O’Canada Food Month / Installment 3
Is Kraft macaroni and cheese, a/k/a Kraft Dinner, the national dish of Canada? While not as distinctive as the uniquely Canadian cheese-laden concoction, poutine, Kraft mac and cheese is consumed in greater quantities on a per capita basis north of our borders than anywhere else and its widespread popularity across Canada appears to rival any other packaged food item for a claim to national dish status.
Over the years, I’ve consumed my share of packaged macaroni and cheese, especially when my two boys were very young and this was an easy-to-fix staple that they heartily enjoyed. Being now a fan of made-from-scratch mac & cheese, Kraft macaroni had been off my radar screen for quite a while when, during a late 2012 visit to Halifax, I came across Sasha Chapman’s very interesting article “Manufacturing Taste” in the September 2012 issue of The Walrus.
Chapman weaves together the back story of Kraft Dinner and the relentless pursuit by J.D. Kraft, a former Ontario farm boy who went on to build the Kraft food empire, to eliminate spoilage in store-bought cheese. Here’s Chapman on the breakthroughs that led to the convenience we now know as boxed macaroni and cheese:
The discovery that emulsifying salts could be used to make processed cheese turned out to be the great innovation—and some would say tragedy—of twentieth-century cheese making. It standardized the process and ruled out variation, good or bad, at every stage. The idea for boxed macaroni and cheese came during the Depression, from a salesman in St. Louis who wrapped rubber bands around packets of grated Kraft cheese and boxes of pasta and persuaded retailers to sell them as a unit. In 1937, the company began to market them as Kraft Dinner, promising to feed a family of four for 19 cents (US). The boxes had a good shelf life and could be kept in a pantry for about ten months; back then, many Canadian households did not yet own a refrigerator. In 1939, two years after KD launched in Canada and the US, Kraft’s Canadian sales had already reached $8 million. A mere six years later, at the end of World War II, sales had nearly doubled to $14 million, helped in large part by government requisitions for the armed forces, and at home by war rationing and general privation, which made meatless entrees more common.
Along the way she relates the ups and downs of the Canadian cheese industry from the nineteenth century forward and the role of sophisticated corporate food labs in manufacturing our collective tastes for the foods that we adopt as an expression of regional food culture but for which the local roots are usually quite tenuous.
But without getting too deep, if most Canadians prefer the Kraft Dinner variety who can really argue. Mac and cheese of whatever sort is a wonderful comfort food, and, as we’d say here in the American South, it’s “pure “D” delicious.”