Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food
Were Betty Crocker real, plenty of people would have a beef with her. Atkins dieters are all about deconstructing the notion of eating more starch, an idea Betty hammered into American consciousness over the last century. The U.S. surgeon general could pin at least some of today’s so-called obesity epidemic to the fictional character’s not-so-subtle equations of food with love. And how many women over the years have been guilt-tripped by Betty Crocker’s message that their greatest calling is to keep the home comfortable?
Susan Marks’ Finding Betty Crocker details, but does not entirely explain, the rise to stardom of the what may be the world’s most successful fictional advertising character. Executives from the flour-seller Washburn Crosby Co. (later consolidated into General Mills) cooked up Betty Crocker in 1921 to sign responses to written queries about cooking. In the decades that followed, General Mills wove a fictional personality around the name with a gusto that would flummox even today’s most cynical marketing executive. Under the Crocker name, various actresses and company personnel dispensed cooking tips on radio and television for the better part of four decades. Cookbooks and instructional pamphlets were issued under her name. At the height of her popularity, she received more than 5,000 letters a day. In the 1920s, Betty proffered recipes for insanely high-caloric cakes that, she promised, would keep any woman’s husband by her side. During the Second World War, General Mills started the Betty Crocker Home Legion, which encouraged women to keep the home fires burning. “I believe homemaking requires the best of my efforts, my abilities and my thinking,” read a Betty-signed screed sent to members.
Finding Betty Crocker can leave you amazed at the extent that General Mills baked social engineering into its favorite girl simply to shill more Gold Medal-branded bleached flour. Yet Marks doesn’t speculate as to why the company did this, nor why the results were so successful. Rather, Marks shuffles the reader briskly from one marketing artifact to the next, rarely commenting on how at odds they are with today’s cultural norms. She packs the book with enough fascinating details (not mention a few good recipes) to make it worth perusal, though ultimately Finding Betty Crocker does not explain the Betty Crocker mystique as much as just further propel its juggernaut.