Finding Betty Crocker

Sunday, January 25, 2009

After yesterday's dark book I decided I needed a lighter book to read today.

Here's the description from the back cover, "While Betty Crocker is often associated with 1950's happy homemaking, she originally belonged to a different generation. Created in 1921 as a "friend to homemakers" for the Washburn Crosby Company (a forerunner to General Mills) in Minneapolis, her purpose was to answer consumer mail. "She" was actually the women of the Home Service Department who signed Betty's name. Eventually, Betty Crocker's local radio show on WCCO expanded, and audience's around the nation tuned her in, tried her money-saving recipes, and wrote Betty nearly 5,000 fan letters per day. In Finding Betty Crocker, Susan Marks offers an utterly unique look at the culinary and marketing history of America's First Lady of Food."

Fun facts from the book:

  • In 1945, Fortune magazine named Betty Crocker the second most popular American woman - second only to Eleanor Roosevelt - despite the fact that she didn't actually exist.
  • Refrigerated biscuits - the kind that come in a tube - have been around since the 1930's. I always thought they were a relatively recent innovation, but apparently not.
  • In the 1940's staffers at the Betty Crocker test kitchens were referred to as Crockettes. The book doesn't really specify if they are still called that today or not.
  • Betty Crocker once had several radio shows, and later several television shows - again, despite not actually existing.
  • Cake mixes were considered very controversial when they first came out. They were often viewed as "taking the easy way out" or a way for housewives to "shirk their responsibilities." General Mills dealt with this by removing the dried eggs that the mix contained, and marketing it to women as being practically homemade because you still had to add the eggs.
  • In the 1970's General Mills was sued by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Chapter of NOW. They charged that Betty Crocker's portrait was both sexist and racist because, according to their attorney, "Betty Crocker is an image that women are expected to live up to - a stereotyped image. She is not an image that many women can identify with."

My favorite parts of the book:

One of the features on Betty Crocker's radio show was having bachelors on to talk about what they were looking for in a wife. A football hero (the book doesn't tell his name) went on the Betty Crocker radio program and said he dreamed of an old-fashioned wife who would keep house like his mother - frugally and without any electrical appliances. The women of America were not amused, and they were quick to send letters in response. Here is an excerpt from one of the letters, "What a selfish, conceited football hero you chose to interview. Whew! Didn't like a thing about him. Made me cross all day just knowing he is alive..."

Betty's first all-cake recipe booklet contains a tale of two young brides who are both making birthday cakes for their husbands. The first bride insisted on using Gold Medal Flour and a Gold Medal "kitchen-tested" recipe. The second bride used another flour and a recipe that wasn't a Gold Medal recipe. The birthday cake made with Gold Medal Flour was a huge success, which resulted in the husband asking for a second piece of cake and declaring his wife, "the most wonderful little wife ever." The second bride was not so fortunate. Her cake turned out so badly that her husband couldn't even choke down an entire piece, which apparently "spoiled the day for both of them." - Let that be a lesson to you dear readers, cooking with anything other than Gold Medal flour and a "kitchen tested" recipe will not only ruin your day, but potentially your marriage as well. And now, I am left wondering, what must it be like to lead the kind of life in which a person's entire day can be ruined by a piece of cake.