Wallace McCain’s death inspires nationwide nostalgia for the French fries of simpler times

Marc Weisblott
National Affairs Reporter
Daily Brew

Wallace McCain may not have invented frozen French fries, but the Florenceville, N.B. company he co-founded in 1956 helped bring the idea to the world.

Their initial popularity was credited to the fact they were cooked for slightly longer before being put on ice.

The legacy of that creation meant McCain's death on Friday at 81 resonated on all six continents where the brand is now made.

A template for international growth was set in the 1960s when Wallace and his brother Harrison gave its British operation enough autonomy to not be seen as a foreign interloper, which led to their chips being accepted as a U.K. original.

The widely publicized rift between the brothers, over Harrison's preference to bring in outside management in 1994, led Wallace and his son Michael to take control of Maple Leaf Foods instead.

Harrison died a decade later and was succeeded by his son Allison, who had been running the operations in England.

Still, the McCain name remained inextricably linked with potatoes, a relationship that stretched back to the export business started by their farming father in 1909.

While the company later put its stamp on frozen pizzas, among other products, it was also increasingly put in the position of having to defend its flavour-enhanced Superfries against charges of being a nutritional nightmare.

The switch to non-hydrogenated oil, beginning in 2003, was designed to strategically offset bad cholesterol levels while complying with Health Canada regulations.

Still, potatoes couldn't shake the criticism, which had affected sales of the signature product. McCain Foods partnered with Canadian growers in 2004 on a promotional campaign designed to sell their health benefits.

An enhanced offering like Xtracrispy Superfries, though, still contained 900 per cent more sodium than the straightforward frozen variety.

Sea salt was introduced to Superfries last year with the promise of 25 per cent less sodium, since less of it would be required to sustain the flavour. McCain also recently introduced a variety made with red-skinned potatoes.

Currently, there are 14 different varieties of Superfries, alongside other efforts to reach a generation that may not understand the appeal of basic sliced potatoes on a plate.

The tributes to Wallace McCain, however, are mostly a reminder of when we were satisfied with eating fries on a shoestring.