A history of Canadian snack food
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.