When I was a child in Toronto, a favourite treat was blueberry buns (shtitzlach in Yiddish). Until I was an adult, I never realized that these treats were unique to Jewish bakeries in Toronto.
The blueberry bun is to Toronto Jews what smoked meat is to Montreal Jews. A blueberry bun looks like a Pillsbury Pizza Pop and is a cross between a Danish and a turnover. A good blueberry bun has a sweet, yeast-based dough with a shiny egg glaze, a sticky sprinkling of course sugar on top, and a runny blueberry interior made from fresh blueberries. They were at one time only available during summer months, but you can now find them year-round, filled with blueberry pie filling or frozen berries. I’ve never seen a version filled with any other fruit but blueberries.
Local folklore has it that Annie Kaplansky brought these Ashkenazi treats to Toronto from her hometown of Rakow, Poland, when she moved here in 1913. She began serving them in her retail store Health Bread Bakery, which she opened in 1928, and they became an instant hit.
Other Jewish bakeries began baking their own blueberry buns, but they are difficult to make and weren’t as good. I have been told that Max Feig, one of the owners of Open Window Bakery, would receive complaints from his customers: “How come your blueberry buns can’t be like Health Bread’s?” My dad knew Max Feig, who was a Czech Holocaust survivor. He came to Canada in 1953, the same year my parents arrived, and opened his bakery in 1957. In 1966, he purchased the Health Bread chain from the Kaplansky family with the stipulation that the Kalplansky family provide Open Window their blueberry bun recipe. I bought buns from Open Window until they closed in 2011. It’s now difficult to find an equivalent product to satisfy my blueberry bun fix.
Dr. Jillian Gould, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, published a paper on blueberry buns in 2003. She interviewed Kip Kaplansky, the son of Annie for her paper. He told her that his mother made them in Poland and brought the recipe with her to Canada. He indicated that wild blueberries grew in Poland. Dr. Gould questioned his claim and noted in her paper that wild blueberries were not native to Poland at the time. She speculated that Mrs. Kaplansky adapted a recipe from some type of fruit cake. I found other references to this claim that blueberry buns were unique to Toronto. It seems they may have all been influenced by Dr. Gould’s paper.
I mentioned this to a Polish friend who now lives in London, England. She reacted with surprise because she always visits a bakery and picks up some blueberry buns when she visits her family in Poland. She confirmed that wild blueberries have always been grown in Poland. In her Holocaust memoir, Goldie Szachter Kalib recalls how blueberry buns were served for breakfast, especially on the Sabbath. I did some research and confirmed that the three leading blueberry growing countries are United States, Canada, and Poland. Blueberry buns were popular in Southwest Poland among Jews and gentiles alike. Gentile Poles called them jagodzianki, which is blueberries in Polish. They are slightly different than the Toronto version, with a lemon glaze on the top.
So, blueberry buns are not unique to Toronto, but you will not likely find these baked treats elsewhere in Canada and the United States. Now I’m going to have to do some research on butter tarts, ketchup chips, and poutine.