Finding Betty Crocker; the Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food

Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food A biography by Susan Marks

”In 1945, Fortune magazine named Betty Crocker the second most popular American woman, right behind Eleanor Roosevelt, and dubbed Betty America’s First Lady of Food. Not bad for a gal who never actually existed. “Born” in 1921 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to proud corporate parents, Betty Crocker has grown, over eight decades, into one of the most successful branding campaigns the world has ever known. Now, at long last, this American icon has her own biography. Susan Marks draws on six years of research plus an unprecedented look into the General Mills archives to reveal how a fictitious spokesperson was enthusiastically welcomed into kitchens and shopping carts across the nation.”

What you just read is the description, from the back cover, of the book “Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food". Once I finished wiping away my tears after reading that Betty Crocker “never actually existed” (does this mean there is no Santa Great Pumpkin? ugh!) I decided that, even though my dreams had been dashed, I wanted to know more.

Naturally, as it’s written as a biography, the story goes through the history of Betty Crocker and the different women who represented her throughout the years. This was, of course, interesting and informative. What I didn’t realize, though, is how important Betty was for many a bride, bachelor, experienced domestic goddess, chef or baker-to-be, trying out those first hopefully palate-pleasing recipes. There is so much to be discovered about Betty and her legacy in these pages, and, although I constantly found myself battling Bisquick cravings, I put the honey down, backed away from the cabinet and foraged through the pages, instead.

Although the writer’s style is not very fanciful (the author sticks to “just the facts, ma’am” for most of the book), she does a lovely job of presenting all that is Betty Crocker in an interesting, easy to digest (see what I did there?) way. You can tell she’s a fan!

A highlight for me was reading bits and pieces of some of the thousands of grateful letters written to Ms. Crocker. In the early years, Betty’s radio show was an instant hit, offering advice on housekeeping and meal planning, and of course, delicious recipes. Although anyone could listen, thousands of men and women “enrolled” in her broadcast cooking schools. It is heartwarming to realize the impact she had on fans of her radio show during the Great Depression, when money was scarce and times were hard, but families still had to be fed as nutritiously as possible:

“Like millions of other husbands, mine had to take a severe cut in salary and oh, Miss Crocker, sometimes I become so discouraged...”

“I used to be enrolled in your cooking schools of the air when I lived in Springfield. Then hard times hit this family and we moved to the farm … I had to sell my radio and G.E. refrigerator. I sure do miss them. What I want to ask you is, would it be too much trouble for you to send me some of your recipes that you have given out within the past year?”

Reflecting on Betty’s impact during those difficult days, the author writes: “Like the President, whose influential “Fireside Chats” moved one critic to dub him “the best broadcaster known in America today,” Betty Crocker answered her queries not only by post, but on the radio. Her blend of you-can-do-it optimism and practical advice was precisely what her public wanted. By mid-decade, two of Betty’s weekly broadcasts focused exclusively on recipes and menus designed for families on relief.

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