This is the fourth instalment in a weekly TVO.org summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
There’s a shared passion that unites Thunder Bay residents — one so strong that those who move away often find they can’t live without it. People who’ve never tried one have no idea how much devotion can be inspired by a genuine Thunder Bay Persian.
It doesn’t sound remarkable at first: it’s basically a sweet bun with pink icing. But Thunder Bay expats tend to miss them so much they’ll import them to their new home, whatever the shipping cost.
“People call on at least a daily basis. It’s ridiculous with the price, but some people always do it,” says Danny Nucci, who co-owns Bennett’s Bakery — the treat’s originator — with his two brothers, Sandy and Joe.
“It’s similar to a cinnamon bun, but a lot richer. There’s eggs in it,” he says. “The dough is sheeted, and then cinnamon is placed on the sheet of dough, and then you roll it and it gets cut into pieces.” But it’s the icing that makes all the difference. “The pink colour is mainly from the jam,” Nucci explains. “I do not add any colouring whatsoever.”
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There is great speculation about the fruit content, however. Does that tempting pink come from raspberries or strawberries? “I’m not answering that question,” says Nucci, who also refuses to divulge whether there are any other flavouring agents in the mix.
Bennett’s Bakery sells most of their stock through their own coffee shop, The Persian Man. You can also find authentic Bennett’s-brand Persians in four-packs at the supermarket. The total output is impressive: “It varies from week to week, month to month, year to year,” Nucci says, though he estimates the average is “at least 100 dozen-plus a day, easy.”
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The Nucci family didn’t invent the Persian, though; rather it was Art Bennett, founder of Bennett’s Bakery, who first created the pastry in the mid-1940s. The bakery “used to be called Art Bennett’s,” Nucci explains. “My father, along with his two cousins, purchased it from his wife in 1962.”
So where does the name “Persian” come from? It’s said that while baking one day, Bennett received a visit from none other than General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American forces on the Western Front during the First World War and mentor to the likes of Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Patton.
“General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing visited Art Bennett while he was making the dough. They were talking, and he ended up changing the name. The Nucci family inherited the recipe. It was in a locked box in a safe deep underground,” Nucci quips.
But the Persian didn’t attain its mythic status for some time after. “It was still a Thunder Bay treat, but at that time it wasn’t to the degree it is now,” Nucci says. Word of mouth has helped turn the Persian into an icon, so these days “people that drive through are told they have to have a Persian.”
Nucci says he doesn’t eat as many Persians as he used to, but he confesses to having a fondness for the toasted variety. “In the old days, a lot of our restaurants used to toast and butter them, take some icing from the top, flip it over and caramelize the icing,” he says. “When I used to go to high school, you could get a toasted Persian. If you’ve never had a Persian, you’ve gotta have a toasted one too.”
Photo courtesy of Sameer Vasta and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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