Meet the Smithsonian astronomer who has a donair website

Like many Nova Scotia expats, Glen Petitpas found himself craving a donair.

Luckily for him, his sister had a recipe from a Halifax donair shop, so he took matters into his own hands and started making the much-loved local dish of spiced meat on a pita, sweet white sauce, tomatoes and onions.

It was the mid-1990s and the Timberlea, N.S., native was working on his master’s degree in astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton. Fed up with misplacing his copy of the recipe, he started a website and posted the recipe, which meant his other expat friends could easily access it.

“It’s funny, I didn’t really like donairs when I lived in Halifax,” said Petitpas, 47. “I thought they were a little bit too strong. But for some reason, the nostalgia started when going to visit home after I first moved away and tried one. They grew on me and then it was a lot of nostalgia and true love for the flavour after awhile.”

Nearly 25 years on, through different iterations, the website continues to live on.

Petitpas, who has a PhD in astronomy, now lives in the Boston area and works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which operates a telescope in Hawaii. He even includes a link to his donair site on his Harvard web page.

The much-hyped donair was named as Halifax’s official food in 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

In the early days of launching the website, which Petitpas pegs as being around 1996 or 1997, he said he’d get emails from people about once a month thanking him for posting a recipe.

Thanks to an increase in donair recipes online, he only gets emails about twice a year now. He said the email from the most distant Nova Scotia expat came from Singapore.

Besides a recipe for donair meat, the site has two sauce recipes, as well as advice on how to handle donair offshoots like donair pizza, donair subs and garlic fingers.

Petitpas doesn’t make donairs often these days because he visits home regularly.

A rotating spit of beef is seen at a King Of Donair restaurant in Halifax in 2017. A traditional donair is made with spiced meat on a pita, a white sauce, tomatoes and onions. Purists disagree as to whether it’s acceptable to add cheese. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“Every time I go home, I kind of binge on them and then really don’t feel like eating them again for a few months after three or four days straight of having donairs for lunch or dinner,” he said.

He thinks one of the reasons he didn’t like donairs when he was younger was because many people put onions on them, which grossed him out. The combination of a sweet sauce with a spicy meat was also “very jarring” initially.

These days, he’s a meat, sauce and tomatoes kind of guy.

Donairs were declared Halifax’s official food in 2015.

Petitpas, who is married and has a six-year-old son, said the donair love doesn’t appear to have been passed on to the second generation.

“He liked them, but he’s not really excited,” he said. “When I mentioned making them another time, he was like, ‘Maybe, sure, whatever.’ He was less enthusiastic.”

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