Welcome to our series, Iconic Canadian Food! You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? Gabby Peyton will be sharing the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday this year. This month Gabby explores that ever-so-(mysteriously?)-popular Canadian snack, ketchup chips.
Whether you spell it ketchup or catsup, one thing's for sure: Canadians love potato chips flavoured with this tangy tomatoey topping. While ketchup is one of America’s favourite condiments (it’s found in 97% of households), Canada has embraced it in chip form. But did you know ketchup chips might not have been invented in Canada? That’s right, while the popularity of ketchup chips is certainly homegrown, the origins of this iconic chip flavour might very well be American. Ironically, if you travel south of the border you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has even heard of them.
A 2013 study proclaimed only 10 percent of Canadians even know ketchup chips are exclusively sold in Canada, and across the country it’s a polarizing flavour. You either love ketchup chips or you don’t — some people don’t think they even taste like ketchup. When you eat a bag you’re guaranteed to have fingers coated with tomato flavouring, garlic and onion powders with a heavy, smoky scent.
Flavour preference aside, there’s no playing catch-up when it comes to our love for ketchup chips, but this love affair with an American food is like the Great Canadian North: solitary, mysterious and in need of further exploration.
A chip on the proverbial Canadian shoulder
Without delving too deeply into ketchup’s history — while American in nature it has Asian origins and was reinvented by the Brits — its inevitable pairing with french fries is undeniably good. This flavour fusion has been around since the early 20th century, but our dear ketchup potato chips didn’t hit the junk food market until the 1970s. Their origin remains an enduring mystery with two competing chip companies at the centre.
Hostess is popularly credited as the creators of ketchup chips in the late 1970s. This Canadian snack company was founded near Cambridge, Ontario in 1935 by Edward Snyder, a potato farmer who began cooking chips on his mother’s stove. He sold the Snyder’s potatoes to E.W. Vanstone in 1955 who grew the company that became Hostess, then Frito Lay. Now the chips are sold under the Lays brand.
Those who came of age in the 80s will remember the trio of Munchies mascots juggling tomatoes and squirting ketchup bottles on the bright red bag. The Hostess brand of chips is rumoured to be the reason all regular bags of potato chips are blue, salt and vinegar flavour are yellow and sour cream and onion are green.
But, while Lays continues to sell the chips under the red branding since a buyout in 1996, most of us Canadians would be aghast to discover a company based in Pennsylvania is slyly taking the credit for ketchup chips. In fact, Herr’s chips in Pennsylvania might indeed be the inventor of the chip.
The Herr’s Snacks company from Nottingham, Pennsylvania changed their recipe three times before releasing their ketchup chips in the early 1980s. Then, Herr’s teamed up with ketchup magnate Heinz in the 1990s to make the best possible flavouring for their chips. Founder James S. Herr was said to have never taken official credit for the invention, preferring instead to quote Harry S. Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” There’s no solid proof who came up with the chips first, so their citizenship remains a mystery, just like why Canadians like the flavour in the first place.
Because everything tastes better as a potato chip
Despite the confusing origin story of ketchup chips, it’s a popular flavour across the country, with renditions from chip companies like Covered Bridge Potato Chips in New Brunswick, Hard Bite in BC, and President’s Choice.
American companies also recognize the love affair: Old Dutch makes ketchup chips for their Canadian market out of Winnipeg and Utz makes small batches out of Pennsylvania. Burger King co-branded a Ketchup & Fries flavour in the U.S. in 2007, but it soon fizzled out. In 2017, Pringles finally jumped on the chip truck and came out with their ketchup-flavoured rendition. Even Walkers sells ketchup crisps in Britain.
One thing is for sure, no matter how weird Americans think our obsession with ketchup chips is, it isn’t going anywhere soon. Who knows, maybe this Canadian snack obsession will be exported to the rest of the world. Is there a more patriotic snack then that red faux-ketchup caked onto a white chip?
- Iconic Canadian Food: The History of the Caesar, Canada's Cocktail
- Iconic Canadian Foods: The History of Bannock
- Iconic Canadian Foods: The Evolution of Poutine
Iconic Canadian Foods is written by Gabby Peyton. Gabby is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.