Picture of a white woman with short grey hair and glasses, next to a photo of cheese puff snacks.

An Interview with Janis Thiessen on Snacks

I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of my long time Twitter buddies, Janis Thiessen, Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Oral History Center at the University of Winnipeg, about her new book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History. I’ve never had the chance to taste many of the salty and sweet treats Snacks covers, though we can agree that dill pickle potato chips are delightful. There’s no wonder why they are Janis’s favorite snack food. Tangy crunchiness aside, I was drawn to Janis’s enthusiastic study, most notably for how it centers the perspectives of labor, producers, and small, independent companies within the more common narrative of the global, corporate, industrialized food system. What follows is our conversation about the history of snacks in Canada and what it reveals about both food production and consumption.

Emily: In the book’s acknowledgments, you thank your brother for giving you the idea to write a food history of Canadian snacks, but how did you come to this project? Labor history is a clear thread from your previous books — Manufacturing Mennonites: Work and Religion in Post-War Manitoba (2013) and Not Talking Union: Mennonites in Canada and the United States (2016). What else drew you to chips, chocolate, and candy?

Janis: I was finished with the research and was into the writing of Not Talking Union, and so was looking for my next research project. I’m interested in labor history, but also in the history of smaller, privately-held businesses. My brother suggested I study Old Dutch Foods, which has had a potato chip plant in my hometown since the 1950s, and which has been a staple food of mine for many years! From there, the project expanded to include other independent Canadian snack food manufacturers.

Black and white photo of a white woman in a Dutch costume handing a white man a box of Old Dutch chips.
Old Dutch chips display in a grocery store. (Janis Thiessen/University of Manitoba Press)

I also had been reading some of the work by Michael Pollan, Michael Moss, and others. I wondered if their critiques of “Big Food” were applicable to the smaller, independent, family-owned businesses that I tended to study. And the way some popular writers who covered contemporary food issues ignored or judged workers in some food-producing industries and workplaces made me wonder whether I could write a book that was more attuned to labor history. My original plan was to look only at manufacturers of salty snacks, as a way of keeping the research to a manageable size. But many of these small independent businesses, in order to survive, have had to produce a diverse product range. So that’s how chocolate and candy became part of the project.

Emily: Your book covers a host of independent Canadian snack producers: potato chip makers Old Dutch, Hardbite, and Covered Bridge; Cheezie manufacturer W.T. Hawkins; chocolate makers Paulins, Moirs, and Ganong; and candy makers Robertson’s, Cavalier, Purity, Browning Harvey, and Scott-Bathgate (Nutty Club). You write that you chose these specific producers “with an eye for longevity, significance, and accessibility.”1 These more localized stories reveal much about food production and consumption, food marketing and brand identity, business practices, and consumer desires. What can we learn (that we might miss otherwise) about food history and the global food system by studying snacks?

Janis: Much of the research on food history and the global food system focuses on the very important issues of food security and the role of multinational corporations. But they are only a part of the story — albeit a big part! I wanted to look at the other roles food has played in our lives, historically. Food is not just about sustenance, but also about pleasure, community, entertainment. It is also, sadly, often about judgment. The social history of snacks brings these other issues into sharp focus.

Advertisement, drawing of a man wearing a disguise buying Old Dutch chips, with caption "Why are they buying ours when they already have their own?!"
Old Dutch print advertisement. (Old Dutch Foods Canada Facebook Page)

Emily: Your project critiques Michael Pollan’s food advice as elitist, moralizing, neoliberal, and perhaps even patriarchal and anti-feminist, valid claims others have raised as well. For me, what made your work unique is how you center labor history and the often forgotten or silenced food workers in that critique, as you write, “Pollan asserts that one should ‘eat only foods that have been cooked by humans, rather than corporations’ — a suggestion that dismisses the human labor involved in making snack foods and other prepared foods.”2 How did you go about marrying labor history and food history in this book? Was that a difficult balance or did this story unfold easily?

Janis: Bringing labor history to food history was unavoidable for someone like me, trained as a labor historian and raised in a blue-collar family. It was also unavoidable for someone like me who uses oral history as a methodology. As I ask in the book, “What is a potato chip fryer operator like Covered Bridge’s Thomas Broad, for example, supposed to conclude regarding the value of his or her work,” particularly if, like Michael Pollan, we talk about corporations as if they are not staffed by people?3 When you actually talk with the folks working in these factories and really listen to their stories, you’re no longer able to dismiss them and their labor.

Emily: Why do you think a focus on food labor and food workers has been one of the missing pieces in food studies scholarship and in contemporary food movement activism?

Janis: I think labor history is in decline in many places, unfortunately, so its absence in food studies is a symptom of a broader disease. It’s a consequence of our times, sadly. Too many of us prefer neoliberal solutions to our problems: a focus on the individual in isolation making “better choices,” for example, rather than addressing broader structural issues.

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)

Emily: In addition to various materials, this history draws from “sixty-one oral history interviews conducted with business owners, managers, workers, union leaders, and snack food consumers.”4 I recall you piping up once in a Facebook debate about the utility of oral history. How does oral history as a methodology guide your work, and particularly this project on snacks, food, eating, and food production?

Janis: First, we need to recognize that oral history interviews are not the same as journalistic interviews, either in the way they are conducted or the way in which they are analyzed and used. As I discuss in the book, I used the four-stage life history method developed by German oral historian Alexander von Plato. By asking open-ended questions (“Tell me the story of your life”), we gain insight into aspects of people’s lives we couldn’t have known to ask about.

Oral history interviews are not as much about gathering facts as they are about gaining insight into the ways people construct meaning and make sense of the past. For this project, oral history methodology helped me understand how management and workers understood the history of their workplaces, sometimes in very different ways. Oral history helped uncover the creation, maintenance, and reception of myths of corporate identity within some of these factories.

An oral history methodology that is characterized by openness, a respect for silence, and a willingness to let the interviewee (rather than the interviewer) lead the process can have very unexpected but insightful results, if we are willing to listen to what our interviewees are telling us (both in the content of their interviews and in their structure). Thus, for example, the oral history interviews we conducted with former Kids Bids contestants resulted in a final chapter that was very different from what I had first envisioned. I thought this would be a fairly conventional discussion of the perils of advertising junk food to children on television. The stories shared by the oral history interviewees, however, led me to some unpredicted understandings.

Emily: Lastly, you look to the history of food to unpack the meaning of snack food for consumers, concluding that to derisively call these products “junk” food is something we ought to think more deeply about. As someone who wrote her dissertation fueled by Swedish Fish candy, I appreciated your words: “We need to look past this binary of ‘choice’ and ‘addiction’ to the lived experiences of eaters. This lived sensory experience reveals that people have chosen to eat snack foods for a variety of reasons including taste, which is shaped not just by the physiological experience of eating, but also by collective memory” (italics added).5 What do you think junk food really means to consumers, particularly in today’s complex foodscape? Or to state it differently, what’s at stake in calling these foods “junk?”

Janis: I don’t think I can do better than quote the end of the book’s introduction:

Snack foods are both comfort foods and foods eaten in social settings. They are frequently consumed at celebrations, large and small, ranging from family birthday parties to movie nights with friends. They can be little rewards to the self for surviving a tough day at work, or small indulgences to be enjoyed when money is tight. If there is indeed “a certain amount of comfort in a bag of chips or a chocolate bar,” as an Old Dutch employee avers, then we would do well to know more about these products, their makers, and their consumers before we try to take that comfort away. Examining the production and consumption of Canadian snack foods from an historical standpoint, it is hoped, will provide greater understanding of — if not sympathy for — those who take such comfort.

Notes

  1. Janis Thiessen, Snacks: A Canadian Food History (University of Manitoba Press, 2017), 8. Return to text.
  2. Thiessen, Snacks, 11. Return to text.
  3. Thiessen, Snacks, 11. Return to text.
  4. Thiessen, Snacks, 6. Return to text.
  5. Thiessen, Snacks, 5. Return to text.

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