I didn't choose Betty. She chose me.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Betty Crocker's Early Days

Marcia Poole from the Sioux City Journal recently wrote about my Betty Crocker book:

Back to the Farm

On the traditional print side of this week’s theme, let’s look at the latest in The Farmer’s Wife cookbook series. Just released by Voyageur Press of Minneapolis, “The Best of the Farmer’s Wife Cookbook” offers hundreds of easy-to-follow recipes, including variations on old favorites. Dozens of menus give us insight into farm kitchens of decades ago.

The inspiration is The Farmer’s Wife magazine, published in Minnesota between 1893 and 1939. Good Eats has been following the series that takes us back to the farm. Here’s some background on the magazine:

The Farmer’s Wife carried recipes and stories written by women who aimed at creating opportunities to connect with other women. It may be hard to imagine the rigors and joys of life back then. Families lived a fair distance from the nearest town. No TV, no Internet. The telephone was probably a party-line shared by three, four or more families. The radio and newspaper were the all-important sources for information and entertainment.

People wrote letters back then. The US Postal Service delivered these preciously personal communications from family and friends. The letters may have taken several days to arrive in the mailbox, making them all the more precious. The mailman also delivered magazines. The Farmer’s Wife must have been heartily welcomed for information, entertainment and future reference for all sorts of topics, including recipes.

Most subscribers cooked using produce from their own gardens. Dairy, eggs and meat likely came from their own operation as well. The magazine was a forum for questions and concerns about everything from raising chickens and slaughtering hogs, to managing a lean household budget. Dressing the kids, keeping house and making the most of time in the kitchen were major parts of The Farmer’s Wife story.

“The Best of the Farmer’s Wife Cookbook” is packed with recipes and stories from the magazine. One of my favorites sections is “Baking.” Bake then, dessert was really dessert - something that capped off supper after a hard day’s work. Think pot roast and all the trimmings perhaps - and then a slice of fruit pie or a fruit tart.

Baking day was essential for supplying cupcakes and such for lunch pails, and muffins and other sweets for tea parties and club lunches, according to the book’s editors Kari Cornell and Melinda Keefe. No matter how tough times were, farm wives delivered the goodies.

“...Through the rationing of World War I, the privations of the Great Depression and the uncertainty of the years leading up to World War II the farmer’s wife baked what she had - sometimes absent wheat and sugar and she baked it as well as she could,” they write.
For more information about “The Best of the Farmer’s Wife Cookbook” (Voyageur Press; 2011) visit: www.voyageurpress.com.

Questions for Betty

I can only think that Betty Crocker was a familiar name to many women who read The Farmer’s Wife. Betty Crocker shares the Minnesota roots and goes back to Washburn Crosby Company, the original Minneapolis purveyor of Gold Medal Flour and the forerunner of General Mills.
“Finding Betty Crocker” (Simon & Schuster; 2005) by Susan Marks tells the story. It’s one of the most entertaining books Good Eats has featured.

As Marks tells it, the flour company generated only a small number of consumer letters each year. They were handled in-house by an all-men ad department. Ad manager Samuel Gale and his staff consulted with the all-women Gold Medal service staff for answers. This arrangement apparently worked until 1921 when the company ran a Gold Medal Flour ad in the popular Saturday Evening Post.

The ad offered a free pin cushion, shaped like a Gold Medal Flour sack. To receive it, readers were instructed to cut out the ad’s puzzle pieces and assemble them into a Main Street scene. Some 30,000 consumers participated. Washburn Crosby was swamped with puzzle submissions, along with hundreds of consumer questions about using Gold Medal Flour for all manner of baking.

As a result the head office created a “female chief of correspondence” to handle consumer queries. The new “position” was filled by Washburn Crosby’s collective in-house imagination. The new staffer’s last name honored William G. Crocker, a retired director of Washburn Crosby. The first name was “Betty.”

During the Great Depression and World War II, Betty Crocker helped homemakers with tips for stretching ingredients. Making the most of milk, meat, and rationed sugar commanded considerable time. “Cooking School of the Air” ran for 27 years.

At her peak, Betty Crocker received up to 5,000 letters a day. Her support came from a staff of home economists that tested recipes and answered consumer questions. She was named the second best-known woman in America by Fortune magazine. Eleanor Roosevelt was first. Betty Crocker’s first true cookbook was released in 1950.