was briefly interrupted, they substituted a Portuguese country bun. “People liked it so much that that’s what we stuck with,” Biancolin says. “It has the right body: it’s not too light, it’s not too heavy, so it complements the whole experience when you chew on the meat and the bread together.”
According to Biancolin, the pure bread-and-meat experience needs no addition. While Carousel provides a choice of condiments (including St. Lawrence Market’s renowned Kozlik’s mustard), he says, “I always say to try it without anything else, and then try experimenting.”
In honour of Canada 150, Quebec chef Ricardo Larrivée has spearheaded a video project called “We Are the Best” that salutes iconic Canadian foods; Carousel's peameal bacon sandwich is one of the few prepared foods to have made the cut.
After all, Biancolin says, “Peameal is to Toronto as Philly steak is to Philadelphia, or Montreal’s smoked meat. It’s that kind of relationship that the sandwich has to the city.”
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.