THE MUNCHIES

A his­tory of Cana­dian snack food

Geist - - Contents - Ja­nis Thiessen

THE CANA­DIAN CHEEZIE

The most pop­u­lar prod­uct of the Con­fec­tions In­cor­po­rated plant was the Cheezie, a uniquely Cana­dian snack. Cheezies, de­scribed on the com­pany’s sta­tionery in 1955 as “Cheese Fla­vored Hon­ey­comb Corn Puffs,” are a cheese-coated snack made from ex­truded corn. The name Cheezie it­self is trade­marked by W.T. Hawkins Lim­ited. While sim­i­lar snacks are mar­keted by other com­pa­nies, Cheezie fans and the Hawkins com­pany them­selves ar­gue that the Cheezie is dis­tinc­tive and su­pe­rior. In the words of one blog­ger, “It’s dif­fi­cult to con­vey to the unini­ti­ated the vast­ness of the gap that sep­a­rates Hawkins Cheezies in their as­sy­met­ri­cal [sic], lumpy, orange-fin­gered gran­deur, from the in­fe­rior sort that melts into grainy sludge in your mouth.” It is an opin­ion that is not un­com­mon among Cheezie fans. A Cana­dian fam­ily liv­ing in Gu­atemala par­tic­i­pates in an an­nual party that of­fers tast­ings of var­i­ous cheese­flavoured ex­truded snacks. Ac­cord­ing to a blog post, “25 va­ri­eties of cheesies [sic] of all forms are ven­er­ated, dis­cussed, tasted, judged. Oh, and eaten… An­nu­ally, it is Hawkins that takes pride of place among dis­cern­ing rev­ellers. True, there is the odd party-goer who in­sists on some other brand, like those Host­ess puff balls that dis­in­te­grate in your mouth like sponge tof­fee. But dis­senters are quickly and drunk­enly shouted down by Hawkins loy­al­ists.” One cus­tomer sug­gests mi­crowav­ing Cheezies for fif­teen sec­onds: “they are de­li­cious!!!” This fond­ness for warm Cheezies is shared by for­mer Hawkins pro­duc­tion man­ager Geral­dine Fobert, who as­serts that Cheezie de­vel­oper Jim Marker pre­ferred them that way, too.

I can hon­estly say that, if Mom packed lunch, or my sis­ter, you al­ways went to the end of the tum­bler [in the pro­duc­tion fac­tory] with a plate and you got hot Cheezies. And when you come back, you ate the hot Cheezies with your sand­wich or your ham­burger or your hot dog or what­ever you had. And when I was out there [in the plant] just now? I’m eat­ing hot Cheezies. I am a per­son that eats hot Cheezies. And Mr. Marker said, “You want re­ally good Cheezies, warm, put them on the dash of your car and the sun will heat them.”

Cheezies are a “hard bite” snack (un­like the “soft bite” of the bet­ter known Chee­tos by Frito-lay), and are made with real Cana­dian ched­dar cheese. They are man­u­fac­tured at only one small fac­tory, lo­cated in Belleville, 190 kilo­me­tres east of Toronto, on the north­ern shore of Lake On­tario. The orig­i­nal facility, how­ever, was in Tweed, On­tario (a village of a few thou­sand peo­ple north­east of Toronto).

THE CUBAN LUNCH

With the clo­sure of the com­pany in 1991, Paulins prod­ucts have not been made for a quar­ter-cen­tury. Yet, the mem­ory of their taste re­mains—and is memo­ri­al­ized in a pub­lic Face­book group called “Bring Back the Cuban Lunch.” The Cuban Lunch was a slab of choco­late that con­tained peanuts, and that was formed and pack­aged in the shal­low, rec­tan­gu­lar equiv­a­lent of a cup­cake liner, com­plete with fluted edges. The “Bring Back the Cuban Lunch” Face­book group de­scribes their man­date as an ef­fort to re­vive “the best choco­late/peanut com­bi­na­tion ever in­vented,” in much the same way that a con­sumer cam­paign led to the re­turn of the dis­con­tin­ued Mex­i­can Chili flavour of Old Dutch potato chips. The group also func­tions as a so­cial com­mu­nity, as the in­vited mem­ber­ship ex­tends beyond nos­tal­gic for­mer con­sumers. One post sug­gests, “Even if you don’t re­mem­ber them or have never had the plea­sure of tast­ing one… just join the group, in­vite all your friends and see what hap­pens!!!” As of 2016, the group’s mem­ber­ship was 380. Mem­bers par­tic­i­pate in the Face­book group by post­ing pho­tos, de­bat­ing the mer­its of var­i­ous recipes and al­ter­na­tive prod­ucts, and shar­ing their me­mories of eat­ing Cuban Lunch.

As is ev­i­dent from the group’s name, the group dis­cusses ef­forts to re­vive the brand. One mem­ber sug­gested that the group con­tact con­fec­tion­ers to ask them to in­clude the Cuban Lunch in their prod­uct line: “We should all put a con­sumer re­quest to­gether and send it to any and all candy com­pa­nies to see if they would un­der­take pro­duc­ing the Cuban lunch again.” Trade­mark own­er­ship was iden­ti­fied as a po­ten­tial set­back for such a plan, how­ever. Mem­ber Daniel Gilchrist caused some brief ex­cite­ment within the group when he posted that, after a two- or three-year ef­fort, he had suc­ceeded in track­ing down the cur­rent owner of the Cuban Lunch trade­mark. The owner’s lawyer, he as­serts, re­sponded that he should make a fi­nan­cial of­fer for it. Some group mem­bers have sug­gested crowd­fund­ing to re­vive the prod­uct: one post asks, “Who wants to go in with me and start a com­pany to re-make the Cuban Lunch again? Email me and I will set

up a Kick­starter plan.” An­other asks, “Has any­one bought the rights and recipe yet? Surely some­one wants to be­come Cuban Lunch King!” Th­ese ef­forts to re­vive the brand are not the main fo­cus of the group, how­ever, de­spite the group’s name.

More of the group’s time is spent de­bat­ing ex­ist­ing al­ter­na­tives to the Cuban Lunch. Whit­taker’s Peanut Slab is of­ten pro­moted within the group as the clos­est cur­rently avail­able taste sub­sti­tute for the Cuban Lunch (com­ments in­clude: “close but not quite as it is a lit­tle bit sweeter and not quite the right con­sis­tency,” and “too thin and not enough crunch”). Mem­bers dis­cuss how to ar­range ship­ping of this prod­uct from New Zealand, its point of ori­gin. Her­shey’s Mr. Good­bar is some­times also sug­gested as an in­ad­e­quate al­ter­na­tive. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a one-off sug­ges­tion is made:

David Dun­ster: The clos­est I can get to a Cuban lunch is the “Fruit & Nut” from Cad­bury. [This de­spite the fact that the Cuban Lunch never con­tained fruit.]

Chris Neufeld: That is the op­po­site of “close.”

The taste of th­ese al­ter­na­tive choco­late bars is seen as in­fe­rior to that of group mem­bers’ col­lec­tive mem­ory of the orig­i­nal Cuban Lunch. Some at­tribute this taste dif­fer­ence to the con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion or to na­tion­al­ism: ac­cord­ing to one post, “Hard to du­pli­cate the orig­i­nal Win­nipeg treat by mass pro­duc­ing in [the United States of] Amer­ica.”

Since re­vival and al­ter­na­tives are both dis­ap­point­ing, the ma­jor­ity of the dis­cus­sion within the group is cen­tred on repli­ca­tion. De­spite group agree­ment that the Cuban Lunch con­sisted ex­clu­sively of choco­late and peanuts, a wide va­ri­ety of po­ten­tial recipes are pro­posed and de­bated, in­cor­po­rat­ing but­ter­scotch, potato chips and other ad­di­tives. This de­bate is as­sisted by the fact that the In­ter­net does not con­tain any im­ages of the orig­i­nal Paulins Cuban Lunch pack­ag­ing (and thus its in­gre­di­ent list­ing). Pro­nounce­ments are made on the de­gree to which th­ese recipes re­pro­duce the group mem­bers’ me­mories of the taste of Cuban Lunch. Thus, for ex­am­ple, Duff Macdon­ald posted a Cuban Lunch recipe sourced from Donna Peck­har­land of “Kirk­field Park United [Church], Win­nipeg (She worked on the line mak­ing them ev­ery day!).” By nam­ing the recipe’s au­thor and her church af­fil­i­a­tion, by as­sert­ing that she was a for­mer Paulins worker who had made Cuban Lunches, and by not pro­vid­ing the orig­i­nal date or place of pub­li­ca­tion, Macdon­ald gives this recipe a time­less au­thor­ity. The recipe is the du­pli­cate of one printed in the Win­nipeg Free Press in 2002, but in­cludes vari­a­tions such as adding co­conut. Peck-har­land’s Cuban Lunch recipe in­gre­di­ents are peanut but­ter chips, but­ter­scotch chips, choco­late chips, crushed rip­ple potato chips and un­salted peanuts. The recipe calls for the in­gre­di­ents to be melted and poured into cup­cake lin­ers and then re­frig­er­ated. Fur­ther re­search re­veals that this recipe was sub­mit­ted orig­i­nally by Ms. Peck-har­land to the Fort Qu’ap­pelle Prairie

Chris­tian Train­ing Cen­tre’s A Cook­book of Me­mories, first pub­lished in 2001. Nowhere does this cook­book claim that Peck­har­land was a Paulins worker.

“Bring Back the Cuban Lunch” group mem­bers who tried the Peck-har­land recipe deemed it in­au­then­tic, de­spite not know­ing its prove­nance. Some as­serted that this recipe was “not the Cuban Lunch I re­mem­ber” as they didn’t “re­mem­ber any potato prod­ucts in it.” Duff Macdon­ald, who had posted the recipe to the Face­book page, re­sponded: “[Cuban Lunch didn’t con­tain any potato prod­ucts] that you know of… maybe the one I like did too.” In other words, there may have been other in­gre­di­ents in the Cuban Lunch, ones that were less iden­ti­fi­able to the average eater than choco­late and peanuts, but which none­the­less con­trib­uted to its dis­tinc­tive taste. As so­ci­ol­o­gist Priscilla Parkhurst Fer­gu­son re­minds us, “Taste is no­to­ri­ously un­trust­wor­thy.”

The taste of a Cuban Lunch, then, is about more than its ac­knowl­edged in­gre­di­ents; there must be some ad­di­tional com­po­nent that made the prod­uct more than sim­ply choco­late and peanuts. The in­clu­sion of crushed Old Dutch rip­ple chips in pur­ported Cuban Lunch recipes, for ex­am­ple, is an at­tempt to re­pro­duce a his­tor­i­cal and nos­tal­gic taste that can­not be ac­cessed through the ac­knowl­edged sim­ple in­gre­di­ents (choco­late and Span­ish peanuts) of the no-longer-avail­able orig­i­nal prod­uct. Some group mem­bers hint at the im­pos­si­bil­ity of re­pro­duc­ing the orig­i­nal taste. One post com­mented, “I’m not re­ally sure if it was that they were that good or if it’s more a child­hood mem­ory thing, tak­ing me back to a sim­pler time. In any event I would love to try one again and find out.” Oth­ers ac­knowl­edge that the point of the recipes is not to repli­cate the taste but to repli­cate me­mories through taste.

Alice Cristo­foli: I found a recipe on the in­ter­net and made them a cou­ple years ago. They were al­most the same as the orig­i­nal Cuban lunch.

Dal­las Pat­ter­son Jr.: I’ve tried one of the recipes too, but it’s been so long since I’ve had the orig­i­nal it’s hard to say if it’s close. Was still very good though.

Patti Garner: If you taste a recipe that brings back the me­mories of the Cuban Lunch, that’s all you need! LOL.

Some sug­gest that the taste was de­ter­mined by not only the con­tent but the form of the prod­uct: the thick­ness of the bar and its dis­tinc­tive crimped edges. One mem­ber com­mented, “Sure, any­one can put peanuts in choco­late, that’s child’s play. For me, it was more about the shape/pre­sen­ta­tion.” There are those, how­ever, who per­sist in their quest for the “one true” recipe, de­spite seem­ingly know­ing the Cuban Lunch’s two-in­gre­di­ent iden­tity. Chris Neufeld com­mented, “Ok, look… is it SE­RI­OUSLY that hard in this in­ter­con­nected world, to find some­one that worked at the damn place, and can give us the ba­sic REAL recipe? I mean re­ally, I’m not ask­ing for the nu­clear codes… it’s choco­late and peanuts for sh*t sake!”

OLD DUTCH POTATO CHIPS

Potato chips, when first com­mer­cially pro­duced in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, were un­flavoured—just thin slices of potato, fried and salted. By the 1950s, flavoured potato chips had been in­tro­duced. In 1959, half the potato chips pro­duced in the Old Dutch plant in Win­nipeg were flavoured. Old Dutch made only six types of potato chips back then: bar­be­cue, hick­ory smoked, pizza, onion and gar­lic, rip­ple, and plain (un­flavoured). Sea­son­ing was sprin­kled on “in pow­der form after the chip has been fried”—a labour-in­ten­sive prac­tice, ac­cord­ing to a Min­ne­ap­o­lis Daily Star ar­ti­cle. The com­pany claims to be the first to in­tro­duce the pop­u­lar sour cream and onion flavour, which they de­vel­oped with Min­nesota’s North Star Dairy in 1968. Old Dutch also claims to be the first in Canada to of­fer the salt and vine­gar flavour. By the 1970s, Old Dutch of­fered the ad­di­tional flavours of bar­be­cue and onion and gar­lic, as well as new cuts of potato chips such as shoestring. A decade later, new prod­ucts in­cluded pop­corn twists, “Cheez Corn” and sour cream and onion­flavoured rings. The onion and gar­lic flavour was dis­con­tin­ued in 1996, to be re­placed by “all dressed” rip­ple chips and a new French onion flavour. Such ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with, and im­prove­ment upon, flavours was on­go­ing—not al­ways to the sat­is­fac­tion of all cus­tomers, some of whom had de­vel­oped strong pref­er­ences for par­tic­u­lar Old Dutch prod­ucts.

The onion and gar­lic flavour was brought back into pro­duc­tion, since its re­moval from the prod­uct line “caused such an up­roar” among cus­tomers. An on­line pe­ti­tion was launched in 2009 to “bring back the orig­i­nal flavour of Old Dutch BBQ potato chips” after the flavour was changed to a “bold” bar­be­cue by the com­pany. Cus­tomer Al Basler as­serted, “I have been buying Old Dutch BBQ chips since I was 7 years old. That is over 47 years. I will not buy any more Old Dutch chips un­til you bring back the orig­i­nal BBQ flavour. The new ‘bold’ is crap and is not a wor­thy sub­sti­tute… How dare you get rid of a nec­es­sary life­long favourite snack.”

Such re­place­ments of flavours are nec­es­sary, how­ever. “Dogs”— flavours that sell in low vol­ume—must be re­moved from the prod­uct line, be­cause Old Dutch has lim­ited space on store shelves. In ad­di­tion, flavour pref­er­ences tend to be re­gion-spe­cific: Cana­di­ans pre­fer stronger and more di­verse flavours, as well as any­thing vine­gar-based (such as ketchup, dill and bar­be­cue), com­pared with Amer­i­cans’ pref­er­ences. Th­ese dif­fer­ences may be the re­sult of the Bri­tish tra­di­tion in Canada of us­ing vine­gar on French fries, a prac­tice not com­mon in the United States. By con­trast, Mid­west­ern Amer­i­cans tend to pre­fer sour cream and onion as well as cheese flavours, pos­si­bly as a re­sult of the re­gion’s Scan­di­na­vian her­itage, though bar­be­cue is also pop­u­lar.

A long-stand­ing fea­ture of Old Dutch chips that some fans claim af­fects their flavour is in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing as a re­sult of im­prove­ments in tech­nol­ogy. When stored or har­vested be­low ten de­grees

Cel­sius, potato starch turns into sugar; the re­sult, when th­ese pota­toes are pro­cessed, is brown chips. There are those who have a pref­er­ence for th­ese darker chips: “Pale chips have no char­ac­ter. The brown ver­sions have an ex­tra caramelly al­most-burnt-but-not-quite edge that gives their pale cousins a proper beat­down,” claims one blog­ger. Old Dutch them­selves pro­mote th­ese “de­fects” as de­sir­able qual­i­ties: their web­site ex­plains, “Some­times you will no­tice green edges or brown potato chips. Th­ese unique at­tributes are what makes our pota­toes one-of-a-kind and hard to du­pli­cate by any of our com­peti­tors.” But, with the in­tro­duc­tion of op­ti­cal scan­ners in the 1990s, most of the darker chips on the pro­duc­tion line are de­tected and re­moved be­fore be­ing pack­aged. “That’s the in­dus­try stan­dard—the whiter, the bet­ter… A lit­tle bit of brown has a lot more flavour, but it is the in­dus­try stan­dard,” says an in­dus­try ex­pert. Since the 1950s, other flaws in chip pro­duc­tion have been avoided through a care­ful process of qual­ity con­trol. In the 1950s, bad chips could re­sult from too much hu­mid­ity, or from tem­per­a­ture changes that ren­der the oil in which they are fried ran­cid. Old Dutch’s lab chemists test the oil mul­ti­ple times daily, as well as per­form checks for mois­ture and sugar con­tent of pota­toes.

Other con­sumer pref­er­ences in­clude pur­chas­ing Old Dutch chips in boxes rather than bags. Th­ese “twin pack” boxes con­tain two bags of chips, so con­sumers do not have to open one large bag and chips stay fresher. With im­prove­ments in bag pack­ag­ing, th­ese boxes are no longer as nec­es­sary. Fill­ing the bags with ni­tro­gen prior to their be­ing sealed de­lays ox­i­da­tion of the chips. In ear­lier years, the bags were made from glas­sine (a type of grease-re­sis­tant pa­per); when the tem­per­a­ture dropped be­low mi­nus thirty de­grees Cel­sius (not un­com­mon in a Win­nipeg win­ter!), the bags would break. Con­tem­po­rary chip bags are of more sta­ble con­struc­tion. But con­sumer nos­tal­gia means that Old Dutch con­tin­ues to pack­age chips in boxes as well as bags, de­spite boxes be­ing more ex­pen­sive to pro­duce.

Other in­no­va­tions in Old Dutch potato chips have been the re­sult of con­sumer de­mand for health­ier and more flavour­ful snacks. Old Dutch in­tro­duced baked (rather than fried) potato chips, re­duced the sodium in their chips and in­tro­duced nat­u­ral (rather than ar­ti­fi­cial) sea­son­ings (in­clud­ing re­duced sul­fites and monosodium glu­ta­mate). Not all Old Dutch em­ploy­ees are fans of the baked chips, de­scrib­ing them as tast­ing “like card­board.” And not all flavours have been im­proved in th­ese ways: it has not been pos­si­ble to ad­just the sodium level or re­move the ar­ti­fi­cial colour­ing in the ketchup flavour, in par­tic­u­lar, with­out chang­ing its taste sig­nif­i­cantly. New flavours and tex­tures were in­tro­duced to ap­peal to gen­er­a­tional and re­gional dif­fer­ences in taste. An ar­ti­cle in the Na­tional Post stated, “Teenagers go for in­tense flavours like Dori­tos. Adults grav­i­tate to sour cream and BBQ flavours. Cana­di­ans in gen­eral like salt and vine­gar flavours, and ketchup flavour is par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in Man­i­toba. Those two flavours none­the­less are duds south of the bor­der.” Ket­tle-cooked chips (mar­keted as Dutch Crunch) and in­tensely flavoured chips (mar­keted as Rave) were de­signed to ap­peal to teenagers and to those who liked ar­ti­sanal chips. Bob Shumka, Old Dutch gen­eral sales man­ager, ex­plained: “In launch­ing Rave, our teen-ori­ented potato chip line, we en­sured that it had a high, high spice level… We heard that the kids were lick­ing the fla­vors off first, then eat­ing the chip. In our salt and vine­gar va­ri­ety, there’s so much ex­tra salt that your eyes wa­ter when you open the bag. But the kids love it, be­cause it’s their prod­uct.” Rave was even­tu­ally dis­con­tin­ued.

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