Donair-y tale? This foodie is writing the book on Halifax’s official grub

Love it or hate it: if you live in Nova Scotia, chances are you’ve had an experience with a donair.

Lindsay Wickstrom, a self-proclaimed “food nerd” and blogger, says she’s noticed over the years that “everybody seems to have a donair story.”

“At some point in your life, a donair changes the course of events of your night, or your life,” said Wickstrom. “It could be hilarious, or disgusting, or whatever the case may be.”

Wickstrom, who’s already done extensive donair research for her food blog Eat This Town, is now working on a book about the history and cultural significance of Halifax’s official food.

She said she’s speaking with donair shops across the country, along with people involved in the donair’s early history to get a better sense of how exactly the food item came to be and what led to its mythological Maritime status.

“I’m … really trying to paint a picture here of something that I think is becoming Canada’s food, not just Nova Scotia food,” said Wickstrom, who lives in Halifax.

Wickstrom says ‘everybody seems to have a donair story.’ (Submitted by Lindsay Wickstrom)

 

The curious combination of spiced meat on a pita, white sauce, tomatoes and onions is often thought of as a Haligonian dish. But it has made its way across the country, especially in Alberta, where many Nova Scotians ended up during the oil boom.

“And then there’s the oil bust, and a lot of people that didn’t make it in oil ended up opening restaurants,” said Wickstrom. “Or they opened up restaurants when they saw an opportunity to cater to the East Coast population that was out there.”

Wickstrom doesn’t want to give too much away about her book, but she said it will trace the history of the donair from its roots in the Ottoman Empire’s doner kebab to the opening of Halifax’s King of Donair restaurant in the 1970s.

While donairs are said to have been invented in Nova Scotia, the origins of the tinfoil-wrapped treat are somewhat mysterious, said Wickstrom.

“I just wanted to set the record straight, you know? Like, really get to the bottom of it,” she said. “It’s the official food of Halifax. It deserves to have its story told.”

‘An acquired taste’

The donair — which is set apart from similar foods by its sweet, sticky sauce — has become an iconic late-night East Coast staple. In 2014, it was even sampled by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.

But the sweet and spicy dish is not without controversy. As the donair continues its westward expansion, donair fans have been participating in heated debates over whether or not lettuce should be included with the traditional onions and tomatoes. 

A rotating spit of beef is seen at a King Of Donair restaurant in Halifax. A traditional donair is made with spiced meat on a pita, a white sauce, tomatoes and onions. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

And Wickstrom said the “absurd” mixture of the spicy meat with the sauce — made from condensed milk, sugar, vinegar and garlic — is somewhat contentious.

“You have this incredibly sweet sauce mixed with meat, which a lot of people, when they try it for the first time, they’re kind of off-put by it,” she said. “You could say it’s an acquired taste.”

Search for stories

On top of digging into the donair’s history, Wickstrom also wants to hear from people who have a story to share about the donair — good or bad.

“I’m getting anything from somebody who met their wife over a drunken donair, to some sort of donair that made them terribly ill, or some sort of eating competition,” she said. 

“I just thought if I could make a nice little collection of them all in one place for people to read, it would be comical.”

Anyone who has a story to share can contact Wickstrom through the Eat This Town website.

She expects to release the book, which will be published by Lunenburg, N.S.-based MacIntyre Purcell, some time in the fall.

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