She was a delightful persona, invented by Gold Medal Flour/General Foods to speak for the food industry in the voice of a wise & helpful next door neighbor.
She was a, perhaps the, leading character in the food industry campaign to convince women that they really wanted to use the new prepared food products that were pouring out of factories and into markets in the years following WWII. Much of her story can be found in Laura Shapiro’s gem, Something From the Oven, published in 2004.
Independent research done at the time revealed, again and again, that women did not hate cooking and were not begging for these ‘ready-mix’ products. (Shapiro, pp. 44-48) But in the 1950‘s, the newspapers, women’s magazines and radio shows like Betty’s all proclaimed that women no longer wanted to cook, did not have the time to cook and the industry was there to save the day.
Some factory prepared food products were already a common sight in American kitchens. “Canned meats, soups, fruits and vegetables, along with ketchup, pancake mix… were among the earliest products [late 19th and early 20th century] to become familiar and then indispensable.”, says Shapiro in her introduction.
The door was open and the American palate was already becoming accustomed to the taste of processed food; “… a long tradition of using… packaged foods had encouraged Americans to develop a… sense of taste… that tended to perceive imitation [flavoring] as plenty good enough.” (Shapiro, pp. 56) The opening wedge of using artificial flavors to mask the offensive tastes of factory cooking. Salt, sugar and fat to follow.
The industry was primed and began to crank out dozens of new packaged foods (some of which failed dismally.) In this flurry of innovation, Betty was a reassuring presence, an authority that home cooks could turn to with their questions. Betty Crocker’s New Good and Easy Cookbook was given to me in the late 1950’s. Still on my shelf, it is splattered and stained, with notes detailing when I made a dish, changes I made and the response of diners.
Looking at the cookbook today, I am surprised (but shouldn’t be) by the appearance of a prepared food item in virtually every recipe. Sometimes several canned products and Bisquick combine to make an entree. Mini-marshmallows and canned pineapple show up a lot. Fact is, it all scares me a little. But.
But, what I can’t explain is the sensation of support and encouragement that still arises from these pages. I am transported back to the seven-year-old child who could, and did, learn to cook with the help of Betty Crocker. She was not real, she was packaged, just like the food she was created to sell, but…