Don’t call it junk food.
It’s academic research, at least for a University of Winnipeg historian, Janis Thiessen, author of “Snacks: A Canadian Food History,” which was published last year.
Canada once had a wide array of Canadian brands of potato chips, other salty snacks and candies. But as in most of the rest of the world, the number of nationally owned or nation-specific brands has dwindled.
Thiessen’s book also punctured some accepted wisdom about just how Canadian some famous snacks really are.
Probably the most Canadian of non-candy snacks are Hawkins Cheezies, made by W.T. Hawkins and the pride of Belleville, Ontario. For the benefit of non-Canadians, Cheezies share the saltiness and nowhere-in-nature orange of Cheetos, the puffed-up offering of the multinational PepsiCo, but little else. Hawkins Cheezies are hard like a crunchy nut and come in an assortment of irregular shapes and sizes.
The Hawkins Cheezie came about when someone at the company saw a newly developed machine that extruded pellets of corn meal for feeding cattle.
“They thought: ‘If we deep fry them and add cheese, it will be delicious,'” said Thiessen, whose snack passion is potato chips. “That could be a life motto.”
W.T. Hawkins is now “a Canadian company,” as it says on its packages beneath a red maple leaf. But it was originally the Canadian subsidiary of a large snack maker based in Chicago that made a variety of treats. The company’s Canadianization, detailed in Thiessen’s book, is a convoluted story involving a bitterly contested divorce, a bankruptcy and suggestions of Mafia influence through the Teamsters.
Abnormally for the snack food world, Hawkins, which is still owned by W.T.'s descendants, does not advertise. There isn’t even a sign on the factory where it moved in 1956 after a fire destroyed the original Canadian plant in nearby Tweed, Ontario. Thiessen, who was granted a rare tour, said she found the employees, some of whom have been around for more than four decades, a dedicated bunch. As for the general organization of the plant: “I don’t imagine it’s a model that would be promoted at business schools.”
In Western Canada, Hawkins Cheezies are distributed by Old Dutch Foods, a Winnipeg-based company that defines potato chips in that part of the country. Many Canadians, even many Winnipegers, believe that Old Dutch is an all-Canadian company, Thiessen said. But its nationality is more complex.
It is actually a subsidiary of an American company of the same name, which is headquartered in Roseville, Minnesota, where it makes chips for the United States market. But unusually for an American company, the Canadian operations dominate, providing about 70 percent of its business. Old Dutch Canada mainly uses Canadian potatoes that are fried in Canadian canola oil in Canadian plants.
Thiessen said that Old Dutch’s Canadian and American arms diverge when it comes to chip flavors. Canadians prefer anything involving vinegar as well as less conventional seasonings like dill pickle (one of her favorites). Sour cream and onion is more of a hit in the United States. Theories abound to explain the taste differences and include the Canadian habit of squirting vinegar on French fries and the differences in ethic backgrounds between immigrants to Canada’s West (Eastern Europe) and Minnesota (Scandinavia).
And what of the Canadian snacks that have vanished, including the Cuban Lunch chocolate bar that was made in Winnipeg? While Thiessen devoted much time to researching its history, mystery surrounds the Cuban Lunch, starting with the origins of its name and when it was introduced. The Cuban Lunch eventually disappeared after its maker, Paulins, was sold and its Winnipeg factory closed in 1991. (At the time Paulins was owned by the same corporate parents as McCormick’s, another defunct maker of candy, and sometimes Cuban Lunch, in London, Ontario.)
The Cuban Lunch had nothing obviously Caribbean about it except, maybe, that it contained sugar. And there remains considerable debate about its recipe, including discussion on a Facebook group devoted to the revival of this chocolate and peanut delight.
“That’s one of the mysteries that remains unsolved,” said Thiessen, who was unable to obtain the definitive recipe even from the last Paulins plant manager.