One of America's Best-Selling Authors Has Turned 100 Years Old
- by Michael Stillman
The first portrait of Betty Crocker, created when she was 15 years old (1936).
This year we are celebrating the 100th birthday of one of America's most popular authors. Her first book has sold over 75 million copies, but she has written about 250 in total. We don't have counts for the other 249, but it must be a lot. Everyone knows her name, and if you haven't purchased one of her books, you undoubtedly have purchased something else she makes.
Not too many people hang around long enough to celebrate their 100th birthday, and that is true of our author. Sadly, she is no longer with us. Actually, she never was. She was a fiction from the day she was “born” 100 years ago. Many people realize this, but many others do not and are shocked to learn there is no real Betty Crocker and never was. However, she is no more real than her brother at General Mills, the Pillsbury Doughboy. No one ever thought he was real.
Betty Crocker was born in the Washburn-Crosby flour mill of Minneapolis in 1921. The firm had run a contest in the Saturday Evening Post for their Gold Medal Flour. Along with contest entries, many people wrote letters to the firm, primarily looking for cooking tips. The firm's Advertising Director, Sam Gale, decided to answer all of those letters. However, he thought the women who wrote most of them would not take kindly to a man telling them how to run their kitchen. He decided to create a woman to answer the letters, choosing the name Betty Crocker since Crocker was the last name of a retired company director, and the name sounded wholesome and reassuring, a good name for a friend to the homemaker.
The letters kept coming, and “Betty” and her large staff of assistants kept answering them all. While cooking was the primary focus, Betty's friendly and helpful image led to people asking advice on all types of issues. In 1928, Washburn-Crosby combined with some other mills to form General Mills, now a massive conglomerate producing all sorts of foodstuffs, with Betty's friendly face appearing on many. Her image has changed with the times, to a more contemporary look, but she has stayed forever young, or more accurately, forever middle-aged.
As if she weren't already busy enough, Betty turned her hand to writing in 1950. That is when she published the Betty Crocker Cookbook. That is the one that has sold 75 million copies and counting. As with the letters, she had her staff lend a hand with the book writing. Recipes have changed over the years, and while some are daring, it maintains a staple of “meat-and-potatoes” type dishes, things with which people can feel comfortable, comfort food if you will. One that has remained since the beginning is banana bread, evidently a timeless favorite.
One other thing has changed since Ms. Crocker started writing as a lady of merely 29 years of age. Not so many recipes are based on starting from scratch. In those days, most women were expected to be homemakers, preparing dinner for when her man came home from “work.” Back then, men incorrectly believed they were the partner who worked hardest. Today's recipes feature more prepackaged foods and mixes as women do both the traditional jobs of their own and their husband's. For some reason, this is considered as emancipation from traditional roles. Betty isn't fooled. She keeps Mr. Crocker in the kitchen baking banana bread.