Don’t call it junk food.
It’s academic research, at least for a University of Winnipeg historian, Janis Thiessen. Or just call it a snack, based on the title of Professor Thiessen’s latest book. While traveling on assignment recently, I picked up a copy of “Snacks: A Canadian Food History,” which was published last year. I became intrigued and decided this newsletter deserved some snack time.
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.
Professor 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 Professor 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 Professor 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. Professor 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