Few foods need less of an introduction than everyone’s favourite childhood lunch: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
As a young child, I would spend summer weekends at my grandparents cottage in picturesque Fort Erie, Ontario. Sitting along the Canada/US border, Fort Erie is responsible for many incredible innovations such as Lingonberry Soda (which became Dr. Pepper) and, surprisingly, the same food I often had for lunch when visiting: Kraft Dinner.
Extending beyond Fort Erie, KD is the unofficial official dish of Canada. Canadians consume 55% more boxes than Americans. It is the most popular grocery item in Canada and can be found in 99% of Canadian households.
KD lives at the intersection of industrial food, molecular gastronomy, and the women’s liberation movement. There is no KD without cheese, and as you may have guessed, the cheese is the most interesting part of the story.
James L. Kraft did not invent processed cheese, but he did get the first patent for it. While many people think otherwise, processed cheese really is cheese.
One of the three prides of Fort Erie, Ontario (the other two are Matty Matheson and Robo Mart Buffalo Chicken Finger Submarines - don’t @ me), Kraft was stranded in Chicago on a business trip when his partners at the Shefford Cheese Company took his absence as an opportunity to dissolve their partnership. He used his last dollars to purchase a horse and start his own business as a cheese reseller… as one does. When God closes a door, he opens the window of a wholesale cheese business.
It is no surprise that a cheese king would be born in Southern Ontario. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were 1,242 cheddar factories in Ontario. Cheddar exports (234 million pounds in 1904) were second only to timber. These days, Ontario exports only 19 million pounds of cheese, five million of which is cheddar.
In the early 1900s, cheese was a seasonal treat. Grocers would not stock it in warmer months because it would spoil too quickly. Kraft experimented for years and ended up producing a canned cheddar cheese product that could be heat sterilized. He also mixed in a salt called sodium phosphate that prevented the fats and solids from separating. This same innovation is what is used to create ballpark nacho cheese. Surprise! That orange goop is actually (probably) also real cheese.
Beyond creating a shelf stable product, Kraft was responsible for popularizing processed cheese through extensive advertising. By 1930, more than 40 percent of all the cheese consumed in the United States carried the Kraft label. Advertising led shoppers to pay a premium for what they were led to believe was a safer and more reliable product. By the early 70s, Kraft was the biggest advertiser in Canada.
In fact, Kraft products incorporated unripened and low-grade cheese and were often more whey than cheese. As the historian Mark Wilde wrote in an authoritative 1988 study, “With a bit of industrial hocus pocus and plenty of advertising, the processors were converting second-rate cheese into a premium product.” Regardless, the advertising campaigns drove the 10x increase in American cheese consumption to over 30 lbs per year.
To honour Kraft’s contribution to cheese, Fort Erie named a drainage ditch after Kraft, which flows out to Lake Erie just east of Crescent Beach.
When KD was first introduced in 1937, it was more similar to Velveeta noodles and cheese than the KD we know and love today. Packaged with an elastic band, it consisted of a bag of dried macaroni noodles (not De Cecco, in case you were wondering) and a bag of shredded processed cheese. The fact that a 19 cent purchase could feed a family of four was a major driver of adoption. Some 50 million boxes were purchased during World War II alone because shoppers could get two boxes for one food ration stamp. Also important to note is the product had a ten month shelf life, which was a huge value add at a time when most people did not own fridges.
The composition of the product has changed over time. Originally just cheese and emulsifying salts, further processing meant that the powdered product was more whey powder (a protein rich byproduct of the cheese making process) than cheese. The current assumption is that today’s ratio is 70/30 whey to cheese.
Two other things to note about Kraft: One, he was a close friend of the president and founder of the Orange Crush company, C. J. Howel. If food collabs were a thing back then, that would have been a doozy. And two, Kraft diversified into real estate just before the height of the Great Depression. His efforts to create a golf and tennis resort (respect!) led to the development of Chalet Suzanne. The article is well worth a read, especially for the comments section where people share memories of the world famous Chalet Suzanne soup (which went on two space missions, so is basically the Sharpie of soups!).
KD exemplifies the promise and downfall of industrialized food. The average person spends less than 40 minutes a day preparing food (for all three meals!). Over half the dinners we consume at home involve prepared or semi-prepared food.
Industrial food has fed countless families in times of poverty and struggle. Industrialization of production has insulated the population’s food supplies from weather and droughts. Being able to put a meal on the table in under 10 minutes has freed up women to pursue interests and employment outside the home.
Thinking beyond the health implications of a product that says a box is four servings - yet no adult I know has ever shared one - things become more dire when considering food production as resources become more limited worldwide due to climate change. There is something troubling about a country that will be forced into becoming the world’s largest food producer, having a processed, industrial product as its national dish. (I’m looking at you, Canada). While you can customize KD with hot sauce, ketchup or more fake cheese, you can not make it yourself from scratch. And you can not make it healthy. Essentially, Canadian food “culture” is controlled in a lab somewhere (or more accurately, a warehouse).
I’ll keep this brief. It’s cheap! Current pricing ranges from $1 box, down to $0.50 when it goes on sale. There have been many variations pop up over the years, from microwaveable cups to half vegetable noodles (no thanks). My all-time personal favourite is President’s Choice (the private label of Loblaws Corporation) White Macaroni and Cheese. I have no idea why it tastes better than regular ol’ KD, it just does.
Beyond the health damage KD has done to generations of children, there is also the mental scars from their upside-down chins advertising campaign. I still see these chins in my nightmares…
As well, I do not want to encourage anyone else to try them, but someone did. Kraft Dinner recently released “boosted flavours,” which include poutine, butter chicken, cotton candy and others. You can read a review here.