Why this local chef wants you to celebrate Patty Day: Andrew Coppolino

Jamaican Patty Day is on Feb. 23. A few decades ago, the popular Caribbean snack was the focal point of something called “The Patty Wars.” Food columnist Andrew Coppolino investigated what the battle was about and spoke to a local patty maker about the Patty Day event he has planned.

Jamaican patty has now become a Canadian staple after fight over its name

A tasty, flaky Jamaican patty sits on top of a white plate.
The Jamaican patty is an iconic food staple tied to Jamaican culture and identity (Kevin Thomas)

Nearly four decades ago, Toronto experienced a "war" over a savoury handheld meat pie which sent spicy ripples across the country.

In February 1985, the Jamaican beef patty came under fire from food inspectors who —citing the federal Meat Inspections Act of the time — said vendors must change the name of the food item because beef "patties" were hamburgers and were not wrapped in pastry.

Rightly upset, the vendors refused and said they had the right to call the patty, an icon of Jamaican cuisine, by its original name and that the government was trying to erase an element of Jamaican culture.

Tensions increased, positions were entrenched, and rhetoric was high — "The Patty Wars" began.

The Jamaican Consulate eventually got involved, and "The Patty Summit" negotiations took place with a compromise being made: The patties could be called "Jamaican patties."

Satisfied with the decision, the vendors proclaimed that February 23 would be designated Jamaican Patty Day.

Celebrating Jamaican culture through the patty

In Waterloo region, the Jamaican patty is an increasingly popular dish served at many Caribbean restaurants and grocery stores, including those made by Kevin Thomas at Big Jerk Smokehouse in Kitchener.

Big Jerk Smokehouse owner Kevin Thomas stands in front of a colourful sign advertising his restaurant
Kevin Thomas, owner of Big Jerk Smokehouse, is holding a pop=up patty event, February 23rd to commemorate the "patty wars" (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Thomas is commemorating the Patty Wars with a pop-up patty event at Vincenzo's on Feb. 23, where he'll serve mini cocktail-sized patties during the lunch period.

While he says he was too young to remember all the details of the Patty Wars, he remembers his late father and restaurateur, Jim Nicholas, being upset because the authorities wanted the tasty morsel to conform to their way of thinking.

"He called it 'poli-tricks' by the big guys over the little guys. He called friends in Toronto and said don't change the name. We support you," Thomas said.

During the Patty Wars, vendors were concerned that being forced to change the name of the patty would be financially costly in terms of possible fines as well as having to change the wording of menus and signs.

Jamaican patty cut in half with a bite taken out of it sits on a counter
“In Jamaican, it’s food for everybody,” Kevin Thomas says of the humble patty. "You eat enough of them and, as we say back home, it’ll fill ya belly!” (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The patty, says Thomas, is not only an iconic food, but it's inextricably tied to a sense of identity.

"I find it kind of silly that it ever came to the war, but patties are a part of our culture. It's something we invented, we consume, and we brought to Canada," he said. 

"It seems like we were the underdogs, and they were trying to take something away that was a part of Jamaican identity."

Evolving patties

The patty, like many foods, has evolved over the decades. Here, local restaurants and stores now sell pre-prepared beef patties — either mild or spicy — and chicken or vegetable patties. Some are offering gluten-friendly and vegan versions.

Few and far between are venues making their own patties. Most are sourced from a large, popular producer in Toronto.

Thomas, however, makes about 2,000 patties a week and sells them from his facility on Dumart Place in Kitchener as well as at Vincenzo's, Victoria Street Market and Central Fresh Market.

Elvis Ellison at Ellison's Bistro in Kitchener also makes his own vegetable patty stuffed with callaloo and cabbage.

Boxes of frozen patties in a freezer.
Jamaican patties have become a Canadian staple and can be found in grocery stores across the country (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Restaurants and food stands such as J&K Cuisine and The Caribbean Kitchen in Kitchener and The Patty Shop, Silver Spoon, Ivey's and Irie Myrie's in Cambridge sell plenty of patties.

Specialty stores such as A to Z African and Caribbean Groceries and Ok's Tropical Supermarket, among other venues, also carry them.

The half-moon shaped flaky pastry is a great grab-and-go snack that gets its rich yellow colour from egg yolks or possibly turmeric. Inside are spices like cumin, paprika and allspice; the very hottest patties have an ample dosing of Scotch Bonnet pepper.

"In Jamaica, it's food for everybody," Thomas says of the humble patty. "If you have a couple of dollars in your pocket you can get a good, hearty snack. You eat enough of them and, as we say back home, it'll fill ya belly!"

'It represents Jamaican culture'

For Thomas, the February 23 pop-up event isn't to re-fight the Patty Wars but is rather a chance to share with people what a patty is and who makes them, at the same time it also stakes a territorial food claim, in a sense, in order to foreground the snack.

"I want to bring awareness to the patty and especially with this being Black History Month. It represents Jamaican culture. There are foods like panzerotti and other turnovers, but this specific style of food is known as a patty. A Jamaican patty."

To learn more about the patty wars, check out this CBC short doc (contemporary): Patty vs. Patty.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.