Where to get it: The most popular and perhaps best place is the St. Lawrence Market (St. Lawrence District), where you can get the famous peameal bacon sandwich at the Carousel Bakery. The aptly named Three Little Pigs (Downtown) is another well-known establishment, and plenty of diners around the area also offer peameal bacon at breakfast.
What it is: What they really mean, but never give you, when they say “Canadian bacon.” Peameal bacon is cured back bacon rolled in cornmeal (I’ll explain), sliced thin, and fried or grilled until crispy outside and juicy inside.
Rant: Toronto is probably the least Canadian place I know in Canada. I’m not alone in that sentiment. The city does have sort of a bad rep for being generic, flat, hurried, and lacking charm. It routinely gets poked by its older, more beautiful brethren Montréal and Québec City for its infinite, cross-cut streets, its forests of insipid cylindrical glass towers, and its apparently endless construction. The infamy is not entirely undeserved; the skyline does seem to be dominated by nothing but cranes, a blinding strobe of window reflections, and the CN Tower (which is not exactly a jewel, itself). If you accidentally passed out on the wrong train and woke up here, you might at first have no idea what city you’re in.
That being said, it occurs to me the more I visit Toronto that it might just seem that way because it just might, in fact, actually be SO Canadian that it somehow seems unfamiliar with what I’ve come to idealize as “Canadian” culture. What do I mean by that? Well, my traditional concept of Canadian culture was its older, more – shall we say – stereotypical image. The ones from the brochures. My idea of Canada used to be what a 10-year-old or someone from Arkansas would think of it like. But what is Canada, after all, besides a country of constant change? All things new in Canada – new immigrant waves, new industry, new ideas – come through Toronto first. The Kensington Market neighborhood, once part of the city’s Chinatown, is today a promenade of just about every third-world country you can name. Butter chicken, an Indian dish, is quickly assuming its status a Canadian national dish. What we may be witnessing in Toronto is the Canada of the future.
Indeed, perhaps most of the criticism comes from conservative types who are just frustrated with how the recent sprout of glass towers and the unstoppable evolution of the city serve as a wall against the “old” charms that still do exist – albeit hidden inside. In more preserved places like Québec, those charms are all around you. In Toronto, you have to dig around a bit to find them. “Old” Toronto, like New York, is fighting a losing battle against the tide of change. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
At this point in my life, I’m not sure which crowd I belong to. On one hand, I truly believe change is an inevitable necessity. On the other hand, I’m a hopeless romantic for tradition. It’s important to remember, however, that at one point in time, the things we cherish as “traditional” were themselves once “new.” Those vapid glass towers may well be considered classic architecture someday (though let’s hope not). Butter chicken may become something kids roll their eyes at when grandma brings it out for Thanksgiving dinner. Tradition fades away over time, always supplanted by something younger, fresher, and more uncertain. But while it’s still around, now, you must appreciate what is, before it becomes what was. Get it while it lasts.
I know what you’re thinking: “OMG WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MATT. I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR SELF-SATISFYING MUSINGS ON THINGS YOU PRETEND TO KNOW.” And you’re totally right. This entire blog essentially serves as a jerk-off zone for my words and thoughts. I call it “verbal masturbation.” But this is my space. I can do whatever I want, and if you’re still reading at this point, then you clearly don’t need any apology from me. And if you do, I frankly don’t care.
Anyway, I live in Buffalo, which is only a couple hours by car away, so I’ve had the privilege of visiting Toronto a few times. Though they don’t like to admit it, Buffalo and Toronto have a mutual respect for one another. Toronto owes its claim to decent chicken wings to its proximity to Buffalo, and Buffalo owes its affection for peameal bacon to its proximity to Toronto.
You probably think you’ve had Canadian bacon before. Like many Americans, you’ve been led to believe that the sad, dry, rubbery mold of reconstituted ham is Canada’s official counterpart to the smoky, greasy, wonderful variety of bacon we eat here south of the border. You don’t realize for how long you’ve been misled.
I cannot, for the life of me, understand when, where, or why this heretical deviation occurred. The lifeless, paper-thin slices of ham product we try to pass off here in the States are so unlike the true original, that it’s almost no wonder that Canadians seem to have kept the good stuff mostly to themselves. It’s very difficult to find true Canadian bacon in the States. I had never even myself known the difference until I moved to the border several years ago.
Real Canadian bacon is unsmoked back bacon. Back bacon is the cut of meat from the pig’s back, which includes mostly lean white meat, with only a tiny bit of the fatty belly meat kept at the bottom. American bacon, by contrast, uses a cut strictly from the belly of the pig, and is typically smoked. While each bacon comes with its own separate virtues, and are each perfectly wonderful, Canadian bacon has the added benefit of being leaner and thus, arguably, “healthier.”
What they do in Toronto is take that ordinary cut of back bacon and roll it in dried yellow cornmeal. This was originally done in the days before refrigeration as a means of preserving the meat. It’s called “peameal” bacon instead of “cornmeal” bacon because when the English inhabitants of Toronto first created the dish in the 19th Century, they originally used yellow peameal. Cornmeal eventually became more abundant and affordable, and the switch apparently didn’t substantially change the look or the taste of the meat.
I won’t even attempt to compare peameal bacon with American bacon, because any comparison is moot at best. The two are entirely different species, as far as I’m concerned. Peameal bacon, however, is certainly heartier, and steals more of the spotlight away from your eggs at breakfast than American bacon does, simply because it’s cut thicker and it has less fat to melt away during cooking. A preferred means of consumption for Torontonians is the peameal bacon sandwich – it’s just slices of fried peameal bacon on a roll, and that’s it. Sure, plenty of people like theirs on an egg sandwich, or as a side, but distracting from the meatiness, the juiciness, and the crispy exterior of the bacon seems unwarranted. Peameal bacon is handled more like a steak than how Americans would handle bacon. It’s the perfect monument to the Old Toronto – one of the last remaining vestiges of Canada’s pork-obsessed British ancestry, back when Toronto was nicknamed “Hogtown.” While Toronto may have changed since then, its people seem to keep this humble cut of meat around to serve as a reminder of what Canada was, and to some extent, still is for the time being. I just hope that in the Canada of the future, I can still get my hands on peameal bacon somewhere.