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 Claus...no 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.

Betty was also very much into the reuse, re-purpose, recycle movement many, many years before what we may consider its somewhat recent birth. In a June, 1932 broadcast, she explained how “thrift can be made easy” by re-purposing leftovers: “Thrift has always been the banner of house-wifely skill and in these days of financial strain everyone is trying to avoid waste of every kind. Scraps of vegetable and bits of meat, which in a time of plenty might have been discarded, must return to the table again, to go just a little bit further. So even the least experienced cook won’t want to be feeding the garbage can at the expense of her husband.” Although the words reflected a different time, and Betty’s message during this broadcast was focused on food, the message to “not feed the garbage can” resonates throughout her years on the air, and is one we should still hold dear, today.

Betty’s broadcasts often included advice to women of all ages, and some of her most memorable were ones in which she almost was more of a “Dear Abby” (before Dear Abby started doing her thing!), approaching it from a home-makers point of view, of course. Although much of her advice can be labeled sexist today, some of her most popular broadcasts were about how to win (and keep) a man’s heart! On that note, many men listened, and wrote in to Betty...proposals of marriage weren’t uncommon.

As the years progressed, so did the interest in Betty’s broadcasts. Many a famous Hollywood movie star or starlet wrote to her, some sharing their favorite recipes, to the delight of listeners, everywhere! And during WWII, Betty’s voice was almost as strong as Uncle Sam’s, asking YOU to do your part to keep the home front safe and strong. Popular recipes during that era included ration-regulated meals such as Short-Leave Dinner, Parachute- Landing Supper, Mess Call Macaroni and Doughboy’s Special. In December of 1942, Betty shared her recipe for “Military Christmas Cookies” with ration-compliant no-sugar icing; “Easy to make and inexpensive, the cookies could do double duty as Christmas tree decorations. And they were “just the thing to send away to that boy in the service!” During WWII, Betty’s incoming mail shot up to 4,000-5,000 letters DAILY. By comparison, another popular radio show, that of Mary Margaret McBride received around 5,000 letters WEEKLY.

As you can tell, I greatly enjoyed the book. Having already been a Betty Crocker fan, I am now even more so, and I could go on and on with more interesting facts, but that would spoil your reading of the book now, wouldn’t it? Rest assured that, if you decide to check out this title, you’ll enjoy seeing old advertisements and pictures of the various Bettys throughout the years, you’ll be able to create some of the fabulous recipes that have made this little lady a household word, and you’ll enjoy a sentimental journey along the way. Just be sure you’ve eaten a healthy meal before diving in!”

Side note: if you haven’t visited the old flour mills in Betty’s Minneapolis, you might want to take a little road trip. Fascinating history and quite interesting architecture await you, along with a well-stocked gift shop!

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