On July 9th, Toronto Mayor John Tory stood on a stage facing a small crowd of food festival-goers. At his side, an assistant held a museum-like bell jar displaying a flour-dusted white bun stuffed with slices of lean and salty pork and a ruffle of lettuce. A tiny Canadian flag on a toothpick pierced the pillowy bun’s top. Lifting off the glass top with a flourish, Mayor Tory unveiled the sandwich and officially announced it the as Toronto’s official signature dish. “It’s very Canadian,” said Mayor Tory, continuing in the polite honesty stereotypical of the nation, “[it’s] not necessarily absolutely everybody’s taste but something that’s very Toronto.” After a week-long public online vote, the peameal bacon sandwich had beat out a curious list of contenders—the Jamaican patty, street hot dog and burrito—and was crowned the winner.
The story of how the peameal bacon sandwich became so iconically Torontonian dates back centuries. One of the forefathers of pork processing was William Davies, who in 1854 founded The William Davies Company in Toronto “for the purpose of exporting Hams and Bacon to England.” By 1907, Ontario farms bred 75 to 85 percent of the country’s hog stock. Farms would send their pigs to packing houses in Toronto for processing, making the city a hub for pork processing and earning it the nickname Hogtown, which is still used today.
In order to compete with fresher cuts of bacon from Ireland and Denmark, bacon from Toronto was cured to survive the longer shipping journey. The story goes that Davies salted lean cuts of pork loin and, for a preservative effect, rolled them in dried, crushed yellow peas—the same peas fed to his pigs—giving the iconic cuts of meat the name peameal bacon.
Today, cornmeal is used in place of crushed peas but the salty slices are still known and loved as peameal bacon. It’s a popular breakfast staple appearing on brunch menus across the city, whether as part of a classic breakfast or in place of Canadian bacon (which is actually an American creation that has more in common with deli ham than traditional bacon) in eggs Benedict.
However, unlike other signature city foods like Chicago’s deep dish pizza or Philadelphia’s cheesesteak sandwich, Toronto isn’t rife with peameal bacon sandwiches. You’re unlikely to spot a Torontonian walking down the street eating one or to find the sandwich on the menu of your average breakfast joint. “If you go outside the downtown core, a lot of people will probably not ever have had a peameal sandwich in their lifetime,” says Toronto Star food writer Karon Liu, who has been writing about food in the city for nine years.
For Torontonians that are familiar with the peameal bacon sandwich, if you ask them where to grab one, the location that typically comes to mind is St. Lawrence Market, a sprawling indoor food fair that’s been around longer than The William Davies Company. One stall in the market—Carousel Bakery—has been touting the peameal bacon sandwich as Toronto’s signature food long before Mayor Tory’s official announcement this summer. Carousel’s sandwich might be the city’s most famous, but it’s the simplest option—a pre-made, foil-wrapped sandwich with an inch-thick stack of peameal bacon slices in a white bun. It’s a satisfying hit of meat and carbs but could sing so much more with thoughtful additions, which modern Toronto eateries are experimenting with. At The P&L Burger, they top their ‘Castor’ peameal bacon sandwich with cheddar cheese, onions, lettuce and barbecue sauce while the Hogtown Sandwich from Rashers is dressed up with a simple smear of grainy ale mustard.
But, like John Tory said, the peameal bacon sandwich isn’t for everybody. There’s still a significant chunk of the city that’s being excluded by naming a non-Halal, non-Kosher, and non-vegetarian/vegan friendly item as its signature dish. “In my near decade of living in TO I have never had one and probably never will, as a Jewish vegetarian,” wrote Rachel Lissner in a Facebook comment discussing the sandwich’s recent crowning in a group she admins—the Young Urbanists League.
It isn’t easy to pick a wholly representative food for a place that has half of its population born outside of Canada. “I don’t even know if there is one dish that can encapsulate a city like Toronto because it’s so diverse,” says Toronto Star’s Liu, who argues that West Indian rotis or bowls of Vietnamese pho might be the ‘iconic dish’ to a certain neighborhood or demographic.
Toronto is a city that prides itself on its multicultural community with the palate to match. Within this landscape of global offerings, the peameal bacon sandwich stands as a relic of the past—a nod to Toronto’s legacy as Hogtown. So, enjoy our peameal bacon sandwiches. But we hope that you won’t stop there. “Don’t limit yourself to this one sandwich,” says Liu. “There are so many different things that Toronto has to offer.”