Betty Crocker—the Legend Lives On
Sep 01, 2020 11:54AM
By Cornelius O'Donnell
Imagine my surprise many years ago when I learned that the woman on the box of cake mix, the one with the red outfit, the white scarf tucked into the v-neck, and medium brown hair done in finger waves wasn’t a real person. Betty Crocker was birthed in the ’20s, the 1920s (she doesn’t look 100!) that is, by the General Mills advertising agency that promoted the company’s products. And she is still with us, as the publication of two recent cookbooks bearing her name attests. The newest cookbook, Betty Crocker Lost Recipes: Beloved Vintage Recipes for Today’s Kitchen, was published in 2016, and the latest Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know How to Cook from Scratch, was also published in 2016.
I must admit to just a jigger of food snobbishness, but when I told a real food snob the title of this column she roared back with an emphatic “What! Who?” I had her look through them, and she borrowed one for a recipe she wanted. And why? The recipes are clearly written and even a teen can make the dish.
The cans of soup are (mostly) gone. The pages are rife with healthy-for-you dishes. I was charmed. The “vintage” book even has a two-page feature that chronicles how Betty’s look has changed over the years.
If you’re looking for something to divert your mind from these stressful times as well as to feed your family, these books are a toothsome answer. As you’d expect, Gold Medal, the General Mills product, is the flour de jour in the recipes, but strangely is not mentioned by name in the list of ingredients. Neither is Bisquick, a product which was probably concocted by Betty’s staff. You will, however, find Bisquick, as in quick biscuit, in some of the Crocker recipes. I recall my mother using this—a lot. We all loved dumplings, and they were quickly made using Bisquick.
A Song for Mrs. Crocker
What we all need in our kitchens these days is the lilt of a song wafting through, and likewise the wafting of wonderful aromas coming from the oven or cooktop, preferably an old family favorite. I have suggestions for both. First the music. I remember my brother and I making fun of the boxed product my mother used by singing as many verses as we could muster to the tune used on the TV action show Davy Crocket, our juvenile voices blurting out: “Betty, Betty Crocker, Queen of the one-pot meal.” Or words to that effect. This could drive you nuts. Yes, Mom was a saint.
Remember tuna noodle casserole? I do. And you’ll find it here amidst old favorites like popovers, scalloped potatoes with ham, Swedish meatballs, three bean casserole, molasses crinkles, and a quick cranberry punch. Of course, these are in the twentieth century books, along with canned soups that make gravy, canned and frozen vegetables, and a smattering of health-focused info and ideas.
The Cookbook Collector in Me
I became obsessed with dear Betty and found more of her books at book sales and online. I had to disguise myself. Serious cooks (read snobby) just did not read or let on that one actually cooked by those books. One of them that made me want to learn more about Betty is a slim volume called Easy Entertaining. It came out in 1959 and is full of advice on that topic—along with recipes. I paid one dollar for it at a book sale. It’s filled with easy recipes that can be made ahead so you only leave the table once the main course is consumed, Of course there are the hors d’oeuvres to be passed after the guests settle down. It makes sense to have a buffet or “potluck,” and this little spiral-bound book is bubbling over with ideas you can use today. Cider punch anyone? Here goes.
- 2 cups orange juice (I’d use fresh squeezed)
- 1 cup lemon juice (again, fresh squeezed is best)
- 4 cups apple cider
- 1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
Combine juices with sugar, mix well, and pour over ice cubes. This will make 12 servings: It’s perfect for an autumnal get together. Add a shot of vodka or gin to each serving to give it a kick. Betty left this step out.
A Show of Hands
Another B.C. book I must mention is the 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, probably passed on by a relative or found in a used book sale. It includes a few color photos, the most interesting of which showed the extensive Minneapolis test kitchen and closeups of some of the food with mid-century modern table accessories. No doubt, cookery books were starting to be more user-friendly.
As many of you know, I spent many years teaching cooking. And while the class (and yours truly) were waiting for water to come to a boil or a skillet to reach the right temp, I would start talking cookbooks. “How many of you made your first dinner via a Betty Crocker cookbook?” A tidal wave of hands shot up, especially from seniors. (Joy of Cooking was sometimes a winner, sometimes a runner-up.) And I remember hearing about a clever person who arrived at a bridal shower with a large box filled with Betty’s cake mixes and a copy of her newest tome. And after delving into the latest, I believe that one will be able to “cook from scratch” (without too much head scratching) as the cover of the book promises.
A feature of this book is that it is spiral bound and lies flat on the counter. In this mucho heavy volume are sections devoted to “Heirloom Recipe and New Twist.” Get your hands on a copy and you’ll see Betty in a new light—but with the same red suit and touch of white around the neck.
You’ll probably have to go to a vintage store to find that red outfit, however.