Although celebrating her 100th birthday this year, Betty Crocker was never born. She never really gets old either.
When its face has changed over the past century, it’s because it has been reinterpreted by artists and shaped by algorithms.
Betty’s most recent official portrait – painted in 1996 to celebrate her 75th birthday – was inspired by a composite photograph, itself based on photographs of 75 real women reflecting the spirit of Betty Crocker and the changing demographics of America. In it, she doesn’t look like she’s over 40.
More importantly, this painting captures something that has always been true about Betty Crocker: She represents a cultural ideal rather than a real woman.
Nonetheless, women often wrote to Betty Crocker and kept the letters they received in return. Many of them wondered whether or not she was a real person.
In my academic cookbook research, I mainly focus on how cookbook authors, mostly female, have used the cookbook as a space to explore politics and aesthetics while promoting a sense of community among readers.
But what does it mean when a cookbook author isn’t a real person?
From the start, Betty Crocker emerged in response to the needs of the masses.
In 1921, readers of the Saturday Evening Post were invited by Washburn Crosby Co. – the parent company of Gold Medal Flour – to complete a puzzle and send it in for a prize. The advertising department got more than expected.
In addition to contest entries, customers sent questions, asking for culinary advice. Betty’s name was coined as a customer service tool, so the return letters sent by the company’s predominantly male advertising department in response to these questions seem more personal. It also seemed more likely that their predominantly female clients would trust a woman.
“Betty” was chosen because he seemed friendly and familiar, while “Crocker” honored a former executive with this last name. Her signature came next, chosen from an assortment submitted by employees.
As Betty became a household name, the fictional cook and housewife received so many letters that other employees had to be trained to reproduce this familiar signature.
The ad chose the signature for its distinctiveness, although its quirks and outlines have been smoothed out over time, so much so that the version that appears on boxes today is barely recognizable. Like Betty’s face, first painted in 1936, her signature has evolved over time.
Betty eventually became a cultural juggernaut – a media personality, with a radio show and an extensive library of publications to her name.
An outlier in cookbook culture
As I explain to students in my cooking and literature classes, cookbooks aren’t appreciated just for the quality of their recipes. Cookbooks use literary techniques of characterization and storytelling to invite readers into imaginary worlds.
By their very nature, recipes are forward-looking; they anticipate a future in which you have cooked something delicious. But, as they appear in many cookbooks – and many homemade recipe boxes – the recipes also reflect a past that is fondly remembered. Notes in the margin of a recipe card or splashes on a cookbook page can remind us of times a beloved recipe was cooked and eaten. A recipe can have the name of a family member attached, or even be handwritten.
When cookbooks contain personal anecdotes, they invite a sense of connection by mimicking the personal story that is collected in a recipe box.
Irma Rombauer may have perfected this style in her 1931 book “The Joy of Cooking”, but she didn’t invent it. American publishers began printing cookbooks in the mid-18th century, and even the early authors of the genre had some idea of the power of character, just as many food bloggers do today.
An American ideal
But because Betty Crocker’s cookbooks were written by a committee, with recipes tested by staff and home cooks, this personal story isn’t so personal.
As an advertisement for the “Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book” put it, “The women of America helped Betty Crocker write the Picture Cook Book,” and the resulting book “reflected the warmth and personality of the American home. “. And while books like “Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book” open with a friendly note signed by the fictitious housewife herself, the recipe headnotes carefully avoid pretending she’s a real person, instead giving credit to the women who submitted the recipes, suggesting variations or providing historical context.
Betty Crocker’s books invited American women to imagine themselves as part of a community connected by the loose bond of shared recipes. And because they do not express the unique tastes of a particular person, Betty Crocker’s books instead promote taste as a shared cultural experience common to all American families, and cooking as a skill to which all women should aspire.
The “story of two wives” that appears in Betty Crocker’s 1933 pamphlet “New Party Cakes for All Occasions” contrasts the good “little bride” who “took cooking lessons on Betty’s radio. Crocker ”with the hapless“ other bride ”whose cooking and shopping habits are equally reckless. The message here isn’t particularly subtle: the trick to becoming “the most wonderful little woman ever” is to cook well and buy the right flour.
Despite its charming illustrations, the retrograde attitude of this 1933 brochure probably wouldn’t sell many cookbooks today, let alone baking mixes, kitchen appliances, or whatever else now bears the Betty brand. Crocker, which General Mills now owns.
But while Betty Crocker’s branding in supermarkets is all about convenience and ease, the retro styles of her latest cookbooks are a reminder that her brand is also nostalgic.
Released this year, for its 100th anniversary, the “Betty Crocker Best 100” reprints all of Betty’s portraits and tells the story of her invention. Rather than using the logo that appears on contemporary products, the cover reverts to the more eccentric script of the first Betty, and the “personal” note at the opening of the book reminds readers that “it’s always been about recognize that the kitchen is at the heart of the home.
As Betty is continually reinvented in response to America’s changing sense of self, perhaps that means valuing domestic work without judging women on the quality of their cakes, and building a community among all bakers – even those who will never be good little wives.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.