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This article was published 13/7/2019 (192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BIRDS HILL PROVINCIAL PARK — Fried dough, butter, cinnamon and sugar.
It’s a simple recipe and a quintessential Winnipeg Folk Festival treat, but the humble Whales Tail wouldn’t exist if not for a last-minute menu change 40 years ago.
Gene Freott and Jenny Morris accidentally created the deep-fried delicacy during their first gig at the festival in 1979.
After an invitation from folk fest founder Mitch Podolak, the couple packed their Vancouver-based business, Caravan Foods, into a red Volkswagen bus and headed east. The plan was to serve falafel and baklava to the hungry folkies, but Freott and Morris couldn’t find the necessary ingredients when they arrived in Winnipeg.
"They went and got bread dough and just started frying it up. It went crazy and they pulled people from the lineup to help them," said Sharon Doornbosch, who purchased Caravan Foods with her husband, Gary, 11 years ago.
"The birthplace of the Whales Tail, technically, would be the Winnipeg Folk Festival," Gary said.
That first year, the kitchen was little more than a cast-iron skillet and a single burner in a homemade tent, but the stand quickly became a staple in the food village.
Haanita Seval has been eating Whales Tails at the festival since 1980.
"It’s been my first breakfast out here every single year," she said with a hot cinnamon and sugar treat in her hand on Friday afternoon. "I actually think there would be something missing if I couldn’t have a Whales Tail."
Freott and Morris dropped the original name, Elephant Ears, in 1998 after a trademark issue was brought forward by a company of the same name in the United States. They’ve been selling Whales Tails ever since and hold the trademark on that name.
With 40 years of continuous service, the business is the longest running food vendor at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. This year, Whales Tails is being recognized for their longevity with a Glass Banjo Award, which is given annually to recognize volunteers, supporters, partners and organizations who have made an impact at the festival.
"There is that sense of tradition, people really feel connected to it," said Lynne Skromeda, folk fest executive director. "Back in the day, because they were so identifiable and everyone knew where they were, they were often a meeting place for people."
Sharon and Gary — along with representatives from The Manitoba Federation of Labour, which is also receiving an award this year — will be presented with the Glass Banjo on mainstage Saturday night.
"I’m really honoured... I just think it’s nice to be acknowledged for the company coming all this way for all these years," Sharon said.
"We’re getting a reward for bringing people happiness for the last 40 years," Gary added.
Aside from a few modern updates, the core of the Whales Tails business has remained the same four decades on. Sharon and Gary still make the two-day drive from British Columbia every July, albeit with a truck and trailer, and the classic cinnamon and sugar remains the top seller, although jam has become unusually popular in Manitoba and the current owners have added a slate of new sweet and savory toppings.
They sell an estimated 5,000 Whales Tails each time they come to the folk fest and go through roughly 16 kilograms of jam, 40 kilograms of sugar and two kilograms of cinnamon.
Whales Tails is a seasonal operation for the Doornboschs, who both have "real jobs" in shipping and receiving. What keeps them coming back to Manitoba is the people. The couple hires locally and have one staff member who has worked at the stand for more than 20 years.
"We’ve made a lot of friends and it kind of feels like our second home because everyone is so welcoming," Sharon said.
The couple does about five festivals across the prairies and west coast each summer and hope to pass the business on to their adult children one day.
"It will just keep going, and that was an attraction for Gene and Jenny because they built this and they didn’t want it to disappear. So we’ll keep carrying on the torch," Sharon said.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.