Cooking With Betty Crocker—and Chloe

When I was writing Tradition of Deceit, I marveled at the connections between the the Mill City Museum, one of the settings, and popular American culture. The museum was created within what was once the Washburn-Crosby A Mill. You may not have heard of Washburn-Crosby, but chances are good you’ve heard of Gold Medal Flour.

Gold Medal Flour

The company also created Betty Crocker, one of the most successful advertising personas of all time.

As early as the 1890s, the company published recipe pamphlets and cookbooks to promote their products.

1910 Cookbook - Version 2

1910 Cook Book

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This one isn’t dated.

But things didn’t really get rolling until 1921, when an ad featured jumbled puzzle pieces. Anyone who arranged the pieces and returned the puzzle would receive a pincushion resembling a tiny Gold Medal Flour Sack. Advertising staff were astonished to receive 30,000 completed puzzles!

Gold Medal Flour puzzle

A facsimile of the original puzzle, now available for visitors to assemble at the Mill City Museum.

Many of the women who sent in the puzzle were looking for baking advice in addition to the token prize. The company made a decision to create a fictitious woman to reply to queries. Betty Crocker was born—a single face and name to represent the women of the Gold Medal Home Services staff.

In 1921, women were generally expected to know how to manage a kitchen and feed her family. Betty Crocker became a trusted source of accurate information, and soon became known for “kitchen-tested” recipes. In 1926, Betty offered homemakers a wooden recipe box filled with “delightful new recipes” for 70 cents.

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A few years later, cooks could tune into the Gold Medal Radio Station to hear  “The Betty Crocker Service Program” and “The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air.” Both were huge hits.

Radio program ad

Mill City Museum exhibit.

Cooking School

Mexican Rice - Version 2

A few of the cards I’ve collected have this typewriter look. I’m not sure what that signifies.  (If you know, please share!)

Betty Crocker proved herself able to change with the times. During the Great Depression, she helped cooks prepare thrifty meals for their families.  When World War II brought rationing, Betty was ready to provide appropriate recipes.

In the beginning, Betty Crocker’s “identity” was a deep, dark secret. Many home cooks assumed she was a real person. In time, as media changed, the company revealed that Betty was a fabrication representing the collective wisdom and practical experience of the company’s home economists.

Betty’s look also evolved over the years.

Betty Crocker exhibit

The changing faces of Betty Crocker. Mill City Museum.

The Mill City Museum includes a Baking Lab, open daily, where guests can learn more. Special events often feature particular recipes or trends.

Baking lab, Mill City Museum

If you’d like to read more about the history of Betty Crocker, I recommend Finding Betty Crocker:  The Secret Life of America’s First Lady Of Food, by Susan Marks (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). If, like me, you grew up with Betty Crocker cookbooks, you’ll likely enjoy discovering the backstory as much as I did.

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I’ve always looked for relevant ethnic and/or historic recipes while researching and writing the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, and love hearing from readers who shared the dishes with family or friends. Well, I collected a lot of old recipes while working on Tradition of Deceit. With help from some wonderful reader-volunteers, I’ll be sharing more recipes here. The first “Cooking With Chloe” post will go up later this week.  Enjoy!

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One Response to “Cooking With Betty Crocker—and Chloe”

  1. Jen @ Dolls Between Us Says:

    I think this is fascinating… And I’m wondering whether “Betty” shares traits with other female heavy hitters in the US food scene. Martha? Julia? They seem on the surface to be completely different… But influential in their day for sure.

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