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Sofia Kraushaar

My Abuela Stored Everything in a Keebler Export Sodas Tin—but Was She the Only One?

Above all else, my abuela was three things: dependable, resolute and resourceful. Mimi (her full title had five names and sixteen syllables, hence the moniker my sister and I assigned her as tots) almost always found a way to get exactly what she wanted.

When she was eager for a new refrigerator that she and my abuelo couldn’t afford, she had him paint the one they already had a different color. When she realized that she’d forgotten to take my dad’s annual birthday photo, she fixed her mistake the next year by snapping one, repositioning the dishes, adding a candle to the cake and snapping another. And she was actually born on February 17, 1918, a fact we only found out after she passed away at 101 years old in 2019. She’d been telling people she was born on January 17—the feast day of her favorite saint, Anthony the Great—for decades.

Just as consistently as she orchestrated her own small wins, she tried doing the same for me. She lived with us for the first three years of my life. Then, waking up meant being doted on over breakfast while she squeezed orange juice by hand for what felt like the entire morning. Our nights were marked by Spanish prayers, which were lovingly drilled into my memory from birth. The hours between were spent calling her friends so she could gently force them to hear me sing, watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame on repeat (Esmeralda was our favorite) and “reading,” which was more like us chatting while I scribbled in every book I could get my hands on. My parents never let me do that.

Once she moved back into her own place, I had to wait for her to visit to bask in her adoration (although she tried her best to give it to me over the phone). She always came with gifts: Goya canned fruit juices, Hotel Bar whipped butter and in typical abuela fashion, multiple children’s bibles. But there was one product she had in tow every single stay: Keebler Export Sodas. Crisp, toasty and just salty enough, the crackers were a mainstay in our home. I’d be lying, though, if I said we got more pleasure from the crackers themselves than the big, green tin they came in. Mimi repurposed the cans time and time again, using them to store everything from rice and black beans to napkins and—I’m not making this up—Goya snack crackers. When we weren’t actively using the tin, it lived on top of the fridge and occasionally on the dining room table, a kitschy centerpiece that announced Latinos live here and we’re out of crackers all at once.

I admittedly almost forgot about this iconic tin, until I read a New York Times piece about the cultlike devotion various nationalities have to repurposing certain containers for storage. The story makes clear that the phenomenon defies cultural boundaries, as individuals of all heritages shared their experience of the intense nostalgia that’s sparked by a few very specific, universally recycled vessels: Mom’s sewing kit in the Royal Dansk cookie tin, leftover mashed potatoes in a Cool Whip container, homemade sofrito in a Country Crock tub.

While my soul was warmed by the article, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where’s Mimi’s Keebler tin? Did loyal use (and reuse) of the canister extend beyond our kitchen? And did the crackers evoke a flurry of warm-and-fuzzy memories for other Latinx people, too?

For the uninitiated, soda crackers are not to be confused with saltines. Soda crackers are made from flour, yeast, shortening, baking soda and sometimes a touch of salt. They’re fermented longer, which results in a crisper, harder cracker that can hold its shape in soup and its crunch in breading. Unlike airy, delicate saltines, they aren’t topped with salt, but both types of crackers have holes on top to keep them from puffing up while they bake. My favorite distinction between Keebler’s soda crackers and saltines is that they’re sleeveless; the crackers are packed loose to the brim of the tin for easy noshing.

Soda crackers were invented in Great Britain in the 1800s. They’re a descendant of hardtack, an unleavened biscuit that dates back to the 16th century. Hardtack was quadruple-baked for durability, as it was a popular ration for militaries of yore. The biscuits could stay intact on a journey for years at a time, so they were practically inedible without moisture (soldiers usually dunked them in brine or coffee), hence their nickname, “molar breakers.”

Once yeast was added to the mix, soda crackers were invented. They eventually made their way to the Caribbean in crates labeled “export.” Merchants who came to port to buy them used the term colloquially for the crackers, so much so that the word eventually made its way onto some brands’ packaging. Today, there are many companies that produce soda crackers, but you’ll really only see the term “export sodas” used on crackers marketed to Latin countries and communities. (In fact, Keebler’s live in the Latin/international aisle at my supermarket rather than the cracker aisle, and most of the words on the tin are in Spanish.)

When I set out to discover how common my experience really was, Google’s helpful results were few and far between. I found one article on Mitú, “15 Things You Find in Every Cuban Kitchen,” but the story wasn’t live anymore. Thankfully, the Wayback Machine exists, and I saw that the tin made the list. I found more similar evidence, from a meme that read “You Know You’re Cuban If This Is Where You Keep Your Rice” to a darling vintage photo of a little girl with the Keebler tin on her lap, captioned “Tell me you’re Cuban without telling me you’re Cuban…”

“Always remember having these when [I was] sick instead of saltines,” Marissa Lakin, a fellow Cuban-American, told me. (She also mentioned her dad has been storing their parrot’s bird food in the tin since she was a child.) Others I interviewed described enjoying the export sodas all kinds of ways: piled high with guava paste and cream cheese, dunked in avena (oatmeal), crumbled in chicken soup or topped with queso blanco, although the go-to method is spreading them with butter and dipping them in café con leche. I love them with peanut butter—Skippy’s, if I can get it, since it was Mimi’s favorite. However you ate them, they evoked one thing across the board: childhood.

At this point, I was sure Keebler’s chokehold on the soda cracker market had less to do with their crackers, more to do with the tin and even more so to do with nostalgia. (Heck, even the Kellogg’s website is hip to what the people really want, touting that the export sodas “come in a tin that’s great for storing snacks, long after [the] crispy crackers are gone.”) But was the tin’s popularity exclusive to Cubans?

I texted my Dominican friend Carolina Reyes to ask if her abuelos or parents use it. Assuming I was reaching, I sent along a photo of the Royal Dansk cookie tin, too. She replied, “Girl, we still use both—at work, we keep our plastic forks in the green one. No clue why; we just always have.” There it was: proof that the roots of Mimi’s cracker tin ran deeper than our kitchen and nationality.

I took to social media for more evidence. One Tweet read, “White women have become the face of reduce/reuse sustainable living, but what about my Puerto Rican family that has stored rice in this Keebler Export Soda cracker tin since before I was born?” Another showed side-by-side images of Rovira and Goya soda cracker tins, begging users to debate which was better. One reply read: “Ninguna de las dos. Las mejores se llaman Keebler Export Sodas.” (Neither of the two. The best ones are called Keebler Export Sodas.) I also found proof of Latinos using the tin as a paint can, flower vase and rice container.

I posted a very scientific survey (aka an Instagram story poll) to see how many of my Latinx friends recognized the tin. I was thrilled to find that people of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Peruvian, Costa Rican, Colombian and Haitian heritage all shared in my nostalgia. “My family is Colombian and that tin was used for sewing supplies,” Miami resident Bruno Solari shared. “These are some of my earliest memories of being at my grandparents’ house. Not sure where the crackers lived, if I’m being honest.”

Sherley Garcia’s family also used the Keebler tins to store sewing supplies: “My family is from DR and has been using these my entire life to store anything from letters to sewing kits to miscellaneous household items. All of my aunts and grandmas have at least one in their home.”

Ada Nunez, whose family also hails from the Dominican Republic, says her mom would use the tins to store leftover snacks. “At any given moment, you could open one up and find anything from leftover airplane peanuts, courtesy of abuela’s frequent trips to the homeland, to 25-cent Doritos, back when Doritos were actually 25 cents.”

As more stories came to light, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why Keebler, specifically? It’s not like there’s a shortage of brands to choose from. Royal Borinquen, Rovira, Sultana and Aviva all make soda crackers that are nearly identical to Keebler’s in terms of ingredients and nutrition facts. (The main differences are size—Keebler’s tin is the largest of the lot—and price, Keebler being the cheapest.) Even Goya, which is arguably the unofficial go-to brand for Latin-Americans, makes soda crackers, also packaged in a cylindrical green tin. But you don’t see anyone tweeting about their can, despite it being just as reusable.

So, what gives? It turned out that I’d have to dig through a 42-year-old lawsuit to uncover the reason behind Keebler’s ubiquitous influence.

The Rovira family started manufacturing soda crackers in Puerto Rico in 1929. At the time, their packaging included a sticker that read “export sodas,” a label that stuck until about 1947. The son of the man who started first selling them was chairman of the board when Keebler Co., then based in Delaware, took Rovira to court in 1980.

Keebler’s soda crackers hit the Puerto Rican market in their signature green tin a few years after Rovira in 1934. By 1951, Keebler was selling its export sodas both on the island and to a variety of U.S. markets with large Puerto Rican populations. Carmen Melone, who immigrated from Arecibo to New York City in 1954, has used the tin for decades. “I didn’t use it in Puerto Rico, only when I got here,” she told me. “But my sister used it there; she always had the crackers. She kept beans in [the tin].”

By then, Keebler was essentially the only brand still using the term “export sodas” on its packaging. That changed in 1974, when Rovira started selling their soda crackers under the same name once again—this time, in cylindrical containers—in both Puerto Rico and New York. Keebler filed with the U.S. Patent Office to trademark the term, but their application was refused: In Puerto Rico, “export sodas” was a widely used term to refer to soda crackers in general rather than a product-specific phrase, so the Patent Office deemed the mark “merely descriptive” and consequently not registrable.

Keebler resubmitted their application, saying the term was indeed distinctive through their exclusive use. That time, they won, and wasted no time filing a complaint in the U.S. District Court against Rovira, citing trademark infringement and seeking damages and a permanent injunction against their use of the term. They also argued that Rovira shouldn’t be allowed to use a cylindrical, lithographed can to package their crackers. After that happened, Rovira filed a counterclaim, and eventually, Keebler’s trademark was taken away, meaning Rovira was allowed to continue packaging its crackers in cylindrical containers.

To me, the situation sort of reeks of appropriation and capitalistic entitlement (the old-school Keebler tins of my youth read “La Original” on the front, even though they quite literally weren’t). Rovira used the term first on its packaging and had been selling soda crackers on the island years before Keebler. On the other hand, its export sodas weren’t actually exports at all…but that didn’t really matter since the phrase was essentially synonymous with “soda cracker” in Puerto Rico. Regardless, Keebler came out on top, dominating both the market and the childhood memories of many Latinx people to this day.

“I have two nieces and a godchild in Puerto Rico, my brother in Massachusetts, two nieces in Jersey City and two nieces in Florida—they all use those crackers,” says Melone. Even so, Melone innocently asked me who made them: “I always thought it was Goya.”

Her question is proof that this phenomenon has little to do with brand. In a sense, the Keebler tins have grown to encompass more than just convenience; they’re a symbol of both tradition and resourcefulness. There’s no denying that the need to reuse everything under the sun is a common notion among many immigrants. Mimi rarely threw anything away, and I’d be shocked if she’d ever bought a single piece of Tupperware. My guess is that this enterprising nature is hereditary: If you ask a Latinx millennial why their family stores sewing supplies in a Keebler tin, they might say they have no idea, but trace it back and you’ll likely find on a mamá, tía or abuela who refused to part with anything she could find a purpose for.

“Even though the younger generations don’t do this anymore, growing up, my [Dominican] grandmas and older aunts all had these at home [to store] the most random items—letters, ChapStick, tweezers, clips,” says Gallery Media Group’s brand strategy manager Enaoris Hernandez. “I guess in their eyes, it was a ‘oh, look, an empty container! No need to buy one—let’s not waste this’ mentality.”

Nunez shares the sentiment: “We waste nothing; margarine containers become bean cantinas and grocery store plastic bags are used on our trash cans. My mother hasn’t purchased trash bags in years,” says Nunez.

Peruvian-American Maribel Lara remembers her tía abuela Felipa storing rice in Keebler tins. “In truth, if you could repurpose a container and save money, my family was going to do it…Stained, ripped clothes become cleaning rags. Empty glass spaghetti sauce bottles get used to dispose of grease and oil that shouldn’t get poured down the drain. Cute store bags get repurposed as gift bags.”

Melone had the most creative idea of the lot, one Mimi would have adored: “I used to make a planter and put it in the window. Cover it up on the sides with folding paper or foil and make a beautiful plant.”

No matter how Latinx people enjoy the crackers or reinvent the tin today, whether it be into something strictly useful or surprisingly gorgeous, one thing is for certain: It represents our collective desire for a better life, a wish that’s inextricably rooted in the journeys of our ancestors. For many millennials, the Keebler Export Sodas tin in their parents’ kitchen may look like a portable condiment drawer, napkin holder or utensil bin at first glance, but in reality, it’s a mark of their family’s resilience, cleverness and ingenuity.

This bulky green tin, whatever it’s filled with, symbolizes all the small ways those who came before us tried to make the most of what they had. In Mimi’s eyes, a “better life” meant a brand name she could afford, a new home for her cherished letter collection and crackers that never went stale. And like any loving abuela, her best life called for sharing all she could with those she loved most.