YUM! Janis Thiessen on Canadian Snack Food

Janis Thiessen's new book is a history of everybody's favourite part of Canada's food history: the snacks. Hawkins Cheezies, anybody? (Yes, please!). In this recommended reading list, Thiessen shares other Canadian food books that have informed her work. 

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Like so many others, I love to eat. And for the last few years, I’ve enjoyed reading, researching, and writing about the history of food. Whether it’s a cookbook from my ethno-religious community, or a photo collection of agricultural workers, there’s a wide range of material to explore. Here are some personal favourites, a few of which I used when writing my own food history book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History

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The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes, by the Canadian Mennonite Conference

The cookbook of my ancestors! It’s one of those classic, small-town ethnic community cookbooks that were so prevalent in mid-20th-century Canada. My copy, which was a gift from my parents many years ago, is marked up with our family’s preferred recipes for such Mennonite classics as rollkuchen and kommst borscht. The book is a great piece of history: recipe contributors are identified by their husbands’ names (Mrs. Walter Unger), and assumed knowledge abounds.

My friend’s favourite recipe in this book is the one for apple pie, which he finds hilarious: details are provided for preparing and seasoning the apples, but there are no instructions for preparing the pie dough (“make a pie dough” is as helpful as it gets!) as this was presumably common knowledge among southern Manitoba Mennonite women in the 1960s. My favourite part, though, is at the back of the book, where the actual menu for a multi-day conference of Mennonites is provided. The amount and variety of food offered at each meal is astounding, and the brilliant re-use of ingredients as reimagined leftovers in subsequent days’ meals is inspiring.

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Candymaking in Canada, by David Carr

This is a detailed study of business consolidation in the Canadian candy industry. Carr details the manufacturing processes for chocolate, candy, and gum. He describes classic Canadian companies like Neilson and Lowney, many of which were branches of American or British firms, and many of which subsequently died, merged, or were bought out by foreign entities. I made good use of this work while researching the candy and chocolate chapters of Snacks: A Canadian Food History.  

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The Donut: A Canadian History, by Steve Penfold

Penfold’s Donut is a classic in Canadian food history. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as the focus is on Ontario. This is not so much a social history as it is a business history of Canadian franchising—and one that I use regularly in my Food History classes at the University of Winnipeg. Readers will be interested in the explanation of how donut shops became so ubiquitous in Canada. Highlights of the book, for me, include the interviews Penfold conducted with donut franchise operator Costas Kiriakopoulos and others, and the scientific photos of donuts’ absorption of oil at various frying temperatures. Yum!

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Harvest Pilgrims: Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers in Canada, by Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Food studies in general, and food history in particular, pays too little attention to the role of labour. And when labour is examined, the focus tends to be on glamourized trades like chef or organic farmer. But food systems in North America are heavily dependent on migrant labour, and have been for decades. This beautifully photographed book gives insight into the lives of these migrant workers. Pietropaolo provides glimpses into not only their work lives, but also their lives at home—both in Canada and in their home countries. What emerges is a story of exploitation, but also of resilience.

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Book Cover Snacks

About SnacksSnacks is a history of Canadian snack foods, of the independent producers and workers who make them, and of the consumers who can’t put them down. 

Janis Thiessen profiles several iconic Canadian snack food companies, including Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies, and chocolate maker Ganong. These companies have developed in distinctive ways, reflecting the unique stories of their founders and their intense connection to specific locations. 

These stories of salty or sweet confections also reveal a history that is at odds with popular notions of “junk food.” Through extensive oral history and archival research, Thiessen uncovers the roots of our deep loyalties to different snack foods, what it means to be an independent snack food producer, and the often-quirky ways snacks have been created and marketed.

Clearly written, extensively illustrated, and lavish with detail about some of Canadians’ favorite snacks, this is a lively and entertaining look at food and labour history.

Janis Thiessen is an associate professor of History and Associate Director of the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg. (Her favourite snack food is dill pickle potato chips.) 

September 11, 2017
Books mentioned in this post
The Donut

The Donut

A Canadian History
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Harvest Pilgrims

Harvest Pilgrims

Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers in Canada
edition:Paperback
More Info
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