Day 6

Old Dutch chips and Hawkins Cheezies: A brief history of Canadian snacks

Janis Thiessen, author of "Snacks: A Canadian Food History," shares the backstory behind our favourite Canadian snacks, from Old Dutch Chips to Cheezies and Ganong chocolates.
Janis Thiessen's book Snacks: A Canadian Food History profiles small independent snack food companies like Hawkins and Old Dutch. (Janis Thiessen/UW Communications/University of Manitoba Press)

Writing about candy didn't pose too much of a challenge for Winnipeg author Janis Thiessen, who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth. 

But the potato chip chapters of her latest book were another story.

"Those were tough going," she laughs.

Thiessen is a history professor at the University of Winnipeg and the author of Snacks: A Canadian Food History.

The book documents the little-known stories behind classic Canadian treats like Old Dutch potato chips, Cheezies and Ganong chocolates.

But as Thiessen tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, she has a personal weakness for one Canadian snack in particular.

"Dill pickle flavour Old Dutch potato chips," she says. "I'll take dill in any imaginable variety!"

(Janis Thiessen/University of Manitoba Press)


What Canadians crave

Canadians' snack food cravings vary across the country, but Thiessen says the real differences emerge when we compare our snacking habits to our American neighbours'.

"We are much more fond of the vinegar flavours — salt and vinegar, dill pickle, ketchup chips — and it's a much more a sour cream-based fondness for flavourings in the United States."

According to Thiessen, many of those differences stem from our countries' different immigration patterns.

Old Dutch print advertisement. (Old Dutch Foods Canada Facebook Page)
The American arm of Old Dutch, for example, sold more sour cream-flavoured chips because it was based in Minneapolis, which had a high population of Nordic immigrants.

"Here, it's far more Russian-Ukrainian, and we love ourselves some dill and some vinegar," she says of the Winnipeg-based Canadian branch of the chip company.

But the potato chip flavours we know and love today were pretty much nonexistent before the 1950s and 1960s, Thiessen says. In fact, flavoured potato chips were pretty much unheard of.

"It was just, you know, deep-fried and salted and there you go."

A few potato chip companies claim to be responsible for introducing the world to flavours like sour cream and onion, ketchup and salt and vinegar chips — including Old Dutch, but they weren't always a smash success.

"It took a while for some of these flavours to catch on," Thiessen says.

At least one popular Canadian flavour, All Dressed, has yet to take off around the world.

(Janis Thiessen)


The Hawkins Cheezies lifestyle

Hawkins Cheezies are another quintessential Canadian snack — but their business model is definitely atypical. 

The company has only one product. And they don't have much of a marketing strategy.

They knock off work about mid-afternoon on Fridays; they don't work on weekends. And so they fear that if they advertise, they might increase their market share, which would require them to sell more Cheezies.- Janis Thiessen, author of "Snacks: A Canadian Food History."

"They don't advertise, and they don't diversify, because they really like their worklife," Thiessen says.

"They knock off work about mid-afternoon on Fridays; they don't work on weekends. And so they fear that if they advertise, they might increase their market share, which would require them to sell more Cheezies."

"As it is, they sell everything they make."

Covered Bridge Chips, a company based in New Brunswick that launched in 2004, have taken a different strategy to market their deep-fried potato snacks.

"They've purpose-built their plant so that it is a tourist attraction," Thiessen says. "Two sides of the manufacturing facility are glass so that tourists can come by the busload, as they do, to see look at how these chips are made."

The company's developed some unusual flavours, too — from seasonal lobster-flavoured snacks to 'storm chips,' which is packaged to include four different flavours of chips in one bag.

NHL hockey player Bobby Hull and Shirley Woodcox with a giant Hawkins chip bag, circa 1950. (W.T. Hawkins Ltd.)


The Canadian sweet tooth

The Pot of Gold chocolate box, developed by the Halifax-based chocolatier Moirs in 1928, is one of Canada's sweeter claims to fame.

Moirs XXX Chocolates newspaper advertisement (Nova Scotia Archives Moirs Collection)
For many Canadian families, the chocolates became a popular Christmas tradition. But the rainbow-themed product wasn't destined to stay in Canada.

"It had gotten sold off to a number of businesspeople in the Maritimes who ran it for a while, and then eventually Hershey's bought it," Thiessen says.

Hershey moved production to Dartmouth, N.S. after purchasing the company in 1987, but within a few decades the company closed that plant down — and moved production to Mexico.

Today, the family-owned Ganong Bros. Limited — also based in the Maritimes — is among the last surviving major Canadian chocolate companies.

Even if you've never heard of Ganong, you've probably heard of their best-known invention: the heart-shaped Valentine's Day chocolate box.

Ganong is one of Canada's oldest candy and chocolate companies and one of the few companies profiled in Janis Thiessen's book that is still in operation. (Janis Thiessen/University of Manitoba Press)

The company's strong commitment to family is one of the secrets to Ganong's success, according to Thiessen. For nearly its entire history, only members of the Ganong family have been involved in the upper echelons of the business.

But Ganong has also benefitted from close ties to the local community, she says.

"They have a chocolate festival that's a week long that is heavily sponsored by Ganong, and all sorts of events — so there's a lot of community support for that particular community."

NOTE: On Saturday, October 14th, Janis Thiessen will be on stage with the CBC podcast The Fridge Light as part of the HotDocs Podcast Festival

To hear the full interview with Janis Thiessen, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.