But we would eat Kraft dinner

My niece likes to mix it with salsa and I’m partial to that innovation myself, while my kids like to blend in some ketchup.  As a matter of fact we’re stocking up for their imminent holiday arrivals now, because no matter how you eat it nothing says “comfort food” like mac and cheese, particularly that packaged, cost-conscious mix that Kraft Foods began marketing to North American consumers 75 years ago.

Initially introduced in 1937, Kraft Dinner (as it was then known) was a huge success due in large part to the onset of wartime dairy and meat rationing. Now named Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (at least in the States) and with a shelf life of ten months, it has since remained a meal-worthy cupboard staple at home and abroad (in the UK its called Cheesey Pasta). But nowhere is this more so than in Canada where the ever-named Kraft Dinner is easily the most popular grocery item in the country.

With a population that is smaller than that of California, and far smaller than the UK, Canadians purchase nearly a quarter of all the boxes of “KD” sold globally each week.  That’s 55 percent more than in the entire USA.  As CBC commentator Rex Murphy noted, “Kraft Dinner revolves in that all-but-unobtainable orbit of the Tim Hortons doughnut and the A&W Teen Burger… It is one of that great trinity of quick digestibles that have been enrolled as genuine Canadian cultural icons.”

“For some reason, Canadians and Kraft products have bonded the way Australians have bonded with Vegemite, or the English with Heinz baked beans,” adds novelist, Douglas Coupland “…Kraft Dinner, is the biggie, probably because it so precisely laser-targets the favoured Canadian food groups: fat, sugar, starch and salt.”

Of course for Canadian teens (as with American and British teens), it’s the first thing they learn to prepare when out on their own.  Certainly this was the case for two noteworthy Scarborough, Ontario musicians trying to break into the Toronto scene.  Schoolmates since adolescence, Steven Page and Ed Robertson had begun to jam together while working as teen counselors at a Northern Ontario Music Camp.

Then one night in 1988, while attending a Bob Dylan concert at (drafty, old) Exhibition Stadium, the two grew bored and began a running commentary on Dylan’s band, coming up with a list of fictional names, including (chortle) “Barenaked Ladies.”  Not long after, Robertson received a phone call about performing at a charity event he and the cover band he played with had agreed to do.  Even though the band had since broken up, he confirmed and when asked the group’s name (of course) gave, “Barenaked Ladies.”

Now scrambling, he called Page (who couldn’t believe he had given that name) and convinced him to participate.  Completely unrehearsed the two performed their first show as a duo, on behalf of the Second Harvest Food Bank, playing every song they could think of.  When invited to open for a local band at the Horseshoe Tavern they improvised again, firmly establishing the impromptu banter for which Barenaked Ladies (BNL), which soon grew to be a quartet, is known.

Perhaps their earliest improvised number was one Robertson and Page had conceived as teen counselors, playing the tune for the campers on the long bus ride home while randomly listing amusing things they’d buy if they had a million dollars. Right from the start “If I Had $1,000,000” became one of BNL’s most celebrated songs in concert …not that it didn’t come with a smidgeon of controversy.

Inspired by one of the song’s most prominent lines a fan threw a single box of Kraft Dinner at the stage during a concert in 1991.  The idea quickly spread and throughout much of the decade fans would pelt the stage with hundreds of boxes.  Eventually BNL asked that fans cease the ritual and instead donate the Mac and Cheese to local foodbanks by dropping the boxes into bins set up in the lobbies of their venues.  The campaign was a success.

Although the lyrics change regularly in concert there remain a few constant references that merit explanation.  For example, in Canada a “chesterfield” traditionally refers to a sofa or couch. Then there’s the allusion to Michael Jackson’s eccentric ‘80s lifestyle, with his exotic animals and infamous attempt to purchase the remains of John Merrick, the Elephant Man.

As for the line about the “K Car” that refers to a type of domestic automobile manufactured by Chrysler throughout the 1980s, with the 4-cylinder Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries being the most popular models.  Fuel-efficient and reasonably priced they were a direct response to the compact Japanese imports that began to flood the North American market after the energy crises of the ‘70s.

Despite the fact that the song was only released as a single years after it became popular in concert (first in 1992, then in 1993 in the UK, then again in 1996) and never with an accompanying music video, “If I Had $1,000,000” has long made the short-list of CBC Radio’s “Top 50 Essential Canadian Tracks”.

 LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Tuesday 13 November

 “If I Had $1,000,000”

If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you a house

I would buy you a house

 And if I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

I’d buy you furniture for your house

Maybe a nice chesterfield or an ottoman

 And if I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you a K-Car

A nice reliable automobile

And if I had a million dollars, I’d buy your love

 If I had a million dollars

I’d build a tree-fort in our yard

If I had a million dollars

You could help

It wouldn’t be that hard

 If I had a million dollars

Maybe we could put a little tiny fridge

In there somewhere

We could just go up there and hang out

 Like open the fridge and stuff

And there’d all be foods laid out for us

Like little pre-wrapped sausages and things

They have pre-wrapped sausages

But they don’t have pre-wrapped bacon

Well, can you blame them?

Yeah

 If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you a fur a coat

But not a real fur coat, that’s cruel

 And if I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you an exotic pet

Yep, like a llama or an emu

And if I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you John Merrick’s remains

All them crazy elephant bones

And if I had a million dollars I’d buy your love

If I had a million dollars

We wouldn’t have to walk to the store

If I had a million dollars

We’d take a limousine ‘cause it costs more

 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

And buy really expensive ketchups with it

That’s right, all the fanciest Dijon ketchups

 If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you a green dress

But not a real green dress, that’s cruel

 And if I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you some art

A Picasso or a Garfunkel

If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

Well, I’d buy you a monkey

Haven’t you always wanted a monkey?

If I had a million dollars I’d buy your love

If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

If I had a million dollars

I’d be rich

 

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