Photo: Map: gvictoria/getty images; donair: Lindsay Wickstrom; vintage donair: James Robertson; Peter Gamoulakos, 1959: Courtesy of Lindsay Wickstrom
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Who Makes the Best Donair? A New Book Argues for a Truce in the Heated Debate
A new book by a fan of the delectable East Coast wrap calls for a truce in the ongoing war between Alberta and Nova Scotia over which version is more authentic / BY Kim Honey / October 9th, 2020
The donair is an acquired taste. It speaks to time and place and oozes sentimentality. I had my first one in the Scotia Square food court in Halifax circa 1979 – the exact year is lost to the sands of time – after my father returned to our home in Truro, N.S., from a business trip praising the spicy lamb and beef mixture shaved into a thin, pliable pita, adorned with a sugary garlic sauce, sprinkled with chopped raw onions and tomatoes, wrapped up in a square of tinfoil. Dad made good on his promise to drive me 100 kilometres down the highway to try one; it was salty, sweet, spicy, garlicky and lamb-y, an intoxicating thrill for my small-town palate.
So any donair I eat – and I’ve even flown a few from Halifax to Toronto in the overhead bin, off-gassing garlic and meaty spices all the way – has to measure up to those gustatory memories, and I am always disappointed when it doesn’t.
Herein lies the conundrum that Lindsay Wickstrom, who runs the Halifax blog Eat This Town, tries to resolve in Book of Donair: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Halifax Food That Became Canada’s Favourite Kebab.
“People in Atlantic Canada get upset when the word donair is used for certain things that are served in Western Canada,” Wickstrom said diplomatically in a telephone interview. “We say, ‘That’s not a donair. Why are you calling it that?’”
In the book, she recounts the provocation of 2014, when Edmonton journalist and donair expert Omar Mouallem made this declaration at a storytelling event: “Edmonton is the true donair champion, the true mecca of donairs.”
Seven months later, Halifax City Council declared the donair the official food of Halifax.
To unpack the present-day conflict, Wickstrom traces the roots of the humble wrap from Anatolia, Turkey, where the vertical rotisserie was invented in the mid-1800s, to Greece, when Christians fleeing persecution from the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923 brought it with them. In Turkey, it was called doner kebab, which translated from the Turkish means “rotating grilled meat.” There it is usually just called doner and “refers to the thinly shaved rotisserie meat (lamb and beef are most common),” Wickstrom writes.
From the Ottoman Empire, doner kebab spread to the Middle East, where it is called shawarma.
In Greece, where Halifax donair inventor Peter Gamoulakos grew up, the doner was called gyros (pronounced YEER-os), a translation of the word doner, and was initially made from ground lamb or beef.
In 1974, Gamoulakos – who had come to Canada in the ’50s but was inspired by the popularity of souvlaki and gyros on a trip back to Greece in 1973 – sold his first donair made of ground lamb roasted on a spit at Velos Souvlakia Sunnyside restaurant in Bedford, N.S. (My first donair was made by none other than Gamoulakos, who opened the Scotia Square stand called PG’s in 1979.)
Father of Invention
Like many immigrants, Gamoulakos struggled to find the ingredients he needed for a taste of home. There was no thick Greek pita to make his gyros, which he also called doner, so he bought thinner pocketed ones from a Lebanese bakery and flipped them onto an oiled grill top to soften them.
The locals were not accustomed to eating lamb, so a former staff member told Wickstrom that Gamoulakos started adding ground beef into the mixture by the summer of 1974.
As for the pronunciation and spelling of “donair,” the origin is muddy. Gamoulakos’s brother John has said it was the customers who mispronounced doner as donair, and a printing shop that did up an ad for Velos in 1974 told Wickstrom the owner suggested Gamoulakos change the spelling to “donair.”
Why he called it doner and not gyros in the first place is a mystery. “Did Peter inadvertently revert to the Turkish name, or was this a stroke of marketing genius?” Wickstrom writes.
After Gamoulakos sold Velos and opened a second shop on the Bedford Highway, he called it “Mr. Doner,” but by the time he set up his third shop in Halifax on Quinpool Road near Oxford Street in 1976, it was called Mr. Donair, and he had settled on an all-beef recipe.
Renamed the King of Donair in 1977 (and sold in 1979), that flagship store is still there, a hop, skip and a stagger from Dalhousie and King’s universities. Wickstrom reports that it was wrapping 600 donairs a day in the late ’70s and, yes, I did frequent the establishment on my way home to my basement digs on nearby Elm Street in 1981.
Another sticky situation was the sauce, which, initially, was tzatziki – a commonplace Greek condiment made of yogurt, grated cucumber and garlic – but it was also too exotic for most Halifax taste buds. So Gamoulakos decided to sweeten the deal and came up with an alternative. To this day, his concoction of canned evaporated milk, vinegar, sugar and garlic powder is known simply as donair sauce and sold by the gallon.
“To put any other type of sauce on a donair is a blasphemy particular to the East Coast,” Wickstrom writes.
East vs. West
This is critical to the East vs. West feud, since Wickstrom’s book says Edmontonians are partial to tzatziki on their donairs, and some are served with sauces made from sour cream and even mayonnaise. The other distinguishing characteristic is the addition of lettuce as a topping, which really riles the Maritimers.
“The idea of warm lettuce being inside of a pita is off-putting to people,” Wickstrom said. “But if you compare them stylistically, you couldn’t put lettuce in a Halifax donair. It would be smothered, and it would get very wilted, but the Edmonton donair is a little bit more balanced, and so the lettuce … stays crispier.”
The first Edmonton donair shop was opened in 1982 on Whyte Avenue by Lebanese Canadian Chawki El-Homeira, who goes by the name Charles Smart. Trained at a Tony’s Donair in Halifax, he served the first donair to Dartmouthians at his Revana Subs Sandwich before he sold it and moved to Alberta.
Because so few people knew what it was, he staged a publicity stunt with a six foot-tall cone of beef that weighed 567 pounds. “I wanted something to attract people to the donair,” he told Wickstrom. It worked, and the donair took off. Because the place he bought was a hamburger and sub shop, some people would ask for lettuce, and he later added cheese, again after customers requested it.
When asked what distinguishes an Edmonton donair from a Halifax donair, Wickstrom invented a new word: wrapmanship. The foil that encloses it is lined with paper, and it often comes with a plastic bag to catch the drippings.
“The Edmonton donair is a fist food, whereas Haligonians are largely resigned to eating donairs off the table,” she writes. “The default Edmonton donair is cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and sweet sauce in a steamed pita.”
Taste of Home
In the last five years, Wickstrom calculates she’s sampled 50 different donairs, and that doesn’t include “repeats and duplicates.” Her favourite donair? She’s partial to Leo’s Donair in Halifax and Swiss Donair in Edmonton because, of course, it is closest to the one she enjoys at home.
And that, in the end, is what the great donair debate is all about. When she asked Edmonton donair expert and radio personality Yukon Jack what differentiates the Western donair from its Eastern antecedent, he said one word: nostalgia.
“If you grew up eating it with tzatziki, that would be your nostalgia,” Wickstrom explained. “ It would be a whole different association that you have with that food. Whereas if you grew up eating the big sloppy Halifax donair with the sauce oozing everywhere, that would be your nostalgia.”
That’s why Wickstrom argues that, although it started out as a regional dish, it’s time to call a truce and declare the donair one of Canada’s national foods.
“It’s still kind of this weird Canadian mishmash of a food that just, depending on what region you’re in, might have a different expression. So like the Edmonton donair, it’s indigenous to Edmonton. It’s been there a long time and it has an identity. Same with the Halifax donair.”
Add to that the cross-country obsession with the sweet-and-salty wrap, with pages and pages of online forums devoted to discussions about where to get the best donair, whether that’s Eastern or Western style, she’s more than convinced the humble donair is a national obsession.