How the Jamaican beef patty became a Toronto icon
By: Callum Denault
Published on: August 18 2022
Many places around the world are known for their unique street food. Toronto is no different, with Jamaican beef patties being so popular that a shortage of them in the city’s subway stations was enough to make the headlines.
Packed inside the flaky, yellow pastry is not just a delicious stew of spiced meat, but a rich cultural history.
Carie Chong is a manager for the Patty King Bakery, which was ranked number 1 in blogTO’s The Best Jamaican Patties in Toronto. Chong said she was born in Jamaica, and her family moved to Toronto when she was a child. Her father opened the Patty King Bakery in 1980, in Kensington Market. She said her family felt comfortable opening up a store in the neighbourhood, as it was close to the “cultural context” of where they came from.
Now, their bakery has a factory in Scarborough. The business expanded from its humble beginnings to the point Patty King regularly sells wholesale to supermarkets, schools, subway stations, and other beef patty venders across the city.
Chong comes from a long line of bakers and entrepreneurs, and she described the beef patty business as a “traditional” job for her family in Toronto.
“That’s where we worked every Saturday,” said Chong. “When we were going to school, we worked in the bakery, downtown.”
Dating back to when she was a child, Chong remembers there was a bakery in the underground subway.
“I don’t care if it’s Patty King patties, [or] anybody’s patties, I just remember it smelled so delicious,” she said, later adding, “And it was so convenient, it was like having a little bit of Jamaica as part of my subway ride.”
Chong also noted beef patties are affordable and easy to eat on the go without too much investment, because they come in a simple paper bag.
Jamaica was going through a political change when Chong’s family moved, and she thinks their decision to emigrate was to look for a safer place to live. While Chong did not know of any specific events to reference, an article published by The Washington Post in 1980 said conflict between Jamaica’s two leading political parties lead to an increase in armed violence and murder. Modern researchers have said this era of Jamaica’s history saw the country’s politicians cooperating with local gangsters, agents from the American Central Intelligence Agency, and the Soviet Union.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigration policies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada relaxed in the 1960s. This allowed Jamaicans to emigrate to these countries more freely, and the amount of Jamaican people living abroad might be close to how many people live on the island itself. As the diaspora grew, so did the popularity of Jamaican culture, including its food.
There are over 200 000 people of Jamaican descent living in Toronto, out of 300 000 Jamaicans living in all of Canada. Jamaican culture is intertwined with Toronto culture, with over 100 000 immigrants having formed Little Jamaica in the 1970s.
Jamaican cuisine has represented Toronto in pop culture, with a famous restaurant known as The Real Jerk appearing in a music video starring Rihanna and Drake. More recently, Mississauga-raised Marvel movie action star, Simu Liu, proudly declared he grew up eating rotis and beef patties in his “I am Canadian” speech at the JUNO Awards.
However, Jamaican cuisine was not always so welcome in Toronto. In 1985, the Canadian government tried to ban Jamaican businesses from using the label “beef patty”—in order to avoid confusing them with hamburger patties—and was threatening fines worth thousands of dollars. Patty Palace in Kensington Market, Patty King, and other businesses joined in what Chong remembered as the “Patty War conversation.”
“[My father] was part of the protest,” she said. “He wasn’t as vocal as Michael Davidson [the owner of Patty Palace], but he was part of it as well.” Chong said her father did not want to change the name of the beef patties he sold and wanted to understand the government’s logic.
According to Heritage Toronto, the Patty War ended during a Patty Summit, where it was agreed that the Jamaican delicacy could still be referred to as a “beef patty” so long as it was not their only description. Chong said the food is now officially referred to as “Jamaican beef patties”.
Despite originally being Jamaican food, beef patties are popular among Toronto citizens from all walks of life.
“It’s not necessarily Jamaican, I know it’s Jamaican food or product, but there’s a quality of people that come into the store,” said Chong, referring to the Patty King Bakery in Scarborough. She described her interactions with customers as “so much fun” and said they have “a lot of good energy.”
Chong said in her years living in Toronto, the city has grown its own culture which was inspired by immigrants who settled in the region.
“I see my kids with all these rap songs and stuff, Toronto even has a style of rap. Toronto is really having its own identity, and it’s mirroring all of the people who came here from however long ago and had children.”