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Imperfect cake? Impossible.
Or, what your cake says about you.

Zenia Malmer

 

Making a cake with powdered mix is like blowing up a bouncy castle: it looks like a real castle, but basically, it just contains hot air. Cake should be made from scratch, not from a box. Then again, I may be overly judgmental. In spite of my opinion, cake mix has a fascinating history that has been researched by culinary historians like Laura Shapiro, a journalist and culinary historian.  In the forties and fifties, Betty Crocker branded cake mixes were bought in box-form, and contained a set quantity of powdered cake ingredients, much like they are still sold today.

Screen shot of a Betty Crocker Cake Mix box from a television commercial, circa 1950.

Screen shot of a Betty Crocker Cake Mix box from a television commercial, circa 1950.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4QKcFUeUxs&list=PLiMnkbBCIdoOZcJ_JKm7L6zunWDfmKjHT

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Betty Crocker Red Velvet Cake Mix, 2014. Image © Zenia Malmer, 2014

In her research, Shapiro investigated how women integrated convenience foods into their cooking rituals, and how these foods challenged the definition of ‘homemade’.Making cake from scratch and making cake from powder may have culminated in the same end result. They served their purpose, whether it would have been for a birthday celebration or for a wedding. But even though the results may have been identical, how did they reflect the cook’s culinary abilities? In this sense, cake was not only a component that marked celebrations, but an ephemeral object through which the cook’s skills and identity were mediated. What was the ideal cake, according to Betty Crocker advertisements? Well, the adjectives used the most were: homemade, tender and tasty. Ideally, the cake also had to be light and ‘high’. A cake that didn’t rise properly in the oven was considered unattractive.

Screen shot of a cake made with 'Yellow Cake Mix'[1]. The cake was depicted with a ruler to emphasize that Betty Crocker cake always rose properly in the oven.

Screen shot of a cake made with ‘Yellow Cake Mix'[1]. The cake was depicted with a ruler to emphasize that Betty Crocker cake always rose properly in the oven.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4QKcFUeUxs&list=PLiMnkbBCIdoOZcJ_JKm7L6zunWDfmKjHT

‘Sometimes, women have had difficulty in achieving a perfect cake’

A beautiful cake contributes to your happiness, and to the happiness of all around you. A beautiful cake is the highlight of every joyful occasion. But sometimes, women have had difficulty in achieving a perfect cake.[2]

To make a successful cake, skills in the kitchen were essential, but Crocker advertisements emphasized that some women just had more ‘good luck’ than others. Consumers were promised that they could make ‘beautiful’ and ‘perfect’ cakes for any number of joyful occasions in a straightforward, foolproof manner with Crocker cake mix.

A not-so-perfect cake. Screen shot from a Betty Crocker television commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0-ARiMzC20

A not-so-perfect cake.
Screen shot from a Betty Crocker television commercial, c. 1945. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0-ARiMzC20

Recipes featured instructions that were written to guide the cook in the making process, but understanding them seemed like a skill in its own right, according to a Betty Crocker promotional video from 1945:

Cake recipes in the old general cookery terms have been difficult for the untrained person to interpret. What does, cream the shortening and sugar mean? What stage is light and fluffy? How do you blend completely? What does it mean to fold in egg whites? Terms such as these were often confusing. As a result, some housewives had good luck with their baking at times, but results were unsure. Others never made a perfect cake.[3]

In addition, following recipes meant working through various steps. Creaming the shortening and sugar constituted one such step. Cake mixes replaced the need to understand them with one simple and supposedly foolproof act because all that was needed was the addition of water and fresh eggs. In skipping steps, a homemaker was able to follow one straightforward instruction that left very little margin for error. Betty Crocker promised that failure had finally been designed out of the cake making process.

‘Betty Crocker showed me how to make it with her wonderful marble cake mix’[4], exclaimed a grateful Gracie Allen in a television commercial. This also signaled that women no longer had to be involved with the making process, because Betty Crocker practically made it for them.

'Betty Crocker showed me how to make it'. Gracie Allen presenting a slice of Marble Cake to George Burns. Betty Crocker Marble Cake television commercial. (screen shot)

‘Betty Crocker showed me how to make it’. Gracie Allen presenting a slice of Marble Cake to George Burns.
Betty Crocker Marble Cake television commercial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nS28iYXVZI

From a series of The Boston Globe magazine articles, Laura Shapiro found that ‘overwhelmingly, the aspect of cookery that drew the most attention over the years was baking’[5]. A 1953 poll enquired what constituted “the real test of a woman’s ability” which saw women put apple pie in first, and cake in second place. Shapiro also intriguingly reported that women writing to the food pages of Globe, requested tried and tested baking recipes that guaranteed a great dish in an easy way, but showed no interest ‘to step aside and let convenience foods take over their kitchens’[6]. Women were presented with options in the kitchen and the ones that they chose had the power to define them. As Shapiro states: ‘they had to know what kind of cook they wanted to be’.

Learning to make cake, mistakes and all was too much for some. ‘Many surrendered: they came to believe that cooking really was difficult and time-consuming unless ready-made ingredients defined the goal and led the way’[7]. Maybe some women simply didn’t care enough to put in any time and effort, and opted for the shortest and safest routes straight away.

What remains so intriguing about Betty Crocker advertisements, is that they promoted the idea that it was perfectly acceptable for women to integrate short-cuts in the kitchen. They challenged the definition of what it meant to make something from scratch. Baking-from-a-box could be flaunted as an achievement that women could truly be proud of.

Finally, the question that still needs to be asked is:

What does your cake say about you?

 

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Books by Laura Shapiro:

Julia Child: A Life, (Penguin Books, 2009)

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, (University of California Press, 2008)

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in Fifties America, (Penguin Books, 2005)

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dik Warren Twedt, What is a “Convenient Food”?, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 31, No. 1 (January 1967), pp.67-68

Laura Shapiro, ‘ “My Problem is Watery Custard”: Reading the Confidential Chat’, Gastronomical: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2001), pp.48-55

Laura Shapiro, “And here she is … your Betty Crocker!”, The American Scholar, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Spring 2004), pp.87-99

Lisa Yockelson, The Gentle Rise of (Real) Cake, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer 2004), pp.75-77

Betty Crocker television commercials on Youtube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4QKcFUeUxs&list=PLiMnkbBCIdoOZcJ_JKm7L6zunWDfmKjHT

‘Betty Crocker: How to Bake a Cake: 400 years in 4 minutes, 1945 General Mills Cake Recipe’, Youtube video,
Public domain film from the Library of Congress Prelinger Archive, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0-ARiMzC20


[2] ‘Betty Crocker: How to Bake a Cake: 400 years in 4 minutes, 1945 General Mills Cake Recipe’, Youtube video, public domain film from the Library of Congress Prelinger Archive, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0-ARiMzC20

[3] ‘Betty Crocker: How to Bake a Cake: 400 years in 4 minutes, 1945 General Mills Cake Recipe’, Youtube video,
Public domain film from the Library of Congress Prelinger Archive, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0-ARiMzC20

[4] Betty Crocker marble cake mix commercial, c. 1950, Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nS28iYXVZI

[5] Laura Shapiro, ‘ “My Problem is Watery Custard”: Reading the Confidential Chat’, Gastronomical: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2001), p.50

[6] Laura Shapiro, ‘ “My Problem is Watery Custard”: Reading the Confidential Chat’, Gastronomical: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2001), p.51

[7] Laura Shapiro, ‘ “My Problem is Watery Custard”: Reading the Confidential Chat’, Gastronomical: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2001),p.54

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Zenia Malmer –

Zenia graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in English and Arts Management. She worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for three years before embarking on the History of Design course. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of food and design history: from the nineteenth-century tools and technologies designed to make smooth and creamy ice cream, to figuring out how Baumkuchen got its distinctive shape.
Follow me on Twitter! @Zenia__M

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© Zenia Malmer, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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