Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen

One of the best days of my childhood was when my Mom bought my brother and I a gigantic bag of Willie Wonka candy, popped on original version of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and left the two of us to eat all the candy we wanted. The ability to self-monitor our consumption without our younger sisters or parents watching was the most grown up and indulgent moments of my life. I was probably somewhere between eight and ten and I will never forget that feeling.

Snacks, whether they be sweet or salty, are woven through so many people’s lives. We all have our favorite holiday snacks (I’m a sucker for those nuts in a shell that show up here around Thanksgiving) our favorite movie snack (Popcorn with peanut butter M&Ms mixed in) and our the snack we don’t understand (Kale chips people, really?). But, until this book, I hadn’t given much thought to the snack business itself.

snacksSnacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen is a thoroughly researched book focusing on the Canadian snack industry. We see chips, chocolates, and candies in the isles of our local grocery stores, but the history of these businesses and the impact of politics and corporate mythology was never something I had pondered. I was struck by the complicated growth of many of these companies. But, I was most struck by the individual pride of the workers that has taken massive blows with the current snobbish attitude towards snack foods.

Several things surprised me as I read about the history of snacks in Canada. For example, Canada has a great many grants available to businesses that aid in building or expanding fledgling businesses. Covered Bridge Chips traces its routes back to 2004 when three members of the Albright family decided to form the Carleton County Spud Distributors to sell their own, and others, chips. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency provided $528,000 in repayable funding for plant construction and another $77,150 for marketing and bus tour operations. Another expansion was supported by both federal and provincial government funding totally $340,000. Perhaps, as an American, I’m more surprised by the transparency of these transactions.

Also, whether a product is made entirely in Canada or had its roots in America, if the public embraced a product as Canadian, it was seen that way. Old Dutch chips are synonymous with Canada but they started in Minneapolis. Similarly, Cheezies was originally part of a snack food company in Chicago. But both snacks have been embraced as wholly “Canadian” through advertisement, local ties, and a sense of corporate humility. My obsession with this country grows. Unlike in whole great swaths of my country, where you aren’t local until the fifth generation no matter your dedication to the town, the idea that Canada will just decide that you’ve earned the label, “Canadian,” is intriguing to me.

One thing all the snack companies are not humble about is the quality of their products. Whether they be chips or chocolate, the companies actively fight against the label of “junk” food and the pervasive myth that these type of foods are inherently evil and across the board, unhealthy. Old Dutch potato chips have been manufactured for over eighty years using local potatoes and local canola oil and the company credits these simple ingredients and the boutique process used to cook the chips as the reason Old Dutch chips are the healthiest version of the snack possible. Similarly, Cheezies production has been virtually unchanged since 1948 and its product is proudly made from local sources with no preservatives.

Cheezies also uses corporate mythology to align itself with Canadian culture. The plant is only open from Monday through Friday so that families can spend time together on the weekends. Also, the company is reluctant to advertise, they have no Facebook or Twitter account.

Cheezies corporation boasts that, “unlike Jelly Belly in California who have turned their factory into a carnival of color and celebration, the Hawkins Cheezies factory in Belleville is just a factory. Very Canadian.”

Meanwhile, Ganong, the sole remaining Canadian chocolate company, takes credit for the heart shaped Valentine’s box and proudly hosts a chocolate festival every year. I can tell you, I’ve added this festival to my travel calendar because I am dying to meet “The Great Chocolate Mousse and his lovely wife Tiffany,” the mascots that preside over the festival in St. Stephens. And, even with their bragging, festivals, and a chocolate museum, Ganong has used the romance of chocolate and its devotion to the community to instill the pride of Canada in its success and survival.

“Everyone needs some pleasure and enjoyment in their lives, and that no one deserves our moral judgment.”

The journey through these companies inception, survival, and continued existence was wrought with disaster, war, unionization, and more fires than I could track. But, the biggest threat to all of these companies is the current ideology of the wholesome food movement. The author makes fantastic arguments that this manifesto is relevant mostly to the privileged healthy and has me questioning some of my beliefs regarding snack consumption. The balanced attitude of one individual interviewed, Grant Wichenko, just keeps coming back to me.

“…I grew up knowing that snack foods had a place. So, thankfully, I was able to bring that forward to my kinds. You don’t eat this because you are hungry; you eat it because it’s a treat.”

My obsession with all things Canadian brought this fascinating book into my life and now I know I need to travel back to Canada just so I can try all the local favorite snack foods.

Tell me, please!

What’s your favorite snack?



8 thoughts on “Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen

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  1. This review was INCREDIBLE. Seriously. I learned so much and could not be more excited to know this book exists. I’m obsessed with international snack foods and this sounds especially intriguing since it covers so much of the economics and politics around it, which really isn’t something I’d considered in this context.

    I agree that there’s a problem with how we look at certain foods, and the strict delineation between healthy vs. unhealthy. It is just so unhelpful and I think it does more to contribute to troubled or disordered eating than people perhaps realize. In The Angry Chef book he explores this in more detail and better than I can explain, but just to emphasize what you said, that there’s a place for everything even nutrition-wise, and some things are meant to be treats and there’s an important space for those too. This sounds like another great exploration of that idea!

    And I LOVED your story about how you connect with snack foods, and those feelings of being grown up and indulging. There’s so much to be said about the nostalgia value of these foods. Thanks for featuring this one and analyzing it so well, I’m so happy to know about it!!


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