Historicist: The Toronto Patty Wars
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Historicist: The Toronto Patty Wars

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.

Start with a filling, usually beef. Add varying degrees of spiciness. Cover with golden, flaky pastry. Result: a staple of Jamaican cuisine. Whether you buy one that’s been sitting under a heat lamp at a newsstand or grab a fresh one wrapped in cocoa bread from a bakery, the patty offers a quick, savoury bite for people on the go. It’s hard to confuse the humble patty with other beef patties that are grilled and thrown on a bun, yet some federal officials a quarter of a century ago felt the similarity in names was too much for Canadian consumers to handle. Only one product deserved to be officially recognized as a “beef patty” and it wasn’t going to be the foreign interloper.

The debacle began in early February 1985, when several patty vendors around Metropolitan Toronto received notices and visits from federal food inspectors from the department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (CACA). The inspectors were dismayed to find, as they did during an investigation in Western Canada that blew the lid off a cruel deception perpetrated on innocent consumers, that the turnover-like products sold in Toronto as “beef patties” did not match the technical definition of that term under the Meat Inspection Act. An item sold as a “patty” could only contain meat (fresh or cooked), salt, seasonings, and flavour enhancers.

A beef patty had to contain at least 10 per cent protein and no more than 30 per cent fat. It could not contain fillers like breadcrumbs, oats, or whatever is stuffed into fast-food tacos. It could not be enclosed in dough or pastry. According to food inspector Sherry Brumwell, “the product in question doesn’t meet the standards, because the common name for patty specified in the regulation says no flour can be added to the meat…if the product doesn’t meet the standard it can’t be called a patty. We are asking for a correction.” Brumwell offered the offending vendors three months to rename their product. If they continued to sell “beef patties” after the grace period, they would face fines of up to five thousand dollars. As fellow inspector Barbara Hutton told Share, “we are not dictating they adopt a specific name, but we welcome suggestions to set up a change.”

Front cover, Share, February 14, 1985. Harry Gairey Sr. was featured in a previous installment of Historicist.

The inspectors may not have suggested a new moniker, but they did tell patty vendors that “beef patty” must be removed from all advertising, bags, and packaging. Kensington Patty Palace manager Michael Davidson was not amused. His family had made beef patties in their store on Baldwin Street since the late 1970s and sold an average of four thousand of the sixty-five-cent treats every week. “Patties are part of our heritage,” he told Share, “and if I called them anything else, my Jamaican customers wouldn’t know what I was selling.”

Unsurprisingly, at least one lawyer suggested all the patty vendors should join together to make a case for their product.

The furor over patties quickly made its way onto the front page of the Toronto Star, where reporter Rosie DiManno led off her story on February 16 with a popular mid-1980s catchphrase: “Where’s the beef? Answer: In the beef patty, dummy. Pretty simple, huh? Well, not in Canada.” She recounted the visit Davidson received from “the patty-wagon police” who told him the patties had to be advertised as beef pies or else he and other patty vendors risked fines of up to five thousand dollars. She also interviewed CACA food specialist Peter Haidle about the regulations governing patties. He seemed especially peeved by the low protein content in the crust of the offending patties. His defence of the crackdown was stereotypically bureaucratic: “When you have a standard, you have to comply with it or the whole system breaks down.” To prevent the utter destruction of the Canadian food chain, Haidle suggested snappy new names like “Caribbean-style beef pies.” He wasn’t without mercy—his department would allow vendors to use up their remaining stock of bags and other packaging bearing the offending wording.

The Star spent that day interviewing customers at the Kensington Patty Palace and fellow Baldwin Street patty seller Patty King. All agreed the inspectors were being too picky and had too much time on their hands. Echoing Pierre Trudeau’s comment on consenting adults, one customer noted “the government has no business in the bakeries of the nation.” Patty King owner George Chong, whose business sold six thousand patties per week, was ready to fight the bureaucrats for the expenses he would incur with a name change—he figured if they were so worked up about the name, they should have pounced on vendors when patties were introduced to Toronto palates in the 1960s.

Headline, the Toronto Star, February 17, 1985.

By February 17, the controversy took on international proportions when the headline on that day’s edition of Jamaican newspaper the Gleaner bore the headline “Canada bans the patty.” Observers wondered if the issue would sneak onto the agenda of an upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Jamaican counterpart Edward Seaga.

Back in Toronto, local politicians couldn’t resist weighing in. Ontario opposition leader David Peterson dropped by the Kensington Patty Palace for lunch on February 18 to lend his support to the patty vendors. While munching on a patty (which was “just great”), Peterson told onlookers that he was “furious” when he read about the affair. “It’s just crazy, a bureaucracy gone wild, with some little bureaucrat trying to change reality. It’s ridiculous in the extreme and I’m amazed at the whole thing.” Later that day, Peterson issued an official statement which called CACA’s decision “inane…While the Caribbean patty has been in existence longer than any arbitrary definition of a meat patty set by federal regulations, federal officials have outdone themselves in insisting that this traditional snack be renamed Caribbean-style beef patties [sic].” In the wake of Peterson’s statement, Haidle was willing to compromise by suggesting the vendors could use the word “patty” with no further description or call it a “Jamaican patty.”

The absurdity of the situation, and its potential consequences, was not lost on Share columnist Abdur-Rahman Slade Hopkinson:

All over the exquisitely varied world, Jamaicans must find themselves between two urges: to laugh their heads off, and to erupt into the thundering profanities in which their dialect is so rich…The federal government has set itself on a perilous course. This may well be the thin edge of the linguistic wedge. Is the development of a language no longer to be a natural flowering? Is it not to be the result of its use by people in their daily lives, with its ultimate refinement, power and beauty being in the hands of the poets, novelists and essayists of the language, women and men with a special feeling for what is at the same time clear, precise, trenchant, pungent and colourful in verbal usage? Is linguistic appropriateness now to be decided by bureaucrats, of all people, a class that has been notorious throughout all history and all cultures for its love of the fuzzy, the fussy, and the elephantine in speech and writing?

Hopkinson wondered what foods would be targeted next; might a dedicated bureaucrat decide that sugar cane needed a new name so no one would confuse it with a walking cane?

Headline, the Toronto Sun, February 20, 1985.

With increasing attention in the press to the “Toronto Patty Wars” and threats of lawsuits in the air, a patty summit was held on February 19 to devise a solution. The meeting included federal officials, Jamaican consul-general Oswald Murray, lawyer/self-described “Patty Guardian” Lloyd Perry, and Davidson. Perry was approached by the local Caribbean community and the Jamaican government to intervene after the Jamaican consulate in Toronto was flooded with calls and Canadian offices in Jamaica heard from locals concerned about the disrespect shown toward patties. After much negotiation, vendors were allowed to continue calling patties by that name as long as they weren’t simply described as a “beef patty.”

To celebrate the victory, a patty festival was held in Kensington Market on February 23, where celebrants could enjoy a patty and ginger beer for a dollar. Food inspectors were likely not on the invite list.

Additional information from the February 14, 1985, and February 21, 1985, editions of Share; the February 16, 1985, February 17, 1985, February 19, 1985, and February 20, 1985, editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 18, 1985, edition of the Toronto Sun.