Snacks: A Canadian Food History – Janis Thiessen


I received a review copy of this book through University of Manitoba Press.  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. The official launch for Snacks will be held tomorrow, October 10th, at McNally Robinson Booksellers.  The book launch begins at 7:00 pm and will be held in the atrium of the Grant Park Store.

Snacks. A part of what makes life worth living. Snacks of course mean different things to different people. For some people snacks mean vegetables dipped in hummus or some other healthy type of dip. If you are such a person you might as well stop reading now.

Snacks: is all about those sweet, salty, deep-fried, flour caked items that bring us pleasure as we sit and binge watch Netflix. The comfort food we turn to when we gather with our families, or grab and sneak off and avoid our families(Hey! It happens). For some people snacks are integral part of their eating day, while for others they are more markers of special events

Snacks for the read

Reading material with snacks to go alongside it.

Snacks: A Canadian Good History  is the the third book by Janis Thiessen, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, with a specific focus on labour and oral history. Thiessen shares here own memories of snacks, and how the way in which they were part of her life growing up. Snacks is a love letter to many favourite Canadian Snack foods. At the same time it recognizes that like all relationships the story of snacks in Canada is complicated with many low points as well as high points. and things are rarely exactly as they seem to be.

I approach this book as someone for whom snacks were not a big part of my growing up. An evening snack for us was generally a piece of bread with margarine(this wasn’t because of a belief in the superiority of margarine, simply that it was cheaper).  I don’t even remember having jam with it. Snacks such as chips, chocolate, and pop were reserved for such special times as Christmas, and occasionally other holidays. The other thing in my snack background was a lack of brand loyalty. Whatever was cheapest would be what ended up in our house.

However, reading through the book brings back memories. Many of the products were part of my chldhood. Even if I didn’t eat Old Dutch Chips very often, I still can hum the TV commercial jingles.

I do remember buying Nutty Club candy with my allowance, but my greater memories of them were of putting them into Sunshine Bags, something not dissimilar to the Christmas bags the authors father received at church, which my dad as a Salvation Army Correctional Services officer would distribute in the various jails around Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Thiessen begins the book with an Apologia pro Snackia. Her first contention is that snacks have gotten a bad reputation over the last few years. Those who believe that all food should be local and home-cooked, along with those for every new elicits a “won’t someone please think of the children response,” have painted snacks in a negative light.

One of the aspects of the local, home cooking, school of thought that Thiessen takes issue with is the fact that most people’s grandmothers were already making use of industrialized food production. The benefits of processed food in people’s diets is also noted by Lizzy Collingham in her book the Taste of War, which relates how processed food most likely saved thousands if not millions of lives during WWII.

Old Dutch chips snack

Regular Old Dutch Chips to snack on while I read.

Another aspect of this school that comes under scrutiny is the gendered nature of the kitchens that we are encouraged to get back to. This theme of gendered food production is carried throughout the book highlighting many places where the divisions that made for higher salaries for men in the snack food industry were arbitrary, men’s work considered skilled, and women’s not, even when the job of the woman may require a great deal of skill(148).

Snacks: Old Dutch Ketchup Chips

Old Dutch Ketchup Chips. Popular with Canadians but not particularly with Americans.

Myth-Making and Storytelling

One theme that comes out throughout the book is the role of myth-making and storytelling in the marketing of snack foods. Among persistent myths are those of  Canadian snacks that are in fact American. Sometimes the stories are told to reinvent histories of failures, personal or business, as tales of ingenuity and industriousness. Other stories are told to bring history to a product where none exists.

These stories are necessary, because one of the barriers that most Canadian snack companies face is the fact that even the large ones are small compared to the American and International conglomerates they are up against. these stories make consuming about more than the product itself, but appeal to deeper, long standing views of self, community, and even country.

For many years these marketing campaigns and story telling were effective, but over time the size advantage has come to hurt the smaller Canadian snack makers. I got to encounter much of the customer loyalty that Thiessen writes about during my years in the grocery business. There were those customers for whom only Old Dutch Chips would do, and who drop by to pick up boxes and occasionally even a case to take on a visit to a relative who lived in an area where Old Dutch wasn’t available.

Hawkins Cheezies ruled the cheesy snack section, until the owner found a cheaper off-price American Brand that came reasonably close in taste and texture.

Hawkins the All-Canadian American Snack.

Hawkins Cheezies the American product that became quintessentially Canadian. Kind of the snack version of Mr. Dressup.

This myth making also extends internally. Many of the businesses depicted in the book are family run, and the myth of the employees as part of an extended family features in many companies histories. However, as is often the story these family stories are also used to keep employees from unionizing and keeping wage costs down.

One of the strengths of Thiessen’s research is that she has delved into some of the stories behind these stories. The oral history format gives voice to many employees who would normally not be given a voice in describing a company’s history. Throughout the book Thiessen keeps the pace of story telling crisp and balances well minutiae of scholarly detail with narrative material.

I would highly recommend that you pick up copy of Snacks to read. The season of gift giving and parties is soon upon us, and a copy of Snacks along with a sampling of favourite snacks makes a great gift idea.

 

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