When does a bag of milk become more than just a cheap, Soviet-looking alternative to glass bottles? How does water pumped with gas and sugar become “clearly” Canadian? At which point does a rural Québécois dish become so iconic that it must be protected from cultural appropriation by the rest of Canada?
Obviously these moments are impossible to pinpoint with total accuracy, but they are proof that some food products are destined to crawl out of the primordial grocery store ooze and onto the bright shores of consumable patriotism. The idea of the “national dish” is a powerful one, especially for a young nation with few contributions to the global food consciousness.
One food that is as indisputably Canadian is the ketchup chip, a sweet and vinegary staple of children’s birthday parties and late-night stoner binges. They’ve been staining Canadian fingertips for four decades and remain hugely popular here, where they were created.
To get to how we got ketchup chips, we need to first start with Hostess.
Hostess chips was founded by farmer Edward Snyder in Waterloo County, Ontario in 1935. At some point in the early 70s, a lightning bolt of inspiration hit the good folks at Hostess, who decided to synthesize the taste of French fries and ketchup into chip-and-powder form, like molecular gastronomy in a bag. Sure, it’s junk food and they don’t really taste like ketchup, but that’s beside the point. The intensely sweet and tangy ketchup chip has become a national treasure that few are even aware of south of 49th parallel.
That’s not to say that every Hostess flavour was a home run though. Not long after introducing Canada (and the world) to the ketchup chip, Hostess launched a line a fruit-flavoured chips, including grape, though they eventually made up for this horrible idea by introducing WWF stickers in chip bags.
By the early 90s, Hostess chips had been gobbled up by Frito-Lay and is now owned by its parent company PepsiCo. But through all of these corporate shake-ups, the original ketchup chip and its alchemy of flavour powders survived, along with a host of smaller Canadian potato chip companies also offering their version of ketchup chips.
Janis Thiessen is professor at the University of Winnipeg and the author of Snacks: A Canadian Food History, which looks at Canada’s appetite for snacks from a historian’s perspective. While she’s not a big fan of ketchup chips herself, Thiessen says she can still appreciate how a specific food became part of our cultural fabric.
“First and foremost they taste good,” Thiessen says. “No one is going to eat something out of a sense of nationalism if it tastes bad. They taste good, but there’s also that nostalgia factor. It’s the thing you grew up eating. It conjures up memories for you of the time period and relatives and home. There are very few things people are willing to eat just out of a sense of patriotism.”
Still, a lot of foods taste good without becoming “national dishes.” But the cost of chips and the logistical reach of a corporation like Frito-Lay certainly provided a solid economic foundation for the popularity of ketchup chips. “Tourtière is a little harder to produce,” says Thiessen. “It’s not a factory-made food and while there are strong connotations there, it’s a very regional thing. Or, you can just go and buy a bag of ketchup chips for a buck and you’re on your way”
But why did ketchup chips in particular emerge from a sea of barbecue and salt and vinegar competitors as the definitive Canadian chip flavour? The answer to that could lie in historical research into waves of immigration to Canada, according to Thiessen.
“There is a theory that vinegar-based flavors like ketchup are more popular in Canada than the United States, in part because of migration patterns. Some claim, there is a propensity for vinegar based-flavours among migrants from Eastern Europe and those from more Nordic, for example, those who tended to settle in Minnesota and midwestern environs, have a propensity for sour cream-based flavours.”
And like the Tragically Hip and bags of milk, our love of ketchup chips defines us because they are not popular in the US. “It’s such a social object,” says Thiessen. “The consumption of it is so often tied to socializing and community.” In fact, Lays doesn’t even sell ketchup chips in the US market, which has made them something of a curiosity to Americans.
“Canadians have shown greater love for ketchup flavoured chips than the US, keeping them on store shelves since 1970s,” PepsiCo spokesperson Sheri Morgan told VICE, adding that Lay’s “proudly” produces millions of bags of ketchup chips annually at facilities in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. In fact, even corn chip juggernaut Doritos—also manufactured by Frito-Lay—have been dusted with Canadian ketchup dust. The company has even released a line of trendy “street wear” to celebrate ketchup Doritos, again only in Canada, in order to capitalize on the 18-35 snack demo.
Frito-Lay continues to take credit for inventing the ketchup chip, via its purchase of Hostess. There are also American companies offering ketchup chips to domestic markets, most notably Pennsylvania-based Herr’s who has been doing so in partnership with Heinz Ketchup since the 1980s. But even with the backing of the Heinz ketchup brand, the flavour has never really caught on in America.
And while Canada can take pride in its invention of ketchup chips, we will probably never know the identity of the national hero at Hostess was who came up with the idea in the first place. “I wish I did… alas I don’t,” says Morgan, but Prof. Thiessen doesn’t really care.
“From a historian’s standpoint, it doesn’t matter,” says Thiessen. “Whether Hostess or Old Dutch or some company that doesn’t even exist anymore was the first one to come up with ketchup chips doesn’t really contribute to our knowledge. It’s not one of the more interesting questions about potato chip history. If we knew who it was, what difference would it make? Whereas knowing how and why people enter certain markets or failed to do so gives us insight into how a company develops and operates.”
If we follow this trail of ketchup chip crumbs all the way back to its origins, we will only find ourselves at the end of it. Whether it’s because of migration patterns, the wide reach of multinational chip companies, or some kind of sodium sorcery that defies logical explanation, ketchup chips will always be part of the culinary mosaic that defines Canada. They may not be front and center like poutine or maple syrup, but they have encrusted Canada’s cultural fingerprint with a powder as red as our flag.
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