Baking with Betty

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

The original 1950 first-edition Betty Crocker cookbook, like this well-worn version, was an immediate best-seller in post-war America.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

Mom, shapely and sporting a chic bob, stands waving a magic wand as baked treats fly out of the oven. She appears in pearls and a fitted sweater to serve cake at an all-girl tea. She arrives at dinner with a broad smile, frilly apron and the pièce de résistance, a chocolate-dotted dessert.

She’s Betty Crocker, she’s 92 and still going strong, releasing her 11th edition and 250th cookbook earlier this month.

The black, white and sepia drawings in my mother’s original 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook are stylized, idealized and hilarious to the modern eye. But as outdated as the all-American scenes may be, the recipes stand up to time, perfect, delicious and always welcome.

What more could a home cook ask for?

I promise you, no one has ever turned down a piece of her chocolate joy cake with glossy chocolate icing, turned up their nose at the amazing cheesecake torte or rebuffed the whipped-cream-filled angel food cake.

“She’s the original celebrity chef,” said Karen Sternheimer, author of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream.

Betty Crocker was created in 1921 during a promotion for Gold Medal flour. So many home bakers wrote in with questions that the company that was to become General Mills made up a smiling, 40-ish homemaker to answer customers’ questions. The rest is history.

Betty Crocker appeared on radio in the ’20s, TV in the ’30s, pamphlets in the ’40s and published her first cookbook, known fondly as the “big red book,” in 1950. It was an instant best-seller. (And why not? Any book that can teach you how to make a perfect butter cookie, to say nothing of homemade ice cream, would sell out today.)

By the 1940s, nine out of 10 American women recognized her name, making her second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in familiarity.

She has published 250 cookbooks since then, prints a monthly magazine and runs an enormous test kitchen for her 200-plus commercial products from cake mixes and frostings to Bisquick and that ’70s staple, Hamburger Helper.

So, one might wonder, how does a fictional character of outdated dress and outmoded relevance continue to be a professional success to make Martha Stewart envious?

That’s easy – simplicity and nostalgia.

“It’s something that has ingredients that you know what they are and where you can find them,” Sternheimer said. “It evokes a simpler time when people didn’t know about gluten or care about fat.”

For Margie Deane Gray, executive director of the Fort Lewis College Foundation and a devoted baker, that holds true.

“The thing I love about it is that she uses butter, she uses the tried and true ingredients,” she said. “It’s the tradition of it, too, because my grandmother and my mother used it. You go to something familiar because you know it will turn out.”

Deane Gray uses it still, to fill angel food cake with chocolate cream, to make banana nut muffins or create cinnamon sugar pinwheels out of Betty Crocker’s incomparable pie dough.

To keep millions of women coming to her for recipes and cooking advice, Betty updated her operation – building a slick website with bright info-graphics, an Ask Betty feature and even an iPhone app. You can find a video about how to make lasagna in a Crock-Pot or a new recipe for party favors made from that ’70s-era warhorse, Chex Mix.

All along she answered questions. One letter arrived from Kenya in 1954 asking how to refine African flour so it would perform better in baking. The answer: Sift it through silk. The writer? Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.

One letter writer from Chicago inquired if she should follow the high-altitude directions on the cake box because she lived on the 50th floor. And a caller from Arizona wanted to know if she could use a 20-year-old box of cake mix she found in a bomb shelter. Don’t laugh, it came out perfectly.

Still, you couldn’t exactly call Betty Crocker modern. After all, there’s no boy in an apron on the cover of the new cookbook with Betty, says Marcie Jung, a Fort Lewis College professor of exercise science and women’s studies.

“Does cooking matter? Does eating matter? Does it only matter to women?” Jung asks. “Those are the old roles.”

The new Betty Crocker Cookbook, 1500 recipes for the way you cook today, offers three new chapters, many new recipes and an emphasis on “how we cook today – faster, healthier and with more flavors.”

It still has how-to pictures, but rather than demonstrating how to properly sift flour or melt chocolate, it shows how to scoop an avocado out of its shell. Rather than full color, double-page spreads of pies or cakes, it inserts smaller photos of individual meringues and jars of freezer strawberry jam.

But alas, the amazingly cool graphics of cakes with legs and dancing pickles are no more. Gone, too, are the scenes of family picnics and church suppers.

The poems and letters, notes and reminisces of Betty herself? Nary a one remain.

And yet home cooks return to her, even today.

“It’s such a great study in marketing, a fake homemaker. She’s not intimidating, she stays in the shadows. ‘I’ll do the hard part, I’ll make it come out good,’” Sternheimer says, pointing out that many fledgling cooks are intimidated by the super-star chefs of cable television.

Sternheimer calls Betty Crocker the “anti-Martha Stewart,” noting that she only offers advice when asked and never makes you feel as though you’re doing something wrong. She’s not about to upbraid you for bad whisking technique or poor knife skills.

And the long and the short of it is, her recipes work, day after day, year after year. That’s plenty to keep Betty Crocker going for another 90 years.

“Well, she baked a good pie. That will be on my tombstone,” said Deane Gray.

That’s good enough for me. And no doubt, for Betty, too.

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