History MA Chair Janis Thiessen talks about snacks

Graduate Studies

Dr. Janis Thiessen is the new chair in the MA in History program. We caught up with her to find out about her research and what's happening in the program.

Janis Thiessen Food Truck

Could you give an overview of the JMP History program?

The History JMP is offered jointly by the History Departments at the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba. It offers 4 streams: a Major Research Paper MA, a Course MA, a Thesis MA, and an Archival Studies MA. Students can take courses at, and have thesis supervisors and committee members from, both campuses: UofM and UofW. We’ve been offering the History JMP since 1976-77.

What is your academic background, and how long have you been at UW?

I accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of History at the University of Winnipeg in July 2011, but had spent the previous two years as a SSHRC-funded postdoctoral fellow in the department. (That postdoctoral research eventually became my second book, Not Talking Union). I have a B.Sc., B.Ed., M.A. (History), and Ph.D. (History). From 1995 until 2009, I taught high school chemistry and Mennonite history (while completing my MA and PhD), and also taught some courses as a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba, Canadian Mennonite University, and the University of Winnipeg. I did my doctorate at the University of New Brunswick, and turned my dissertation into my first book, Manufacturing Mennonites. I’m now an Associate Professor in the UW’s History department, as well as Associate Director of the UW’s Oral History Centre.

You have a food truck! And do research on chips! What can you tell us about that?

Yes! I’m so excited and grateful for these research opportunities at UW. The research on chips was published this year as my third book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History. It’s a history of independent snack food manufacturers in Canada (such as W.T. Hawkins, the makers of Cheezies), the workers at those companies, and the people who consume those products (including former child contestants on the Old Dutch Kids Bids television shows of the 1960s).

I recently was awarded another SSHRC grant, in collaboration with Kimberley Moore and Kent Davies, adjunct professors at the UW’s Oral History Centre. We are going to operate a “food history truck” to generate a history of food production, retail, and consumption in Manitoba. The truck will visit Steinbach, Winnipeg, and the Parkland region, inviting people onboard to cook historically significant meals while we interview them about their food and their lives. Imagine, for example, the head cook from the former Wagon Wheel restaurant preparing their famous turkey clubhouse sandwich, while we ask them about that restaurant’s history!

Have you had any graduate students participate in your research? (snack quality control?)

For the snack food history research, I had funding from the UW and SSHRC, and so was able to hire student research assistants. An undergraduate did a couple of weeks’ research at Library and Archives Canada. And three graduate students worked with me for a couple of years each. Two of them had the opportunity to travel to the west and east coasts of Canada with me to do research and conduct oral history interviews at various businesses and archives. One of the grad students was able to present her research at an international oral history conference in Barcelona.

For the food history truck research, I’ve again been fortunate to have funding from both UW and SSHRC. I’ve hired a project coordinator, Sarah Story, who is a recent JMP History graduate. We also plan to hire undergraduate and graduate research assistants at various points during the project.

How did you develop an interest in this topic?

As I was completing my postdoctoral research, I was looking for another subject to research. My focus has always been on labour history and the history of independent, family-owned businesses in 20th century Canada. I was chatting with my brother, and he suggested I study Old Dutch Foods, knowing my fondness for potato chips. And so began my discovery of the field of food history!

What’s the best part of the JMP?

The best part of the History JMP, I believe, is its variety. Students have four ways in which they can complete a History JMP; all but the Course M.A. qualifies for SSHRC funding. Students have access to the expertise of professors on two different campuses, whether through coursework, thesis supervision, or research assistantship opportunities. And students have the chance to study a wide range of fields within history: the history of India, medieval Europe, archival studies, Indigenous history, oral history, and so much more.

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