The snack that's not quite holy
The story of host cuttings
Hello, Snackers. This is a story about a Canadian treat made from communion wafer leftovers.
Also: This post was supposed to be published on Wednesday. It was also supposed to be a history of lunchboxes. You can guess why it’s late—why this was a difficult week to think about anything—and why I switched subjects.
I grew up Mennonite—urban hippie Mennonite, not horse-and-buggy Mennonite—and we did things a bit different from my Catholic friends. Intentionally so, since our particular denomination originated with people who looked at the Protestant Reformation and went, Actually, those religious practices are still a bit too extravagant. (If you’re interested in religious history, you can read all about the Anabaptists and why they thought Martin Luther was a punk. If you want to know about Mennonite foodways, check out More With Less, an absolutely iconic cookbook in the church.)
Anyway, in that inner-city church of my youth, communion—that rite involving bread (or something like it) and wine (or something like it) as a stand-in for the body and blood of Jesus—consisted of tearing a little piece off a loaf of whole-grain bread and dunking it into a communal cup of grape juice.
The formal, mass-produced wafers of Catholicism were absolutely not part of our own practice. In fact, the first time I ever saw those little round discs, I thought, What kind of snack food is this?!
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This is not a post about religion or religious practices. It’s not even a post about communion wafers, although they’re an interesting subject in their own right, including the matter of whether or not they’re “food” (for that discussion, I’ll direct you to The Takeout) or the intense competition within the business, which would make for an excellent HBO series or Netflix documentary. Vice had a good overview a few years back:
“Contemplative religious communities need an income producing work that is consistent with their life of enclosure and prayer,” she explained. “Altar bread production is one of the most perfect works.”
But the [religious] orders that stay in the business now have to compete with a secular firm that brought mainstream business savvy into a holy space. Cavanagh developed a proprietary flour blend, a process to seal the wafer edges to prevent crumbs, and automation that allowed batches to be “untouched by human hands,” a quality they started to promote in ads and press.
But that’s not our interest here.
This is a post about (forgive me, Patron Saint of Puns, whoever you are) … transnackstantiation. This is the story of a snack that becomes a snack only when it’s not used for its original purpose and only when it’s not consecrated. By avoiding a blessing, it becomes a food.
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Here’s how it works. Communion wafers are little discs. Like this:
To make communion wafers—or hosts, as they’re sometimes called—you make broad sheets of the basic cracker, whose ingredients are flour and water and that’s it. Then you punch out some circles. Those get consecrated and used in worship.
But you could, conceivably, just make those big sheets and not punch out the holes; you could also take the scraps left over after the circles are punched and bag up those bits. This is stuff that was almost communion wafers but literally didn’t make the cut. And since it hasn’t been blessed or otherwise officially made sacred, it’s just, you know, a snack.
I had never thought about any of this—again, I grew up in the Christian church, but a quite different version—until the other day, when I was idly searching for Canadian snacks and found this punny old headline in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
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You can buy those extra bits from online from multiple sources, including a Vatican-affiliated website, which sells them in a few versions, like “toasted.” (I haven’t found any cheese-flavored versions yet, but I’m certain someone has thought about it, and has a secret list of punning names like Cheddar Blast Supper.)
If you just saw the bag with no additional context, you could easily mistake it for any random crunchy thing you’d find in a vending machine. But, yeah, those are ceremonial religious leftovers that you can eat as a snack.
They go by a few different names, including host scraps and host pieces. In Québec, which appears to be the first place the product was mass-produced (no pun intended this time!) and sold in regular retail settings like gas stations and grocery stores, they’re usually called host cuttings, or “retailles d’hosties” in French.
This healthy snack has grown in popularity since the start of the pandemic. Barely a few months after the advent of teleworking, the company had to increase its production by 30% in order to meet demand.
“Host scraps have replaced a lot of potato chips and sweet snacks in the last few months,” explains Gaston Bonneau, founder of Variétés SDS Inc. “Right now, we are receiving so many requests for scraps that we has no time to do our normal production of large washers,” he says.
If the ostensible healthfulness of the snacks is a selling point, the flavor is … not so much, at least according to Pierre Lefebvre, the president of one of the manufacturers, who told The Ottawa Citizen in 1999, “It’s difficult to explain because it doesn’t really taste like anything. A lot of things sell that don’t taste very good.” Back then, host cuttings were a $2.5 million industry in Québec, at least among those manufacturers who tracked sales.
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Gaston Bonneau, the company owner, was an entrepreneurial sort of guy who ran a plumbing and heating business and some ice cream shops. But his wife, Danielle, offered another suggestion: selling uncut host sheets as a snack. The family doesn't appear to have been especially devout; it was just another business concept for them. From the Gazette story:
“I went to Montreal with 200 cases on a Friday to meet the wholesaler for the Metro grocery store chain,” Bonneau, 74, recalled from Florida. “He told me I was crazy, that no one would buy them, and turned me down flat.”
Bonneau, however, spent the weekend visiting Metro stores across Montreal, giving owners boxes of his wafers free of charge.
“I told them, ‘If you sell them, call your wholesaler and tell him you want more,’ ” he said.
“Monday morning at 9 o’clock, the guy called me: ‘Hey, what the hell did you do? I’m getting swamped with calls from Metro store owners who sold all your stock and want more.’ ”
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Even though the Bonneau gets most of the credit with popularizing host cuttings, they didn't invent the concept. In Québec, at least (and presumably elsewhere around the world), some of the religious orders that had historically made communion wafers also sold the scraps on the side. Many of the articles I read in my research indicated that at least some of today’s consumers remember those less formal sales, at convents and the like, and their memories of those days inform their present fondness for host cuttings. Nostalgia, as always, is one of the strongest sales pitches for snacks.
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Even though these bits of crackery snacks are not technically communion wafers, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of “You know, this really is kinda odd.” Host cuttings haven’t been consecrated, but you know what they are—the association is right there in the name. The snack is a novelty and a cheeky one at that. To me, as an outsider, it’s a hard situation to parse, one that feels like people kinda poking fun at their own religious traditions. (Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other foundational religious items that are repurposed in this way.)
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is a fan of host cuttings. “People are snacking on hosts and host pieces like it’s candy,” one former Catholic missionary complained to the Globe and Mail. “They’re not distinguishing between the body of Christ and something you nibble on at home.”
Still, the snack’s roots with enterprising nuns, and the fact that you can buy them from a Vatican-affiliated vendor, indicates a general level of acceptance within the Church (among those who know about this snack products at all). The general feeling seems to be that it’s a curiosity but not heresy.