Domestic Goddesses: Betty Crocker

I’m still sorting through my thoughts on what makes a ‘Domestic Goddess’ and whether it’s a label any home baker would want to aspire to. I’ll come back to that another time. But in the meantime I thought it would be interesting to profile some of the people (I’m not going to commit myself to saying ‘women’ at the moment) who have been given the label.  Since my most recent baking adventure was using a Betty Crocker recipe, let’s start with her.

From an outsider’s point of view at least, Betty Crocker is an American institution, and her name was firmly linked in my mind with boxed cake mixes. Some further reading revealed the first fact to be true, but the second to be a bit simplistic. Most people know now that Betty Crocker wasn’t a real person. She was created in 1921 as a homey yet authoritative voice to answer questions from the public on why their cakes were falling, burning, or generally tasting bad. One of the most interesting things about her is that combination of ’embodiment of the home and its values’ with steely professionalism. When ‘Betty’ was portrayed at work, it was in an office; she would visit the test kitchens (owned by General Mills) but did not work in them herself. In fact, an attempt to show Betty herself cooking in a 1950s tv show didn’t work at all; she was most beloved as a voice on the radio, a reassuring and knowledgeable presence via her many cookbooks (including several devoted to cakes), and even as the name behind a Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air in the 1920s. And yet General Mills went to great lengths to create the trappings of a real person – a signature and even a series of portraits, whose subtle changes over time reflect the changes in women’s roles and role models.

Portraits of Betty Crocker, 1936-1969 (image from www.pbs.org)

But it’s certainly true that the Betty Crocker outfit made cake mixes, and this was another strange facet of her role. Her cookbooks and radio shows encouraged women’s confidence in baking and cooking – her recipes were tested again and again to make sure that they were failsafe. Yet the cake mixes suggested either that women couldn’t master the basics – or that they lacked the time and interest to do so (General Mills and the other cake mix manufacturers soon realised that they could be marketed as the basis for a different sort of creative hobby: cake decoration). General Mills’ first cake mix was a Gingercake sold under the Betty Crocker name, launched soon after World War Two. A boxed mix was a foolproof way to create the light airiness that the 1950s cake required.

So, Betty Crocker did, in many ways, give women the tools to make the cakes they wanted to. It’s just interesting that she did so by on the one hand giving them their own tools and skills; and on the other, reducing these to a boxed mix which required very little skill – at least as far as the baking part was concerned.

Much of this information is based on Laura Shapiro’s excellent book Something from the Oven: reinventing dinner in 1950s America (Penguin Books, 2005).

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