The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner—a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are
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. The bite-sized tubular noodles are so yielding and soft, you will say a little sheepishly, and next to impossible to prepare al dente. The briny, glistening orange sauce tastes a little bit sweet and a little bit sour — at once interesting, because of the tension between the two flavour poles, but not overly challenging or unfamiliar. And its essential dairyness connects it to that most elemental of foods: a mother’s milk. KD is the ultimate nursery food, at least if you were born and raised in Canada, where making and eating cheese has been a part of the culture since Champlain brought cows from Normandy in the early 1600s — a tradition nearly as venerable as the fur trade. It may be the first dish children and un-nested students learn to make (“make,” of course, being a loose term; “assemble” may be more accurate). This only strengthens its primal attractions.
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.
The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised “dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,” we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.
This makes KD, not poutine, our de facto national dish. We eat 3.2 boxes each in an average year, about 55 percent more than Americans do. We are also the only people to refer to Kraft Dinner as a generic for instant mac and cheese. The Barenaked Ladies sang wistfully about eating the stuff: “If I had a million dollars / we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner / But we would eat Kraft Dinner / Of course we would, we’d just eat more.” In response, fans threw boxes of KD at the band members as they performed. This was an act of veneration.
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? Kraft Foods employs 126,000 people worldwide, and raked in $54.4 billion in 2011. By the end of this year, it will formally split into two divisions — North American groceries and global snacks — no doubt to go forth and multiply. Kraft Canada isn’t just manufacturing 120 million boxes of powdered cheese and noodles at its factory in the desolate Montreal suburb of Mont-Royal. It is manufacturing taste. In so doing, it has left an indelible mark on what and how we eat, and therefore how we live. At the Canadian corporate headquarters in Don Mills, in Toronto — where three flags, for Canada, Ontario, and Kraft Foods, fly outside the doors — the “one percent” doesn’t refer to the über-wealthy, but to the tiny fraction of Canadians who do not stock a single Kraft product in their pantries.
Despite our ever-present nostalgia for the foods of childhood, tastes and recipes are always evolving. We have no definitive version of macaroni and cheese, or any dish for that matter. The word “macaroni,” first coined in Italy, describes any short tubular pasta; there, the cheese of choice was often Parmesan. Although I have yet to uncover a primary source to prove the point, I would wager that macaroni, which first became fashionable in England in the eighteenth century, most likely reached Britain in the trunks of travellers. (Thomas Jefferson is said to have introduced it to Virginia.) The dish soon grew so popular among anglophones that “macaroni” became slang for a dandy who favoured outlandish wigs, which is why Yankee Doodle “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.”
The Italian recipe typically featured the noodle, rather than a cheesy sauce, in the starring role, but English cooks inverted this relationship, adding English cheeses, such as cheddar, and egg yolks, to create a creamier, more pudding-like dish. An early domestic iteration, published in Modern Practical Cookery in 1845, calls for puff pastry to line the baking dish. Its author, Mrs. Nourse, gives instructions to stew the noodles in a cream thickened with egg yolks, with a little “beaten mace” and “made mustard” to sharpen the flavours before grating Parmesan or Cheshire cheese over top.
Liz Driver, the culinary historian who introduced me to the recipe, believes the macaroni Mrs. Nourse used would have been imported from Italy, and was probably far superior to much of the Canadian-made pasta available today, which Italians consider too soft for their taste. Driver is the curator of Campbell House, a Toronto heritage building where she teaches open-hearth cooking in the nineteenth-century kitchen, and keeps a collection of vintage cast iron pots piled under her desk.
She showed me into the formal drawing room, where we sat like museum pieces, surrounded by a games table and a writing desk. “Macaroni and cheese was considered sophisticated, as proven by the fact that it was served in a puff pastry–lined pan,” she noted in the hushed, measured tones of someone who has spent her life in libraries. Occasionally, we were interrupted by visitors who must have wondered why we weren’t in costume, playing whist.
Mrs. Nourse’s Cheshire cheese notwithstanding, there was plenty of local cheddar for making macaroni puddings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time, Canada was known for little else, food-wise, perhaps one reason we remain so enamoured with mac and cheese. As Heather Menzies writes in her excellent history By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar Cheese , commercial cheese making in Ontario took off in the mid–nineteenth century, helped along by a depression in the wheat market, and the prevalence of the wheat midge, which was devastating crops. “The milk crop never fails,” trumpeted a letter to the editor in an 1865 edition of Canada Farmer . In the age before pasteurization, cheese was often safer — and much longer lasting — than fluid milk. More plentiful than the English original, Canadian cheddar soon became a staple among the English working class. By the turn of the twentieth century, there were 1,242 cheddar factories in Ontario, where the bulk of Canadian cheese making happened, and cheddar exports — some 234 million pounds in 1904 — were second only to timber. More than a century later, we export only 19 million pounds of cheese, five million of which is cheddar, while we import more than 55 million. Although we cannot wholly lay the decline of cheese craft in Canada at the feet of James Lewis Kraft, it did correspond with the rise of Kraft’s processed cheese empire.
In 1893, the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition displayed the blueprint for the century of middle-class consumerism that followed. North American society was changing rapidly: cities such as Chicago had sprung up seemingly overnight, and industry, not agriculture, was in ascendance. Following two decades of social, economic, and political upheaval, the public hungered for the rosy promise of progress. One cannot overstate the fair’s influence on the North American imagination: it drew 30 million visitors when only 63 million people lived in the US. Model houses touted the new middle-class lifestyle, featuring electric stoves, washing machines, doorbells, and fire alarms. Exhibitors hawked new refrigeration technology, canned meats, desiccated soups, synthetic lard substitutes, and saccharin derived from coal tar. New food preparation technologies were marketed as more sanitary, more efficient, and more economical than anything nature or home cooks could provide on their own.
J. L. Kraft, who had grown up on a dairy farm in Ontario, headed off to Chicago a decade after the world’s fair. Fascinated by the promise of innovation, he resolved to find a modern, more profitable way to distribute cheese. Even at the height of production, the quality of Canadian cheddar available domestically remained variable, in part because the best was reserved for export. “No matter how wholesome it was when it left the manufacturer, it often reached the market in a state of extinct virtue,” observed Kraft, who had seen the amount of spoilage and waste first-hand, while working as a clerk in a general store in Fort Erie, Ontario. He arrived in the US with $65 and a plan to launch a wholesale cheese business.
There he joined the ranks of dairy experts who were searching for ways to make cheese production more efficient. All cheese is an ancient expression of “milk’s leap towards immortality,” as Clifton Fadiman so poetically put it, and an extremely effective method for preserving a dairy surplus. You need just three main ingredients: milk, rennet (to curdle it into a solid), and microbes (to convert lactose into acid, which deepens the flavour and prevents the curds from spoiling or harbouring disease).
Emulsifying salts help stabilize processed cheese by taking calcium from the milk protein and exchanging it with sodium. This allows the proteins to hold water, thickening the cheese. Early attempts to make processed cheese resembled a kind of re-solidified, long-keeping fondue; the Swiss, not surprisingly, were the first to figure out that these “melting salts” would keep the cheese stable (i.e., emulsified), just as a few spoonfuls of wine or lemon keep a traditional fondue runny.
By the beginning of World War I, J. L. Kraft was experimenting with a similar process, which he developed over a double boiler. His formula hinged on a combination of citric acid and phosphates (the emulsifying salts). While not the first to develop a processed cheese, he was the first to win a patent (in 1916) and, eventually, to capitalize on it. His method paved the way for Velveeta (1928), Kraft Dinner (1937), Cheez Whiz (1952), and Kraft Singles (1965). 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. Demographic shifts also played a part: as fewer families retained servants and more women went to work, they had less time to prepare meals. Corporate cookbooks rose to prominence in Canadian kitchens at this time. It is significant that expert cooking advice took hold when life was uncertain: the Depression, and then the war, shook the nation’s confidence, and people felt comforted by instructions from professionals.
Meanwhile, the Canadian cheese industry began to flounder. Exports to its biggest market, the UK, dropped off in the ’20s as the standard of living rose for the British worker, which meant families could afford more meat. And the world wars, which all but halted exports, nearly killed the industry. Even so, Heather Menzies believes it would have rallied in the ’60s, had political leaders chosen to protect craft cheese. They even had a report telling them how. Instead, they chose to favour the interests of large-scale producers, a group dominated by American corporations such as Kraft. Canada’s local cheese factories watched as the British market collapsed and their own milk supply dried up.
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.
Meanwhile, demographics continued to shift. Canada’s population was growing, thanks to the baby boom and immigration. The middle class was moving to the suburbs, and still more women went to work outside the home. Food manufacturers saw opportunity in this, and flogged their products on television and in magazines and newspapers, promising status and convenience. Sales of processed cheese took off. By 1973, Kraft Canada was the largest single advertiser in Canadian magazines and, with General Foods, the biggest advertiser on television. Tom Quinn, a former Kraft Canada president, told Menzies, “If we did anything right, it was merchandising and advertising. We created the demand.”
In the world of modern food manufacturing, Kraft Dinner Original remains a fairly simple formula, with only ten ingredients. (My own recipe also calls for ten, if you lump together the natural flavours, as labellers do.) But KD has spawned generations of mac and cheese dinners, each one a greater feat of engineering than the last, and each one less recognizable as something we could make in our own kitchens. In 1999, the company launched Kraft Dinner Cup, a line that now includes Kraft Dinner Triple Cheese in a microwaveable package. It contains twenty-one ingredients, including “cheese flavours.” Cheddar is eighth on the list. A version sold only in the US, described as Triple Cheese Cheesy Made Easy, contains forty-two ingredients, depending on how you count them.
Yet KD Original has not changed much in seventy-five years, from the consumer’s point of view. What has changed is how it is engineered and manufactured. “The early sauces would have been nearly all cheese, except for the emulsifying salts,” says Art Hill, a cheese scientist at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. But as dairy became a commodity in the intervening years, profits came from manufacturing it for the lowest cost and the highest volume possible, and from developing new “cheese products” that over time were made with less and less cheese.
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.
“New processes come along, and we need to stay competitive,” offers Robert Gordon, a food engineer and one of about fifteen macaroni and cheese developers at Kraft’s Glenview campus. Citing proprietary reasons, he speaks in general terms about what he does; any time the conversation in our conference call gets too specific, a manager of corporate affairs in Toronto interrupts. “Our primary goal,” she says, “is to ensure it meets Canadians’ expectations for KD.”
Manufactured foods originally appealed to consumers because they were beacons of progress — which they were, if you bought in to the premise that food is just fuel, and if you measured success by how cheaply and quickly a meal could be prepared. But as convenience foods became more common and cooking from scratch less so, people began to miss the connection they once had to how food was produced, on the farm and in the kitchen. They craved the meals their mothers once cooked, the real mac and cheese, homemade. So Kraft cannily adjusted its marketing strategy, creating an ersatz nostalgia for the very thing KD had supplanted. “Mama’s in the kitchen making mac and cheese,” ran one American marketing slogan. Another announced: “Two new Kraft home cooked dinners, the quick kind you cook up fresh.”
People feel a strong emotional connection to the KD label, says Jordan Fietje, senior brand manager for Kraft Dinner, who takes pains to highlight his company’s sacred covenant with matriarchs. Like many other Kraft employees, he is inordinately fond of the phrase “our promise to moms.” The slogan makes sense. Food is about ritual, tradition and conviviality, and what your mother made for Sunday dinner, which means it is also about identity. The cliché is not wrong: we are what we eat, and our choices both reflect and shape who we are.
Manufactured food has its attractions: it is cheaper and lasts longer, and engineers can manipulate moisture, salt, and sugar content to appeal to a broader market, or to target a social group’s preferences. But as much of our food production has shifted to manufacturing — 44 percent of Canadian agricultural output is now destined for processing — products, especially the ones dreamt up by scientists and nutritionists in corporate labs, are made a long way from the consumer. We increasingly rely on professionals to teach us how to cook (if we ever learn), dieticians and nutritionists to tell us what to eat, and scientists to engineer the food we buy.
Food scientists must be multidisciplinary, with training in chemistry, microbiology, engineering, and nutrition. Immersed in their laboratories, they can forget the real goal of their experiments — which is to feed people, says Chris Findlay, the garrulous CEO of Compusense, a consultancy in Guelph. He has spent a lifetime advising multinationals on how to launch and refine food products so they will appeal to consumers, and has worked for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in countries such as Sudan and South Korea. Although he does not work directly for Kraft Canada, his company has partnered with Kraft on four continents.
By the early twentieth century, manufacturers had begun using professional tasters to help ensure quality control. Technology enabled new ways of delivering nutrition, but the food developed by scientists and produced by machines didn’t always taste good. “You can break down food into protein, fat, carbohydrates, but you can’t tell just from the chemical properties what it will taste like,” Findlay says. This proved especially troublesome for the US military, which had been working to develop cheap, nutritious, and easy-to-store rations for soldiers.
In the ’40s and ’50s, the US Army Quartermaster Food and Container Institute began studying “food acceptance,” and so began the field of sensory analysis, or the study of perception. Corporations were quick to discover its uses in evaluating consumer goods. Most large food companies now have sensory analysis labs; many also employ consultants like Findlay to learn more about a product and whether there might be room for something new in its market category.
What is true elsewhere holds up in the food industry: try to please everyone, and you’ll end up pleasing no one — or, as Findlay remarks in his faint Scottish brogue, “Between two stools, fools fall through.” He boasts that if he gives test subjects three samples to taste, he can predict where on the sensory map they will fall — rather like Van Houtte’s coffee profiling surveys, which promise to determine whether you prefer your coffee bold and woodsy or velvety and fruity, by asking you whether you like jam on your toast. The universal product and the average consumer do not exist, which is why, in addition to Kraft Dinner Original, you will find dozens of KD products on grocery shelves, from extra creamy to white cheddar, whole wheat, and even versions fortified with vegetables, fibre, or flax seed.
Sensory analysis relies heavily on trained testers rather than consumers to dissect the sight, smell, and taste of a product and its competitors by developing a list of attributes to describe them. At Compusense, this data is entered into a computer program that uses statistical methods to create a sensory map of the various traits and where each product falls on the graph. To illustrate how this works, Findlay offers to make me a map for the boxed macaroni and cheese category, with one condition: first I must spend the day as a human detector, trained (rather like a bomb-sniffing dog) to use my senses for one of his panels.
Afew days later, I find myself at a table in a room full of strangers, staring at a hospital tray that holds my tools for the next two hours: a cup of distilled water, a few crackers, another empty cup with a lid, a white napkin, and a plastic spoon. The first sample arrives: a Styrofoam cup labelled number 943. One of Findlay’s employees, Sheila Fortune, stands in front of a blank whiteboard in a lab coat and demonstrates the procedure. Opening the plastic cup by a centimetre, she takes quick “bunny sniffs” to detect the aroma of the steam that billows out. Each of the testers scribbles down descriptions: butter, brine, starch, the tang of processed cheddar, a sweet aromatic. Next, we remove the lid and note the visuals: straight, thin noodles in an unctuous slick of saffron orange. A few bubbles cling to the pasta. Following Fortune’s instructions, we taste and expectorate the sample. We will have eleven more macaroni and cheese dishes placed before us over the next two hours.
The range of flavours surprises: my notes list hundreds of descriptors. At a certain point, the analysis can verge on the absurd, as in Auberon Waugh’s decree that wine writing should be camped up at all costs, and that “bizarre and improbable side-tastes should be proclaimed: mushrooms, rotting wood, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear…anything to get away from the accepted list of fruit and flowers.”
I am reminded of Waugh as I stare at my sheet. One sample smells like baby barf — butyric acid, Findlay explains, a common attribute in Parmesan cheese. “Paint thinner” describes another. Findlay nods his head and laughs. What I am detecting, he says, is rancidity and off-flavours. “There are all sorts of reasons for that; you just have to know something about food processing,” he says, before recounting the time a panel detected the smell of exhaust in a barbecued product and everyone trooped out to the parking lot to verify the odour.
By the time the session ends, we have covered the whiteboard with a list of traits to describe the product. Fortune will feed sixteen of them into software that generates a new survey for us to fill out as we taste the products again. This time, though, we dine alone, in front of a computer screen in a white booth, under bright white light. (Some studies use a red light, to neutralize the sample’s colour so testers can’t see whether a wine is white or red, or a steak is bloody or grey.) Portions appear like clockwork in the hatch in front of us as we click through the computer survey. In the afternoon, Fortune generates a sensory map of the products we tasted, to show where on the taste spectrum each one falls. KD Original is the cheesiest, yellowest, and saltiest. KD Smart Vegetables Original, made with half a serving of freeze-dried cauliflower, is distinctly pungent and sour, with overtones of boiled brassica.
From inside the belly of the food-producing beast, one thing becomes clear: this is not a way to make food, but a way to manufacture fuel — for our bodies, and for the hungry consumer market. The food industry, like any empire, depends on expansion for success: to survive, it must continue to increase both its output and its consumer base.
Outside the lab, at the dinner table, taste remains the physical manifestation of memory; it is impossible to eat something without relating or comparing it to an earlier, often a childhood, experience. Taste’s relationship to memory becomes especially poignant after you leave home — as immigrants, caught between two worlds, know well. Helen Vallianatos, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta, who studies the food habits of the province’s South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, notes that many of her subjects remark on how their sensibilities change almost imperceptibly over time. On trips back home, she says, some are surprised to discover that the dishes they once loved now seem too rich, too spicy, too strange, now that they have become accustomed to a different way of eating. She has a special interest in how food and identity are intertwined, and how food helps construct identity: when you cannot eat the food you remember, who are you?
Another common observation among new arrivals to Canada concerns the fast pace of life. Ask immigrants to define Canadian food, and they most often name hamburgers, pizza, and pasta. But one brand turns up again and again in field studies: Kraft, as in “Dinner” and “Singles.”
Canada’s emerging markets reflect similar realities to global ones: as our South Asian and Chinese populations have risen, Kraft Canada has rolled out ethnic-specific programs to appeal to immigrants, who may arrive here with traditional recipes and expectations of leisurely, old-fashioned meals, but soon discover that our food culture doesn’t leave much time for tradition at the table.
Visible minorities represent the fastest-growing segment of our population — they comprised 16.3 percent of Canadians in 2006 — and they may offer Kraft its best chance to expand the domestic market. Our foreign-born population is projected to increase four times faster than the rest by 2031. Because most product development takes place south of the border, Kraft Canada lacks the resources to create products specific to our country’s changing demographics. Instead, it hires anthropologists and other researchers to find “modern families” (i.e., visible minorities and immigrants) and send sheltered executives to observe them. The corporation has also hired spokespeople to develop and promote recipes within their own communities, and to bring new perspectives to the team of home economists who cook in the 6,000-square-foot kitchens at its headquarters in Don Mills.
As befits a company that trades in nostalgia, Kraft’s corporate office feels like a step back in time. Four important-looking men in suits huddle outside the concrete building, BlackBerrys drawn and at the ready. The “girls,” as everyone calls the group of middle-aged women who are the face of Kraft products, are inside working away in the kitchen. These are the home economists and dieticians who develop recipes for the company’s magazines, websites, and newsletters. The North American Kraft Recipe Library contains about 30,000 entries, enough to fill 300 cookbooks. Michele McAdoo, who has spent seventeen years cooking for Kraft, pushed out 1,000 recipes to nearly one million Canadians in her email blasts last year, to promote home cooking with Kraft products.
As much as Kraft influences and shapes us as consumers, it also spends considerable resources pursuing us. It conducts pantry studies about every five years, and has compiled a list of 1,100 ingredients and 200 kitchen tools found in Canadian homes. “We look at ingredients and tools with a 60 percent and higher incidence and then develop our recipes accordingly,” says McAdoo.
Today cumin and coriander waft through the demonstration kitchen. Smita Chandra, an elegant South Asian immigrant in a gold-embroidered fuchsia top, is browning ground chicken in a wok for keema, a spiced meat dish. In a girlish voice that channels Glinda the Good Witch, she recalls how exotic macaroni and cheese seemed when she was growing up in India. She drops a spoonful of cumin from a round stainless steel tin, just like the ones you see in kitchens all over the subcontinent, and says, “Dad would make us mac and cheese when Mother didn’t feel like cooking. We so looked forward to those nights.” The keema she is preparing will be mixed with KD instead of the usual basmati rice.
The recipes Chandra prepares taste pretty good and are quick to throw together. But they could be done just as well without Kraft products, as in the case of a chicken dish that calls for Miracle Whip, a completely unnecessary and less healthful ingredient than the traditional yogourt. Then there’s the processed aftertaste KD lends to her chicken keema, which would have been simpler, anyway, to make with rice; even the best spices and an extra dose of cayenne can’t mask it.
While promoting its products to specific ethnic groups, Kraft Canada discovered another market: Canadian cooks who grew up in a multicultural environment, exposed to many styles of cuisine at home, in restaurants, and through travel. A year after Chandra joined the demonstration team, Kraft hired renowned Toronto chef Susur Lee as a spokesperson for the Chinese community, an idiosyncratic choice if ever there was one. Lee’s cooking is notoriously cerebral and complicated, and when the announcement came out last year it was hard to imagine him writing recipes that any home cook — let alone those in search of convenience — could duplicate. Yet it turned out to be an inspired choice. Omnivorousness may define modern Canadian cuisine, and the open-mindedness that accompanies it makes for one of the most exciting aspects of our burgeoning food culture. If anyone can speak to the fusion that informs Canadian cuisine, and the multiculturalism of cooking, it is Lee.
He stands out among an elite group of chefs who succeed at fusion, the overexposed cooking fad of the ’90s. The style has its critics (including me); when new combinations seem rootless and random, it devolves into “confusion” cuisine. Lee, however, keeps an open mind in the kitchen, and borrows freely from different cultures to create his dishes without ever bewildering (or, worse, boring) his guests. He demonstrates a deep knowledge of various cuisines, and an ability to uncover the connections between seemingly disparate styles, which is why he can successfully pair a Shanghai lion’s head meatball with Alsatian cabbage and potatoes from Lyons.
“When I think of fusion, I think of culture, of the deep root of recipes,” he says, sitting on a black leather couch at his eponymous restaurant in Toronto. “Like Peking duck.” As Lee well knows, even the most classic dish begins with an adaptation. The restaurant, which still sports the kitschy red, white, and green neon sign left over from the previous Italian occupants, looks much more Chinese than any of his other Toronto endeavours, decked out inside in deep red and gold, with black lacquer. Antique prints adorn one of the walls, and at the door hangs an old black and white photograph of his extended family in Hong Kong, and a “re-entry permit” sign above.
I ask him how immigration changed his approach to cooking. “When you arrive in Canada, you start to reflect on who you are,” he replies.
Tastes are always changing. Lee does not eat Kraft Dinner, but his three sons do. It’s one thing for tastes to develop organically, however, and quite another for them to be influenced by government or corporate interests. A few years ago, the Martin Prosperity Institute, at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, published a paper by geographer Betsy Donald entitled “From Kraft to Craft: Innovation and Creativity in Ontario’s Food Economy,” a rosy, if at times unrealistic, report about the economic benefits of an artisanal cheese renaissance in Canada. As part of her research, she interviewed Lee, who told her, “True innovative cooking comes from a deep understanding of, and respect for, different cultural roots and certain openness to new ideas. This is in contrast to the rigidity of more traditional cooking cultures like French and southern European. What I find so exciting about Toronto, and North American urban society in general, is the possibility for the betterment of the human condition through experiencing on a daily basis differentness and diversity.”
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.”
This appeared in the September 2012 issue.