February 23 is Patty Day, Toronto’s tastiest holiday

Naomi Tomky
·6 min read

Like so many holidays, February 23 in Toronto, better known as Patty Day, celebrates a victory. But not a military one. Instead, the “Patty Wars” commemorated by this holiday involved the battle between two forces: on one side, bureaucracy and thinly veiled xenophobia; on the other, a beloved food and the immigrant restaurateurs who sold it.

Jamaican patties arrived in Toronto with immigrants starting in the 1960s and quickly found their way into local hearts. The flaky-crusted hand pies filled with juicy, spicy beef at first gave immigrants a taste of home, but soon became an essential bite for many residents of the city. After Mayor John Tory declared the peameal bacon sandwich Toronto’s signature food in 2016, Toronto Star writer Edward Keenan argued it should instead be Jamaican beef patties: “Not because they are unique to Toronto in any way but because they are beloved and available everywhere from doughnut shops to subway stations.”

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But the Jamaican beef patty of Toronto differs from patties elsewhere both in style and, because of 1985’s Patty Wars, in name: in Jamaica they are simply “patties,” while in Toronto, they always take on the much longer name of “Jamaican beef patties.”

In Jamaica, patties come in various flavors and contain different meats, explains Jamaican chef and food historian Teneile Warren of Nyam Kitchen, but Jamaican beef patties came to Canada before those evolutions. The traditional version eaten in Toronto tells Jamaica’s story in flavors: The native ingredients of thyme and allspice, the Indian influence of turmeric, and the Chinese element of soy sauce. These all fold into the fundamental form likely descended from the British pasty. It’s a remnant of colonialism wholly reshaped into a quintessentially Jamaican food.

In Toronto, the patty evolved from the baked-on-site, sit-down food of Jamaica to a low-cost, fast, familiar on-the-go food. “People needed to adjust, they needed it to be quick and easy,” says Warren. Centralized bakeries popped up to help affordably supply the grab-and-go version all over Toronto, and the beef patties’ popularity skyrocketed.

“It’s a place-maker,” says Warren. “When you think of certain subway stations in Toronto, people remember the patty shop there.” But getting to this point of wide acceptance wasn’t easy, she says. “Even just being able to say ‘patty’ was a struggle.”

The Patty Wars first made news in mid-February of 1985, when a front-page headline in the Toronto Star asked, “When is a patty not a patty?” The question arose because food inspectors had ordered at least eight Jamaican patty makers to change the name of their product because it didn’t meet the legal definition of a patty, which applied to hamburgers and, according to the Meat Inspection Act, could only contain meat and seasonings. “[T]he 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,” inspector Sherry Brumwell said at the time. “If the product doesn’t meet the standard it can’t be called a patty. We are asking for a correction.”

The “correction” forbade use of the word “patty” on signs, packaging, and marketing, a huge cost to spring on small businesses, and it gave them just three months to make the changes before facing a $5,000 fine. The move threatened to erase the direct line between immigrants and their food, using legal definitions to enshrine hamburgers as the only true patties and ignore the increasingly popular Jamaican version.

Michael Davidson, whose family had owned the Kensington Patty Palace since the late 1970s, led the blowback, calling the demands—and the new names suggested by the government, like “Caribbean-style beef pies”—ridiculous. “Canada is supposed to be big on multiculturalism, and a beef patty is part of Jamaican culture,” he told the Star. Warren puts it more bluntly: “It’s cultural policing.” A local politician who got involved pointed out that “the Caribbean patty has been in existence longer than any arbitrary definition of a meat patty set by federal regulations.”

In less than a week, the issue escalated into threats of lawsuits. Local papers declared it a clear overreach of the government, and Jamaican media reported that Canada had banned the beloved patty. But before patties got their day in court, there was a meeting of federal officials, the Jamaican consul-general, and a local lawyer and patty enthusiast representing the vendors. The group reached a compromise: the shops could continue to use the name “patty” or “beef patty,” as long as they specified them as “Jamaican.”

On February 23, 1985, Kensington Market, the neighborhood where many of the patty shops were located, threw a party to celebrate the victory. Then the entire incident was largely forgotten for more than a quarter-century, though its legacy remained on the menu and packaging of every Jamaican patty shop in town.

In 2011, Jamie Bradburn, who wrote a Torontoist column called the Historicist, revisited the incident—and it resounded with the patty-loving city. The following year, Royson James, a contributing columnist to the Toronto Star, issued an unofficial proclamation of February 23 as Jamaican Patty Day.

The city slowly adopted it as tradition. The local branch of the Jamaican Tourism Board sponsored parties with free patties in honor of the anniversary, turning what once seemed an attempt to push Jamaican culture out of the city into a reason to celebrate it.

Warren sees the resolution as beneficial. The compromise, she says, was “a weird form of censorship that has worked in our favor,” as it marked ownership of patties, branding them solely and uniquely Jamaican. “It essentially patented the Jamaican patty.” Davidson, the owner of Patty Palace, also saw the outcome as positive, telling the Toronto Star in 1996 that “the notoriety opened some doors for us.”

Warren, who grew up in Jamaica, saw a flattening and simplification of Jamaican food in Canada when she moved there as an adult. She bristled at the way certain foods, like jerk, underwent adaptations pushing them far from their roots, often by people unfamiliar with their history or significance. But even though Jamaican beef patties enjoy wild popularity in Toronto—even more than poutine, says Warren—few non-Jamaicans in the greater Toronto area make them, and the patty rarely strays from traditional styles. She chalks this up to the resolution of the Patty Wars. “They can’t be tampered with,” says Warren of the patties. “You can’t take it from us.”