The Kraft Dinner Index

The Walrus, Canada’s leading publisher of 6,000-word essays, has dedicated this month’s cover story to Canada’s “de facto national dish” — Kraft Dinner.

In “Manufacturing Taste,” veteran food writer Sasha Chapman chronicles the rise and rise of KD, from its humble beginnings to the unchallenged supremacy it now enjoys as Canada’s best-selling grocery product.

The piece, which is well worth a read, contains a number of fascinating insights and historical tidbits, including an abbreviated biography of one J.L. Kraft, the young Ontarian who, inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair, would move south and go on to establish a food empire built on emulsifying salts.

But the most interesting part of the essay is found in the first couple paragraphs, where Chapman asserts that Kraft Dinner actually provides some form of psychometric barometer by which its consumers can be classified.

Tell me what you think of Kraft Dinner, and I will tell you who you are. If you belong to Canada’s comfortable class, you probably think of the dish as a childish indulgence and a clandestine treat. …

If you recently immigrated to Canada, you will have a very different association with KD, as a dish that polarizes family meals. Your children nag you for it, having acquired a taste for it at school, or at the house next door. And if you count yourself among the 900,000 Canadians who use food banks each month, you may associate the iconic blue and yellow box with privation: a necessary evil while you wait for your next cheque to arrive, bought with your last dollar, and moistened with your last spoonfuls of milk.”

This isn’t just a solid intro; it’s based on scientific evidence.

In 2008, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research conducted a study on Canadian perceptions towards Kraft Dinner, comparing the “food-secure” with those living on low-incomes — the “food-insecure.” The study was especially concerned with differing opinions between those who donated Kraft Dinner to food banks and those who received Kraft Dinner from food banks.

As Chapman suggests, the difference in perception between these tax brackets is quite telling. Higher-income, middle-class households view Kraft Dinner as a comfort food, which they find “palatable” (i.e. agreeable to the mind and satisfying to the taste).

As such, these households often give Kraft Dinner to food banks based on this perceived palatability. Also, given Kraft Dinner’s popularity, ease of preparation and long shelf-life, they understandably believe that those who rely on food banks, especially those with children, would find the blue box ideal.

However, those whom the study deemed “food-insecure” tend to view KD as a “last resort” rather than a comfort food; something to be consumed only in times of desperation and near the end of the month. And while children in middle-class homes were understood to enjoy the taste, those from lower-income, single-parent families would often refuse to eat it, since they had to consume it so often.  For the food-insecure, Kraft Dinner symbolized the monotony of poverty — not convenience or comfort.

But this relationship to income inequality is just one feature of the Kraft Dinner matrix.

In Souvenir of Canada, Douglas Coupland wrote:

Cheese plays a weirdly large dietary role in the lives of Canadians, who have a more intimate and intense relationship with Kraft food products than the citizens of any other country. This is not a shameless product plug — for some reason, Canadians and Kraft products have bonded the way Australians have bonded with Vegemite, or the English with Heinz baked beans. In particular, Kraft macaroni and cheese, known simply as Kraft Dinner, is the biggie, probably because it so precisely laser-targets the favoured Canadian food groups: fat, sugar, starch and salt.

Kraft Dinner enjoys a rare universality among Canadians that is indeed comparable to Aussies and their Vegemite, only far more culturally significant given its peculiar nature. Unlike Vegemite or baked beans, Kraft Dinner isn’t grounded in the reality of pre-existing vegetables or legumes. It’s a synthetic abstraction barren of nutritional value; a processed simulacrum that can easily serve the purpose of food, but isn’t necessarily food itself.

It is at once a symbol of scarcity and a hallmark of the middle-class — a depressing reminder of the poverty that plagues so many communities across Canada, but also a folksy culinary institution that Canadians find “deeply situating.” David Suzuki loves it; Margaret Atwood derides it; and Rex Murphy proclaimed it, “one of that great trinity of quick digestibles that have been enrolled as genuine Canadian cultural icons.”

Nowhere has Kraft Dinner’s symbolic capacity been more apparent than in the 2004 federal election.

Before succeeding Jean Chretien as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Canada, it was revealed that not only was Kraft Dinner Paul Martin’s favourite meal, but that he was also completely incapable of cooking it. In Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition, published in 2003, journalist John Gray writes of the then Prime-Minister-in-waiting: “His favourite food is Kraft Dinner and Sheila’s one complaint about her husband is that after almost 40 years of marriage, he never learned how to make it.”

This off-the-cuff remark was pounced on by Martin’s critics and conservative pundits who found it emblematic of his privileged upbringing and the moral bankruptcy of the Liberal party. When launching his leadership campaign for the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper stated:

I was not born into a family with a seat at the cabinet table … I grew up playing on the streets of Toronto, not playing in the corridors of power. When I left home for Alberta, I had to get a job; I wasn’t on loan to the corporate elite. I’ll never be able to give my kids a billion-dollar company, but Laureen and I are saving for their education. And I have actually cooked them Kraft Dinner — I like to add wieners.

The message was clear: The Tories were good people who cared for their children and cooked their own Kraft Dinner. The corrupt, unaccountable and autocratic Liberals, did not.

The Conservatives went on to hobble the Liberal majority in 2004 and ultimately take power in 2006. Harper became our first Kraft Dinner Prime Minister, and ushered in a new era of identity politics that hinged on the Tories distinguishing themselves as more Canadian than their opponents.

With their respective experiments, the researchers at the Alberta Heritage Foundation and the Tories discovered the same thing: Kraft Dinner can be all things to all people. In a country as politically and culturally diverse as Canada, shared experiences are a rare thing. Rarer still are those universal commonalities without any inherent meaning. In this sense, Kraft Dinner provides Canada with a unique service as a locus for our individual tastes. It’s an edible reference point for the Canadian condition.

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Douglas Haddow is the Editor-at-Large of Ballast.