The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner — a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are…
True, Canada is just one outpost in Kraft’s globalized food system. The company’s iconic brands are on the rise in emerging markets, which is to say in the ancient cultures beyond the borders of North America, Europe, and Australia. In China, another Kraft product, the Oreo, has been re-engineered for the Asian market, with such success that it is now the country’s number one cookie. But this is history repeating itself: our own food system was colonized long ago by Kraft, a company that has always striven to give us (or at least our consumer, magpie selves) what we want: cheaper food that is faster to prepare. We have been only too happy to drink the Kool-Aid, another Kraft brand.
KD’s popularity is a symptom of a world that spins distressingly faster and faster. We devote a total of forty-two minutes to cooking and cleaning up three meals a day — six fewer minutes than we spent in 1992. Over half the dinners we consume at home involve a prepared or semi-prepared food. As the clock ticks, we spend more of every food dollar on these shortcuts.
But what does it mean if a national dish is manufactured, formulated by scientists in a laboratory in Glenview, Illinois, and sold back to us by the second-largest food company in the world? [...]
Big American companies signed contracts with local dairies, effectively binding the suppliers to sell most if not all of their production to them. This squeezed out the smaller cheese factories, and more dairy went to making processed cheese instead of artisanal types. At the height of its influence, in 1971, Kraft controlled more than 50 percent of cheese production in Canada. [...]
Today KD Original probably contains more whey than cheese. Kraft won’t say how much cheese is in the foil packet, but you can read between the lines on the label and make an educated guess. One scientist, who asked not to be quoted, estimates that cheese would account for no more than 29 percent of the sauce’s solids. Driven by the commodity markets rather than taste, processed food formulas often change according to the going rates of their ingredients: when whey powder is cheap, for example, a cheese sauce might include more of it. [...]
Differences — whether in people, cultures, or even cheese — are Canada’s greatest strength, and life would be exceedingly dull without them. They shape and define who we are. But differences can never be manufactured in any meaningful way by a large food conglomerate, which always seeks to standardize. So the question is: are we content to have our national dish come from a laboratory in Illinois, or do we want to have a hand in its (and our) creation? If we can’t be the authors of our own meals, who are we? To cook and live life to the fullest, Lee tells me, “I need a good foundation. I have to know who I am.”