I didn't choose Betty. She chose me.

I didn't choose Betty. She chose me.
The Betty Crocker Kitchens 1940

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Tour

(I've had a few requests for this essay I wrote, so I'm re-posting)

The Good, the Bad, and, the Book Tour
by Susan Marks

After they recovered from the shock of learning that I actually wrote a book, the first question out of people’s mouths was, “Are you going on a book tour?”

I think they asked because a book could be just a book, but a book tour suggests something a bit more grandiose – maybe even glamorous. So, I think I sent everyone reeling again when I answered, “Yes.”

Now, I know from glamorous and my book tour was bound to be anything but. I had no illusions of a Carrie Bradshaw-type book launch followed by the kind of celebrity author tour that involves violating fire safety codes with scores of people crammed into bookstores and auditoriums. No, I knew my tour would be small, humble, ever-controversial and mostly tiring. Still, if people wanted to believe I was destined for something more brilliant, I wasn’t about to stop them and besides, I couldn’t wait to go. What first-time author doesn’t dream of her book tour, even if she knows better?

The first stop on my 5-city tour was actually my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota – so that worked out well. Prior to the release of my book, I made the rounds with a month’s worth of radio, magazine, newspaper and television interviews.

Besides the standard questions about Betty’s portraits, recipes and cake mixes and true identity, I heard everything from how I could be Betty’s daughter to jokes about Betty’s illicit affair with the Gorton’s Fisherman and Kingsford Charcoal man. The whole buildup to the main event and jam-packed publicity schedule was an intoxicating cocktail of high-octane adrenaline, nerves, giddy excitement and shameless vanity. The end result was a massive Betty induced hangover that took me about me about 8 months to shake.

With equal parts fear and excitement, I braced myself for the book launch at the Mill City Museum along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. I was to stand in front of a live crowd, answer tough questions about how Betty both defined and marginalized women while I likely groped around in search of something clever, entertaining and historically accurate to say.

To my surprise the crowd swelled to hundreds of overwhelmingly supportive people – some of whom I didn’t even know. They watched a rough-cut of my documentary film, The Betty Mystique, laughed in the right places, smiled at me afterwards and asked intelligent questions. In fact, my 5-year-old nephew was so moved by the Spirit of Betty that he started witnessing to anyone who would listen that Betty Crocker came upon her great cake baking skills by praying to the good Lord above.

A television crew from CBS Sunday Morning covered the book launch, helping to heighten the excitement, as all the copies of my book sold out, and three hours magically sped by in a matter of seconds. More importantly, a foreign feeling swept over me as if I had done something right – really right.

It retrospect, I should have seen it coming. The rest of a tour didn’t feel quite as “right” but it wasn’t without its moments.

New York, LA, Boston, Miami, and Seattle wouldn’t have me – but the Midwest and Canada couldn’t wait to get their Betty Crocker on, so I was off with the requisite press and signing events. For the most part, I’m not sure what I said or what I wore, but no one kicked me off their show for dressing indecently nor did I get banned from any bookstores for carrying on inappropriately. However, I did disappoint some people – and not just your garden-variety disappointment. The fact that I didn’t have a recipe to prepare, my hair was in a ponytail, I was not Betty Crocker, and my book cost $23 really riled a few people.

The disappointment portion of my tour began upon arriving at a television station where a producer “greeted” me with a panicked-stricken expression, looking all around me, asking where my equipment was. Turns out, he thought I was appearing on the cooking segment of this morning talk show and that I would be preparing something from a Betty Crocker cookbook. The very thought of me cooking LIVE on TV would have every single person I know laugh out loud. When I explained that I was just an author of a history book about Betty Crocker, he replied stiffly that he “was given different information.” Now, the little misunderstanding was on his end because my publicists at Simon and Schuster were pros, but I was too polite to tell him so.

I shrugged it off thinking the little misunderstanding would end with a chuckle and I would head for the green room to sweat it out, but no. My lack of cooking equipment prompted phone calls, conversations in hushed tones, and worried expressions directed my way. Truthfully, it wasn’t like I was dying to get on this show. If they decided to boot me, I would have chalked it up to inevitable glitch in their early morning television system and headed out for coffee and maybe a muffin. But finally the producer approached me with a sigh and told me they could still fit me in. The anchor fell silent, shook his head and sighed too.

I was late to the next TV station, but they still greeted me with a, “Betty Crocker’s in the house!” And nobody sighed, shook their heads nor asked me to cook anything. I could have stayed there all day, except people all over town were waiting to get a piece of me.

Oddly, it was my hair that was so objectionable it prompted the next grand wave of disappointment. It seems that the effects of the heat and humidity were just too compelling to pass up. A woman/troll greeted me at a cool little independent bookstore and started in on how she barely recognized me because my hair looked nothing like it did in my author photo. And then Haggletooth, (I’m pretty sure that was her name) went on to say that she liked my hair a lot better when I wasn’t wearing a ponytail and seemed to want some sort of explanation. I tried to plead my case saying that humidity just has its way with me. Haggletooth actually winced on my behalf and cut the conversation short.

I was mortified! Not for me, but for her. Sashaying up to an author and announcing that her hair isn’t as lovely as I think it should be is among the many things I would never do. In fact, I was raised to NEVER tell anyone that their hair looks bad. No matter what. And I have been tested on this! For ten years, I have been friends with a certain someone and I have never once told her that her hairdo makes her look like she’s playing the part of a witch in a community theater production. Perhaps truthfulness in friendship should trump good manners, but that’s a can of wicked witch hair I just don’t want to open.

And for my next act of disappointment, I caused a minor scene in a chain bookstore. Before the event started a patron, I’ll call her Crazy, excitedly hurried into bookstore. Crazy showed up early, hoping to get a good seat to hear Betty Crocker give a little talk. But when she saw my photo on the event poster, she downward spiraled. Who the hell was I? She wanted to know. I certainly wasn’t the Betty Crocker she had gotten to know over the years. Booksellers rushed to her aid as other patrons started looking a bit spooked. Crazy was so furious that she wanted only to talk to a manager, in a voice that was way too loud for a bookstore. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make Betty magically appear, nor could he convince her to stick around a learn more about Betty’s true identity. I made a joke to the small crowd that I didn’t want to be around when she found out the truth about Aunt Jemima and Capt. Crunch, but people just smiled courteously, and looked embarrassed for me. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best way to begin the event, but honestly is it my fault that people don’t question advertising until it’s too late and/or forget to take their medication? There was no reason to be embarrassed for me. I was fine. And yet, I couldn’t fight the feeling that a pattern was emerging.

But in all fairness, some of people were amazing. At various events they came out in their red hats and purple dresses, some sported pins from the Betty Crocker Search For Homemaker of Tomorrow Scholarship program, some brought their well-worn copies of their kitchen bible, Betty’s Big Red cookbook and other people just smiled and smiled at everything I said. Bookstore managers graciously welcomed me and other folks lined up just to talk and several even thanked me for writing the book. And some radio and television personalities and newspaper reporters could not have been more interesting, smart and fun. Salt of the earth – these people.

Meanwhile almost everyone asked me when I was scheduled to make an appearance on the Today Show. Oh I wish I could have announced that I was jetting off to NYC to spending the morning at Studio 1A in Rockefeller Center, but the invitation never came. (For the record, Oprah, Letterman and Ellen didn’t invite me either – at least not yet!) But CBS Sunday Morning (one of the best shows on television) did a segment on the book and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Most of the people I talked to know and love the show, but there are many who never heard of it, or they made some vague connection, mumbling something like “Isn’t there some Charles guy on that show…no wait, there was a Charles guy and then another Charles guy took his place…” I stopped telling people about it after awhile because the disappointing tables were starting to turn.

But these were little things. I chalked it up to life on the road. Life in the trenches. Life of an author. The good, the bad, the book tour. And I soon gained a better understanding of whole writer/booze connection.

But all the wine in the world couldn’t have helped me with my most appalling book-signing event. It took place the weekend after Thanksgiving in an upscale cooking store. From the moment I walked in, I knew it wouldn’t end well. I now wish I would have run in the other direction when I saw that the only people in the store were the employees – on the busiest retail weekend of the year. Even though I was more than humbled, I felt worse for the store’s owner. When I suggested that we cancel the event she flew into a fit, “What? Do you only do events where people are lining up outside the door!?” While flustered, I rallied enough to reply, “Yes and no – I’ve had as few as 7 show up and as many as 450 show. I’ve just never actually done an event where no one has shown up.” But as luck would have it, two people arrived at that moment, got their own private Betty presentation, asked where the bathroom was, and left without buying a thing.

To fill the rest of the time, an aging staff member, with questionable intentions, showed her support by bestowing me with unsolicited advice on how I should market my book, distribute my documentary film and manage my career. (Side note: This woman didn’t have a single original idea in her head. I was praying that she would get a customer and leave me alone, but it never happened). The funny thing about free advice and me is that I know the value of it and would sooner give up chocolate before I would take it or for that matter, give it. Yet, the frequency of unsolicited advice flying my way makes me convinced that there’s just something so floundering about my nature that I appear to have stumbled off the path of common sense, just waiting for a firm, guiding hand to set me right again. As I stood there in the empty store with Miss Pushy Talksalot babbling on and on, I grew nostalgic for Haggletooth and Crazy. Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson right there in the cooking store: Empty stores are empty for a reason. (Update: that store closed down.)

Other signing events are slower to reveal their true colors. One of my most memorable events involved a speaking engagement for the American Association of Family Consumer Sciences (Formerly known as Home Ec). I sat at a table near the silent auctions and tried to pinpoint if I had ever felt quite so awkward and out of place.

For a long time no one said anything to me, except those people who asked me if my books are a part of the silent auction. And when I said no, you guessed it, they looked genuinely disappointed in me.

Someone wandered over and asked me where the decaf was. I pointed to the nearby orange pot. (It’s been said before, but doesn't everyone know by now that decaf is served in the orange pot?) But other than that, things were slow. I think I even saw a lone tumbleweed blow by my table. I was starting to feel like a bit of a party crasher so I made a bold move to engage people in conversation. "Hi" I said to a lady near my table, to which she replied, "What did you just say to me?" "Oh, all I said was 'hi.'" And before I got the last syllable out she lost interest in me and started conversing with her friend. A couple of people came over to my table and thumbed through my book and said things like, "What's this all about?" Or, "$23! That's way too much money." Or they would just flip through it with a look on their faces as if to say, "What kind of person writes a book on severed limbs?"

True, not everyone is a fan of Betty, but to make a face? When you are a card-carrying member of the group that no-longer-wants-to-be-known-as-home-economics?

Occasionally one of the event organizers would come by and reaffirm that I was invited and supposed to be selling books—which was nice, really nice. And then the awards ceremony started and didn't stop for a long time. Finally, it was time for the last award - Friend to Family Consumer Science and the winner was me! They even gave me a plaque and a corsage. I was utterly in shock. Everyone applauded and someone even cheered. I felt so honored and so unworthy.

And then I gave my little spiel on Betty and the crowd seemed happy and they cleaned me out of books and thanked me profusely and told me their stories about Betty. And one woman apologized for not realizing I was the author before and said had she known, she would never have said that $23 was too much to pay for my book. Another woman said she wished I was her granddaughter and until that moment I had never felt a pain well up so quickly and sharply in my throat. But I somehow managed to wait until I got in my car before I burst out in tears.

I have no idea what happened – but I will tell you what, by the end of the night I was ready to become a member and not just a friend.

Still, my all-time favorite event was the sold out Roseville Lutheran Church Annual Winter Tea. It was the second largest signing event with 400 people packed in to hear stories of Betty Crocker. It was also a homecoming of sorts considering I grew up and misspent most of my youth in Roseville – a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Nothing spectacular happened at the event – besides the fact that hundreds of people voluntarily left the warmth of their homes on a snowy January Sunday. But it was nice and everyone was friendly and grateful. And lucky for me, if the crowd thought my hair looked bad or if they were convinced that I needed some career counseling – they kept it to themselves. The Master of Ceremony even went on and on about how young I looked (God Bless her). And those Lutherans served cake – delicious, heavy on the frosting side. Considering what I’ve learned about never underestimating the power of a friendly face and sweet, heavenly baked goods, I really couldn’t have asked for a better way to wind down the tour.

© 2006 Susan Marks

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fun Forums

Love the online forums that talk about my book, Finding Betty Crocker. This forum is particularly fun because it is part of the Betty Crocker website.

A little update, I'm working away on the Munsingwear book. It's going well. Of course, the rest of my friends are enjoying their summer while I'm a slave to history writing, but other than that, it's going well.

Reading anything good this summer? I recommend anything by this author!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Advertising Icons

Taking a small break from Betty to write about another advertising (and Minnesota) icon - Musingwear. I hope you enjoy the imagery.

Friday, June 4, 2010

In Defense of Betty Crocker

Cristen Conger makes some compelling points in her article, In Defense of Betty Crocker, in the Huffington Post 6/3/10

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.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A review from overseas...

This quote was taken from a European book review of my book, Finding Betty Crocker.

"This book is a fascinating glimpse into food history, and author Susan Marks proves Americans will buy just about anything, even a biography about a woman who's never existed."

Oh how I love this.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Collecting Munsingwear Stories!

It's official, I'm writing another history book, Don't Say Underwear, Say Munsingwear! It will launch next year.

If you can't wait, check out Historic Photos of Minnesota. You will find a bit about Munsingwear's unique history.

I'm collecting oral histories, photos and stories from former Munsingwear employees. Please send them my way.

And, as usual, I'm collecting stories from former Betty Crocker scholarship winners.

If you are looking for my other book, Finding Betty Crocker, ask your local bookseller to order or order from Amazon.com.

Thank you for your continued interest in my projects!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Empty Cake Mix Box in the Trash! Oh My!

Funny how plans change. When I got back from the store, I realized that I didn't have any canned beets for Red Velvet coloring in the cupboard, and I wasn't about to go back to the store. (And just where did that big old can of beets go? Food drive during the holidays?) Anyway, while searching for the can of beets, I came across a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. And really, who am I to deny a sign from the universe? So I made a boxed cake and it was quite good and like the box says: it was super moist.

As I threw the box away, I was reminded of something from Finding Betty Crocker. When cake mixes were rising in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, many people were not convinced they would head down such a slippery slope of non-scratch foods. (Cake, in particular, was super charged with notions of what it meant to be a real woman.) While others were unafraid, but didn't want anyone else to know about it. So, they would bake a boxed cake mix for entertaining and pass it off as a "from scratch" cake. Nosy busy-bodies would then look for an opportunity to riffle through the trash to see if they could spot an empty cake mix box.

And then what? Would delicate social dynamics be undermined, causing alliances to shift? Would neighborhood gossip spread like wildfire? Would anyone be ostracized? Outcast? Did bridge groups become divided along a fault line of cake mix users and non-cake mix users?

I've only witnessed one such situation, at luncheon in 2008, where I was a guest speaker. A group of well-off baby boomers and I, were talking about the historical impact of the cake mix controversies (and believe me, there are several) and one woman mentioned that she wouldn't bother baking a cake from scratch because cake mixes have improved so much. Many at the table agreed. And then she added that she felt the same way about ready-to-spread frosting. Another woman gasped and said, "Cake is one thing. But I cannot believe you don't make your own frosting. Honestly!"

For the record, I made my own frosting for this cake. But mostly because I didn't have any in the cupboard.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Baking this weekend?

Good morning! What are you baking this weekend? I'm thinking red velvet cake. It's been about a year since my last one. I think I will make a butter cream frosting instead of cream cheese. I know of a bakery that uses beets instead of food coloring. I wonder if I should give it a go?

By the way, do you like the new look of this blog? I hope so! This is one of my favorite photos from my private Betty Crocker collection. A former "Crockette" gave it to me.

Have a great weekend! And I let you know how the cake turns out.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Betty Crocker Search for the American Homemaker of Tomorrow

Some more interesting questions from the Betty Crocker Search for the American Homemaker of Tomorrow. These questions are from the 1959 test.

Which statement is most nearly correct?

A. Most mental illness is a result of heredity.
B. Most mental illness is caused by poor physical condition.
C. Most mentally ill people are dangerous.
D. Most mental illness is a reaction to both physical and environmental problems.

Which statement is most nearly correct?

A. Breast-fed babies are heavier.
B. Bottle-fed babies are healthier.
C. Breast-fed babies received more personal attention.
D. None of the above is true.

Do you think that the answers today would be the same as 1959? Let me know if you took this test!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Betty Crocker Search for the American Homemaker of Tomorrow

From the 1959 Betty Crocker Search for the American Homemaker of Tomorrow Scholarship examination.

42. A homemaker will enjoy her housekeeping tasks more if she...

A. has the right equipment.
B. has someone to talk to while working.
C. does the tasks systematically and regularly.
D. has a working plan suitable to herself and her family.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Apron Memories

You simply must visit this site if you haven't already. EllynAnne just got back from a visit to the Betty Crocker Kitchens and she is smitten!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Betty Crocker's Homemakers Creed

Betty Friedan wasn't the only Betty who knew about "the problem without a name." In fact, long before The Feminine Mystique was published, women were writing to Betty Crocker expressing major domestic dystopia. Betty's solution? Create a club, the Betty Crocker American Home Legion, to celebrate homemaking. The Homemakers Creed (see above) was send to every member. Notice how the wording is genderless? If you want to know more about this topic, I write extensively about it in my book on Betty Crocker.