Vachon cakes – bad for kids?

January 28th, 2009
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This headline will be a shock to many of you for whom, like me, Vachon cakes were a large part of one’s childhood diet. OK, we actually just wanted the cakes to be a large part of our diet.

As it was, living in close proximity to grandparents provided me with at least one such cake per week – as well as a 25-cent bag of Humpty Dumpty potato chips (OK, this was 40 years ago!). That gave me a pretty good idea of the variety of cocoanut cakes, 1/2 Lune Moons, Swiss Rolls, etc., that were staples of the Quebec diet in those years.

My favourite, and for a while the undisputed queen of such confections, was of course the Mae West (later May West). When fresh, this cake could rival the best pastries in the world. White, unearthly light cake filled with vanilla custard; all enrobed in a firm chocolate coat.

Remarkably, Wikipedia acknowledges that the filling was in fact originally custard – not the vanilla cream used today. The latter only came into use after Vachon bought the product in the 1980’s. I’m indebted to an obscure website for confirmation that the original bakery in Montreal was called Stuart; apparently up on Laurier Avenue. The custard was clearly injected into the cakes before they were dipped in the chocolate, because divots were always evident on the upper surface of each cake. Regrettably, since the Vachon take-over, the Mae West bears more resemblance to a vanilla Joe Louis than its original incarnation.

Fondly do I remember my days at the Ecole Polytechnique, when we had four huge vending machines on the second floor, filled with Mae Wests. These were fresh every day, as you had to go early for afternoon coffee (not a problem in grad school) because after 2:30 the machines were cleaned out; not a crumb left.

Vachon cakes… all part of a balanced diet. And I didn’t even mention the Pepsi.

Well, it turns out that the Quebec government disagrees.  Using essentially dormant legislation passed in the early 1980′s (by guess-which provincial party!) the government has slapped down Vachon for directing ads at children.  According to the National Post, apparently McDonald’s and Burger King’s kids’ meals are next and even General Mills’ Lucky the Leprechaun’s luck may have run out.

All this is an attempt to combat childhood obesity. Another Post study suggests this may only be the beginning. It seems a child’s weight will now help determine how “fit” parents are in the eyes of social service agencies. Obesity may be a sufficient reason to remove a child from a home.

According to one of the anti-obesity lobbyists, no less an authority than the World Health Organization “identified junk-food advertising as one of top five causes of the current obesity epidemic.” This begs the question whether the Quebec government is actively going after the other five causes or just picking the low-hanging cakes. Presumably, a sedentary lifestyle is one cause. Will Quebec City forbid advertising video games or children’s TV? Or better yet place time restrictions on children partaking of both?

Looking back, it seems to me that if you play road hockey for four to six hours a day, you can eat about as many Vachon cakes as you want. After pleading guilty to 22 counts of misleading impressionable youths, perhaps Vachon should lobby the government to go after all those companies whose products encourage kids to sit on their duffs.

No matter how you slice the Joe Louis, it seems the Quebec government is not only being intrusive, but selectively intrusive. Based on their priorities, Pepsi should likely watch out, while Nintendo is (unfortunately) probably safe.

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By John Weissenberger