In Defense of Betty Crocker

As a kid, I spent hours flipping through my mother's butter-stained Betty Crocker cookbook from circa 1960. I'd sit and salivate at the sight of the signature cakes and casseroles enlivened by vivid shades of maraschino cherry reds and American cheese oranges

Today, that cookbook is more of a how-not-to manual. Not only does Betty Crocker bear a brunt of Michael Pollan's critiques on domestic dining, she also comes saddled with the vintage images of dutiful homemakers, bound by restrictive gender roles.

But I think ol' Betts hasn't gotten a far shake in recent history. For starters, she wasn't even a real person, unbeknownst to adoring fans for years. In advertising parlance, Betty Crocker served as a "living trademark," alongside contemporaries such as Mary Blake for Carnation, Mary Hale Martin for Libby's and Patricia Collier for Dole. An ad man at the Washburn Crosby flour company, which would become Gold Medal Flour, selected the name Betty for its friendly demeanor, and the last name Crocker belonged to a former company exec.

The Betty Crocker persona was conceived in 1921 to answer letters from frantic housewives having trouble executing recipes. A team of female college-educated home economists then wrote back under the Crocker pseudonym, as Susan Marks explains in Finding Betty Crocker. But it was Marjorie Child Husted who propelled Betty to national stardom, largely through the Betty Crocker radio cooking show, which won millions of dedicated listeners over its decades-long run.

By 1945, Betty fever had spread so far that Fortune magazine declared her the most popular woman in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt. And keep in mind that until then, Crocker was widely believed to be a real woman, the Martha Stewart incarnate of the day. As a result, people constantly wrote in to her, many requesting baking tips for her specialty - cakes made from Betty Crocker trademarked mixes.

Hitting grocery stores in the late 1940s, cake mixes were a part of the revolutionized landscape of the postwar kitchen. Electric ranges had replaced wood-burning stoves, and the food industry cranked out canned, powdered and processed goods. Everyday cooking techniques and recipes changed in suit, and that shift, as Laura Shapiro points out in From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies, required a culinary reeducation for many women. But Betty Crocker didn't care whether someone knew how to cook or didn't have much time between work and home. Her cake mixes promised dessert on the table without any hassle.

Now, I'd agree with Betty Friedan et al. that a simpler cake does not women's progress make. Crocker peddled processed food from General Mills (her new corporate owner), not emancipation. But with more wives and mothers working outside the home, her kitchen shortcuts undoubtedly eased their balancing acts, even if only at the dinner table.

And speaking of Friedan, by the time The Feminine Mystique hit shelves and second-wave feminism got underway, the image of Betty Crocker had largely disappeared from most advertising. For some reason, the persona that evolved on the radio didn't weather the transition to television, and by the early 1960s, the spoon in Crocker's mixing bowl magically stirred itself though the name stuck around.

But even as more women hung up their aprons and found occupations outside the home, Betty Crocker never tried to guilt trip them back to the kitchen. Instead, Crocker offered a simple commercial guarantee that if a busy wife, mother or whoever wanted dessert, she could quickly whip up "a perfect cake, every time you bake - cake, after cake, after cake." Although women's transition from the domestic to the professional wasn't as a simple as stirring together mix and water (and with Crocker's self-propelled spoon, no less), perhaps that cake represented one less sacrifice, one less decision to be made between career and home.

So go ahead and shun today's chemical-laden mixes and processed foods that bear her iconic signature today and rightfully shudder at the gender imbalances her old school image conjures. Yet I say give Betty Crocker a little credit as well for not only serving as a saving grace to millions of housewives who couldn't choose to just toss up their hands and order takeout, but also cutting cooking time and helping free women to eventually have their cake and eat it too.