About once a year, usually as the glow of the holidays fades and winter stretches out before me on a slush-covered road, I get a craving for my favourite comfort food: Kraft Dinner. Properly prepared, the boxed pasta is warm and thick, with no bite at all, either in texture or flavour. It’s perfect.
I enjoy everything about it: the simplicity of mixing together butter, milk, and a packet of nearly fluorescent cheese powder; the tantalizing neon orange of the resulting mess; the gloopy noises it makes when I put my fork in the bowl. The rest of the year, my taste in pasta is more experimental: orzo and shakshuka; pan-fried gnocchi; fresh deli pasta topped with butter, cheese, and pepper. But not with KD. I overcook the macaroni noodles on purpose—solely because it makes the dish easier to mush around. Before I dig in, I top the whole mess with salt, pepper, and ketchup.
I started this annual ritual more than a decade ago, when I was about twenty-two. I was living in a tiny railroad-style apartment with the man I would eventually marry. We bought dollar-store juice glasses and went to our parents’ houses to do laundry. We felt very grown up and very, very unprepared to be adults, on our own in the world. My father came to view our new home and left behind a case of KD and, in our medicine cabinet, an envelope with $100. Both gifts felt precious. My father used to make KD for me and my sister, and it was one of the first “meals” I was allowed to cook for myself. So I made the KD, which was good, and it was familiar, which was even better. After we finished the case, I would still buy KD when it went on sale. Then, my KD purchases petered down to every few weeks, then to every few months, and then, eventually, to once a year. But I’d never stop completely.
Today, I don’t prepare it at any other time of the year. In terms of nutrition, I know it has little value. I know I could pick something better for me, healthier, and I often do. In recent years, I’ve become a more confident cook and moved away from other prepackaged foods and flavour packets. I simmer curries and roll meatballs and roast chickpeas. I’ve happily prepared the trademarks of millennial food, spreading avocado on toast and massaging kale leaves for salads. If I’m honest, I find the flavour of macaroni and cheese just okay. And yet. And yet.
Of the collection of foods I ate as a child, KD is one that I haven’t yet abandoned. Years later, there’s something about the particular taste that no other food can touch. And I know I’m not the only one. For some, the lure of Cheez Whiz is unmatched. For others, it’s fried bologna sandwiches. Some may fondly remember Pixy Stix or Pop Rocks, delicious, too-sweet candy that would be inhaled after Halloween. The most recent season of Stranger Things featured boxes of Mr. T cereal and touted the virtues of “new” Coke. Some of these products no longer exist. But many of us keep reaching for those that do, even if we don’t exactly like them, even if they don’t taste as good to our adult palates or fulfill our nutritional needs or even justify their own costs. The question is: Why?
What we eat makes up a large part of who we are. Food functions as a code, a shorthand for where we see ourselves in the communities around us. It is also inextricably linked with memory. Certain foods can trigger powerful waves of nostalgia in ways both good and bad. And, though those memories can form at any time, we often make strong associations with food when we are children.
Jessica Carey, a professor at Sheridan College, has studied these “food stories” and the ways in which food acts as a cultural shorthand as well as a vehicle for community belonging. Carey says acting illogically when it comes to what we eat is actually perfectly logical. “We like to think that we’re highly rational creatures who make our decisions based on sodium count and so forth,” she explains, adding that, in general, people actually care more about belonging and how food brings us together. “We place more value on the pleasurable feeling that we are connected with other people.”
That means agreeing to an order of fries for the table at after-work drinks, even though you may not really want the fries, because all your friends do. That means taking a few scoops of Nana’s horrid pasta salad at the family barbecue because it makes her happy. It means sharing what we make with others and, in turn, accepting others’ offerings of their own nostalgic foods. Food is a link to the people and places around us. It’s a link to our childhoods, our neighbourhoods growing up, our families.
I was born in Montreal, in 1985. When I was very young, my father would occasionally order a pizza for dinner and, with it, a few cans of Brio—an Italian-style carbonated soft drink, dark like cola but bittersweet. I would have preferred root beer, but I always drank Brio to fit in with my dad and older brother. Fast forward to my twenties, shopping at a deli and coming upon several cans of Brio, something I hadn’t seen since we moved from Montreal to Winnipeg in the 1990s. The first bitter sip brought me back to our old, scratchy couch, sitting with my family with the pizza box open in front of us. I drank the entire can standing in the store aisle.
Other people may remember making casseroles, with cans of cream-based soup and crushed Corn Flakes on top, for neighbourhood potlucks. Maybe they feel a wave of nostalgia for a popular 1990s slow-cooker meatball recipe that calls for both Coke and ketchup. Some may fondly remember making jollof rice or black pudding or carnitas with their parents or relatives, standing over simmering pots and watching as what was once just a collection of stuff turned into an actual meal. As I get older, much of my food consumption has moved from communal experiences to a rote, individual ones. I’m picking up a quick lunch from a drive through and eating it in the car. I’m cooking dinner with my headphones on, listening to a podcast. Cooking is now a solo activity, one guided by ease and convenience as much as taste.
Personally, as a child of the ’90s, my cultural touchstones with food are mainly, well, gross—at least by my now-adult standards. In elementary school, I begged my mother to buy Dunkaroos, individual cups of dry cookies with a separate chemically sweet frosting. Occasionally, she would relent. Or I might be able to get Gushers, a gummy candy with a liquid goo in the center. I still don’t know what that goo is made of, but I also don’t care. I would happily eat a package of Gushers if I had one right now, though I don’t know if I would get the same joy from them as my ten-year-old self did.
Neither Dunkaroos nor Gushers nor any of the other foods I coveted as a child are particularly good. Most are nutritionally lacking, and their tastes are falsely sweet. But they are part of my food story, links to the time and place that formed me.
If Kraft Dinner is the link to my food past, avocados, kale, and chickpeas are the hallmarks of my food present. Most days, I try to eat in a way I know will make me feel good: protein at breakfast, enough vegetables through the day to feel full, and not too much red meat. And, if I wanted, I could have my pick of services to help me sustain that diet. That convenience factor is dramatically changing the ways Canadians are eating.
Meal-kit delivery services are on the rise in Canada. In 2018, market researchers at the NPD Group estimated that more than 600,000 meal kits were delivered to Canadians each month. It makes sense: as Canadians automate more of our lives, many of us would happily outsource the chores of planning and shopping for our daily meals, especially when we know the food will fit our tastes and our diets. We order rides through apps; we meditate and exercise with apps; we communicate on apps. Why wouldn’t we eat with help of an app?
Subscription services like Hello Fresh, Good Food, and Chef’s Plate send portioned ingredients right to your door, with a recipe card to (hopefully) ensure a foolproof meal minus the hassle of actually planning, shopping, or preparing most of it. These kits boast meals such as “Tandoori-Style Chicken with Fragrant Rice and Cucumber Raita,” “Blackened Mahi-Mahi with Mediterranean Peach-Pepper Salsa,” and “Mediterranean Baked Veggies with Couscous.”
These meals seem like far cries from the artificial-seasoning-enhanced offerings of my youth. But they are and they aren’t. Whether you opt for tuna niçoise salad in a delivery or you dump a box of Kraft Deluxe Velveeta on Shells into some boiling water, often what you’re really after is extra time. “We’re all after convenience,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “And convenience trumps two things all the time: the environment and our health.” For many consumers, the time saved is often more important than taste, more important than our environmental or dietary concerns, even more important than cost.
Charlebois expects the food service industry, which includes restaurants, bars, hotels, and even hospitals, to generate about $93 billion in 2019, up from $72.1 billion in 2018. In contrast, retail sales of food will likely rise by just 0.4 percent. Charlebois says that more and more of our food money will go to drive-throughs and takeout. Of every dollar spent on food in the US, according to Charlebois, 51 cents is spent on food eaten outside the house. We are cooking less and spending much less time on our food than any generation before us.
And, if I’m being honest, when I think about the meals that I’m nostalgic for, the first foods that pop into my mind are ones of convenience. Rarely do my baba’s knishes or my aunt’s chocolate chip cookies come to mind. There’s a guilt that gnaws at me there, a little voice that chirps at me to prize my dad’s tuna casserole over cans of Squirt. I think of one as authentic, and therefore more deserving of my nostalgia, simply because someone I love laboured over the meal. But that’s a false equivalency.
We’ve been relying on gross prepackaged foods for decades. I’m just part of the first generation for which the balance has started to shift. For us, convenience has long defined the way we eat. For many of us who grew up in middle class Canada in the ’80s and ’90s, food memories feature frozen meals from boxes or quick takeout orders. “If you were raised in the ’80s and ’90s by working parents,” says Carey, “you wouldn’t have those highly quote-unquote authentic memories of that artisanal food prepared for you. You’d have memories of going through the drive-through with your mom.”
In an extended commercial that aired during the 2019 Grammy Awards, rapper Wiz Khalifa is on the phone while his son, Sebastian, sits at the table nearby. Sebastian appears bored and looks to his dad, who holds up a finger and says, “One second, buddy.” Eventually, Dad finishes on the phone and gets his son’s attention with, what else? An Oreo. A Khalifa track comes on as the two play, dance, and, of course, eat cookies.
Khalifa is a popular celebrity with my generation—that is, people in their late twenties and thirties, many of whom are now having kids of their own. Many of us remember Oreos fondly from our own childhoods, just like Khalifa (maybe) does. For brands like Nabisco, the company that makes Oreos, nostalgia is a powerful advertising tool. Hey, the ad seems to say, remember when you were young and ate Oreos? Don’t you want to give that experience to your kids too? Don’t you want to take a break from your phone calls and adult responsibilities and just enjoy your food? Wiz Khalifa does . . .
And it isn’t just brands like Nabisco that capitalize on our sentimentality. Big industries like dairy and beef are also latching on to our memories as our eating habits change. Not only do we not cook as much at home but the kinds of meals we do make are changing. Many millennials are embracing plant-based diets, for example, nodding to the ways that their food consumption affects the environment around them. Others want to try a “paleo diet” or adopt “clean-eating” habits—both wholesome ideas that harken to an idealized, nostalgic version of our past.
As a result, big food industries are trying to catch up. So we get cookie advertisements that capitalize on family values and good memories. Other foods tie all of this together with health and wholesomeness. Charlebois points to the beef industry in particular, which is currently focusing on selling itself as an unprocessed, natural option. “[It’s] using nostalgia, which is a powerful tool,” he adds. “You’re seeing it in the ads right now, like ‘Going back to the basics. Eating traditional, wholesome foods like beef. There’s nothing more natural than beef.’”
Carey sees nostalgic beef and dairy ads as attempting to combine a classic advertising strategy—Just eat it! It’s delicious! You know you want to!—with a sense of moral righteousness. “It’s trying to legitimize a hedonistic forgetting of the actual food politics of the present and the actual rational considerations of food,” she says. “‘Here’s what our ancestors did, and wasn’t that a good thing?’”
I’m not surprised that nostalgic marketing seems to be working on me. I’m busy. I’m working multiple jobs; I’m trying to pay rent; I need to get to the gym; and I can’t remember when I was supposed to schedule that dentist appointment, but I’m sure I missed it. Buying something familiar, something comforting, something reminiscent of a simpler time? That’s the easiest decision I’ll make all day.
For Carey, it’s a microwaveable brownie, mixed and eaten in the same pan it was sold in. Charlebois can’t shake poutine. (As he admits this, he tells me that “poutine is likely the worst meal ever, in the history of the human race, in terms of health value” and that he will also keep eating it.) We all have foods that, however nutritionally void or mealy tasting, we will not let go. They are too important to our memories; they make up part of who we are.
The rest of the year, I eat chicken and kale and pizza and ice cream and wild rice and tofu and myriad other things that fit my needs and wants. But, one day every year, when the snow is falling thick and it seems winter may never end, I’m going to eat my Kraft Dinner. And I’m going to enjoy it.