HALIFAX—For most anyone who lives in Halifax, the messy late-night ritual at the corner of Blowers and Grafton streets is a well known guilty pleasure.
As patrons spill out of the port city’s many bars and taverns, they head for Pizza Corner where the main attraction isn’t pizza—it’s donairs.
This sweet and savory meat-lovers treat—closely related to the Greek gyro—is at the centre of a decades-old, cult-like following that has prompted one municipal politician to suggest the humble donair should be designated the official food of Halifax.
Linda Mosher’s motion, tabled at regional council earlier this week, has led to a rousing online debate that has gone viral.
While detractors point out that Nova Scotia is also known for its seafood and lobster in particular, Mosher says these dishes are not unique to the province’s largest city.
“Everyone here has their own donair story, their own affinity for it,” says Mosher. “It’s a unique food and you can’t find it anywhere else, despite people trying to duplicate it.”
As proof, Mosher cites a mention in National Geographic and the website TheCulturetrip.com, which concluded the donair is to Halifax what the smoked-meat sandwich is to Montreal, or the Beaver Tail to Ottawa. British Columbia’s Nanaimo bars also made the list, as did Quebec’s poutine, and Saskatchewan’s saskatoon berry pie.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, has said Halifax donairs have achieved international status.
“I look for unique foods, unique to the region,” he said in an interview with the Halifax Chronicle Herald.” It is your most famous, it’s the signature dish like the New York dirty water hotdog.”
As for the origins of the donair, there are competing claims, says Jason MacKenzie, day manager at King of Donair on Halifax’s Quinpool Road—an institution since the 1970s.
“It’s simplistic items put together to make it amazing,” says MacKenzie, whose location—there are four in the Halifax area—has been swarming with hungry customers since Mosher’s motion was tabled.
“It nurtures all the senses of the taste buds, making it good after having a few drinks. But it’s an all-round dinner for us in Halifax… We’re finally getting recognition for the decades of hard work we’ve put in.”
Halifax resident Leo Gamoulakos says his father Peter, a Greek immigrant, developed the gastronomic delight in the mid-1970s at Velos Pizza on the Bedford Highway.
Gamoulakos says his father, who died in 1991, had little success when he introduced pork-and-lamb gyros to his customers, so he experimented with an all-beef product that included a sweeter sauce, and it caught on.
The finely ground beef, mixed with bread crumbs and spices, is formed into a cone that is roasted on a vertical rotisserie. The signature sauce is made from vinegar, evaporated milk, garlic and sugar. The thinly sliced meat is served in a pita, often with diced tomatoes and raw onions.
The concoction is notoriously difficult to eat, given its tendency to suddenly expel sauce and other bits.
Gamoulakos says the name of the delicacy comes from the label on the machine that held the meat: Doner.
“There are a lot of pretenders out there,” he says, adding that it was his father who opened the Quinpool Road location. “It’s been a constant battle for me.”
Mosher’s motion has been sent to regional staff, who have been asked to prepare a report, as required by council rules. A decision is expected as early as next month.
Coun. Tim Outhit supported the idea, at one point quipping to council colleagues: “If we don’t do this, won’t we all falafel?”
The proposal has inspired a wave of social media comments, including objections from those who believe the city should focus on more important issues.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, Coun. Waye Mason tweeted: “While I voted against the donair motion (due to staff work to taxpayers) I did have a donair for dinner, due to mmmm hungry.”
In response, one observer tweeted: “Waye Mason, you’re my gyro.”