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  • Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen
  • Joel Dickau (bio)
Janis Thiessen. Snacks: A Canadian Food History. University of Manitoba Press. 352. $27.95

Historian Janis Thiessen contends that snack foods have been central to the average Canadian diet since the 1950s. Salty, crunchy, melting, and sweet, snacks deliver punches of pleasure so intoxicating as to inspire online fan [End Page 234] clubs in search of the true recipe for discontinued candy while promoting fierce loyalty amongst Western Canadians for a brand of chip indistinguishable to the uninitiated, all while health professionals have anxiously sought to supress our habituated cravings. Yet, rather than dwell on the battle for eaters' willpower, Thiessen sets out to tell the stories of small- and medium-scale snack food producers, many now defunct, with a particular focus on the people that worked for them and the economic and social relationships that potato chipping, chocolate making, and confectioning businesses have had with smaller cities and towns throughout English-speaking Canada in the mid-twentieth century. Although the book does not build much upon its national premise, it nevertheless succeeds in demonstrating that "in-between" foods became an uncanny source for regional mythology in the twentieth century and that manufacturers, workers, and consumers have long been engaged in a tripartite struggle for ownership over them.

The book is organized by sensation, beginning with salty and crisp. The first three chapters chronicle broad changes in the national potato chip industry since the 1950s, sizing up an American subsidiary's dominance in the prairies while highlighting potato farmers' historically close association with manufacturers. Some farms have recently transitioned into production, providing Thiessen with an opportunity to evaluate the ability of pastoral nostalgia to sell specialty products or subdue workers' demands. In the most well-rounded chapter, she examines the curious fortunes of a one-time American snack food titan whose vast holdings were stripped during a protracted family drama of all but a single plant in Bellville, Ontario, the entire output of which has consisted since 1956 of a single extruded corn-based product. As with the first of the chip studies, the manufacturers' border-crossing history belies its staunchly Ontarian branding, yet this cultivated mythology is shown to serve the interests of workers who are freed from the standard physical and psychic pressures of competition in the food industry.

With regard to sweets, Thiessen shows how Anglo-Canadian women employed at three eminent chocolatiers across Canada struggled to organize or even gain recognition from management for their technical skills – failures that she argues stemmed from wider Canadian society's paternalistic attitudes towards working women. Yet, even as tension in the factories went unresolved, she finds deep fondness amongst former workers and their families for the treats they once made, suggesting their sense of ownership over their work manifested when tasting it. Following a short review of candy manufacturers, the book concludes with an interview-driven study of Kids Bids, a syndicated television show sponsored by Old Dutch potato chips that appeared on public stations across the prairies in the 1960s. It featured local children who bid competitively on prizes using the company's empty potato chip bags as currency, which they and their families had to personally collect, often for months, prior to going on the show. Thiessen expertly teases out class, gender, and age dynamics surrounding children's participation in the [End Page 235] program and considers corporate-sponsored entertainment from the vantage of nostalgia for their youth.

The greatest strength of Snacks is its warm engagement with oral history. Interviews with workers and their children, manufacturing and farming families, as well as devotees of particular products are juxtaposed without excessive theorization. By the same token, however, Thiessen does not pose a theoretical arc for her assorted studies, and descriptive chapters like that on candy suffer as a result. Academic readers will crave deeper analysis, including cross-comparisons of the presented snack food industries and with the white cultures, which are presented here as homogenous and obvious. Here, the absence of examples from French-speaking Canada is conspicuous, especially for a book bearing the subtitle "A Canadian Food History." Nevertheless, Canadian and food historians...


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pp. 234-236
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