We’re better cooks thanks to Betty Crocker

  • By Sylvia Carter / Special to Newsday
  • Tuesday, August 16, 2005 9:00pm
  • Life

Betty Crocker might have been a fiction, but she never was a fraud. Since her creation in 1921 in Minneapolis, desperate housewives have turned to her and found reassurance.

Susan Marks’ interest in Betty Crocker started during a stint as a tour guide at the Minnesota Historical Society and evolved into a new book, “Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food” ($23). Marks had access to the archives of Betty’s parent company, now General Mills, and she interviewed home economists who had answered letters to Betty.

Back in the ’20s, there were few cookbooks around compared to today. Pan sizes were not standardized and oven temperatures fluctuated. Cooks craved help, and Betty came to the rescue.

Betty was born not long after the Washburn Crosby Co., millers and purveyors of Gold Medal Flour, offered a premium of a pincushion resembling a miniature flour sack for the completion of a jigsaw puzzle that was printed in a 1921 Saturday Evening Post ad; 30,000 entries were received. Along with them came hundreds of letters asking such questions as “How long should I knead dough?” and “Why does my cake fall?”

Samuel Gale, the manager of the advertising department, was stunned but saw “the creative opportunity of a lifetime.” He did not feel comfortable signing his own name to the replies, so he convinced the board of directors of the need for a friendly correspondent such as a woman he would call Betty Crocker.

All female employees were asked to submit a Betty Crocker signature, and the plain but comely script of Florence Lindeberg, a secretary, was chosen. That same signature appears on all Betty Crocker products to this day.

Betty, according to Marks’ engaging chronicle, offered encouragement and kindly words in radio chats as well as by return mail and gave women, and some men, recipes for “failure-proof” cakes and good, plain main dishes.

During the Depression, she sometimes received as many as 5,000 letters a day, and she answered every single one in her cheery, calming way. What could be more real than that?

One home economist Marks interviewed, Ruby Peterson, first worked at General Mills in 1942, then returned after a hiatus to style food for “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook,” published in 1950 and affectionately known as “Big Red” on account of its cozy red-and-white cover.

In the first year after the book’s release, Peterson recalled with pride, the book outsold the Bible, that all-time bestseller. For many cooks, it was the bible.

In a telephone interview from her home in a Minneapolis suburb, Peterson said that, in that era, staff home economists typed letters and also were guides to visitors who came to tour the company’s test kitchens.

“They wanted to see Betty Crocker and we would have to dance around that … . Sometimes we would say she wasn’t there.”

Strictly speaking, it was true. Tissues and sympathetic words were on hand for those who wept at discovering the truth.

The trustworthy Betty seemed to understand home cooks. She offered practical help, too; she, in the person of home economists such as Peterson, did much to standardize those perplexing pan sizes.

She also dispensed good cheer and sympathy. When the cook needed what Betty termed “Special Helps” in Big Red, Betty suggested she might try “a few minutes rest (lying) on the kitchen floor, harboring pleasant thoughts, pursuing a hobby, wearing comfortable shoes, alternating sitting and standing tasks, and taking time to notice ‘humorous’ incidents, such as a kitten getting stuck in a tree, to narrate at dinner time.”

Throughout her long career, Betty Crocker has promoted the idea that the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach.

In a magazine advertisement, circa 1930, reprinted in the book, she suggested her own mixes for making a “kiss-and-make-up cake” to top off a “splendiferous” dinner of thick steak and French fries when the situation called for it. Could food mend a rift?

“Certain sure,” she crowed.

Betty had a personality, a signature and a face, painted by artists the flour company commissioned. Betty’s first portrait was in 1936 and her most recent was in 1996, when ethnic diversity considerations turned those blue eyes brown. In 1955, Norman Rockwell came in second to Hilda Taylor’s painting of a soft, grandmotherly Betty when five artists were asked to paint new portraits and the public was allowed to choose a favorite.

In 1965, a younger, thinner Betty Crocker painted by Joe Bowler, a magazine illustrator, wears a string of pearls and has her hair in a flip; this Betty is often thought to resemble Jackie Kennedy.

Often, models were used, but for the latest Betty, a contest was held. Nominees were required to submit photos and an essay describing “Betty-like skills and qualities,” as Marks puts it. The photos of 75 winners, chosen from a field of about 5,000, became a new composite Betty.

Remarkably, Betty often grew younger as she aged. A matronly Betty with streaks of white in her hair eventually gave way to a more modern-looking Betty whose hair has reddish highlights. In 1986, Betty got her ears pierced.

That Betty was a far cry from the one that Peterson, the woman who worked on Big Red, remembered during the Depression and World War II.

“These women were so needing a comforter and a soul mate,” Peterson said of that time. “They hung on every word. They wouldn’t let her go.”

Betty Crocker doesn’t miss a trend or a new appliance. This chili, which uses a combination of fresh and canned ingredients, is from “Betty Crocker’s More Slow Cooker Recipes.”

Turkey chili


21/2pounds ground turkey

2cups chopped onion (about 2 large)

1 1/2cups chopped green bell pepper (1 large)

1(28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained

2(15 1/2-ounce) cans pinto beans, undrained

1(14-ounce) can seasoned chicken broth with roasted garlic

2 (41/2-ounce) cans diced green chilies, undrained

1/3cup cornmeal

1tablespoon chili powder

1tablespoon dried oregano leaves

2teaspoons ground cumin

1teaspoon salt

Cook turkey in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently until no longer pink; drain.

Mix turkey, onions, bell pepper, tomatoes, pinto beans, broth and chilies in 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. Mix remaining ingredients in small bowl; stir into turkey mixture.

Cover and cook on a low heat setting for 7 to 8 hours, or until the chili is thickened and bubbling. Chili will hold on a low heat setting up to 4 hours. If chili becomes too thick while holding, stir in up to 1/2 cup hot water to thin.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

This simple recipe is a favorite of Susan Marks, from “Betty Crocker – Complete Thanksgiving Cookbook: All You Need to Cook a Foolproof Dinner.” She often uses orange-cranberry marmalade and skips the raisins.

1(16-ounce) bag baby-cut carrots

1/4cup slivered almonds

1/3cup orange marmalade

1/2cup golden raisins, optional

Heat 1/2 cup water to boiling in 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan. Add carrots. Heat to boiling; reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.

While carrots are cooking, spread almonds in single layer in 8- or 10-inch skillet; cook and stir over medium-high heat 4 to 7 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Drain carrots and return to them to the saucepan. Stir in marmalade and raisins, if using. Cook over low heat about 1 minute, stirring constantly, until marmalade is melted. Add almonds; toss gently.

Makes 4 servings.

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