I may have grown up in the home of a balebusta par excellence, but this daughter clearly didn’t inherit her Hungarian mother’s genes. The kitchen was exclusively Mommy’s domain and the house was always gleaming, seemingly on its own. I took it for granted that white cabinets naturally sparkled and that there was never a speck of dust on any surface. Shabbos was always ready hours before I got home from school. When I say that I didn’t know how to boil water before I got married, I mean it quite literally. (Remind me to tell you about the time my friend and I were hungry and tried to make pasta when my mother wasn’t home. There was broken glass involved, but that’s a story for another time.) Then I got married and moved far away. Only a week after sheva brachos, I found myself standing in front of the stove for the first time in my life.
Taking a deep breath, I ambitiously undertook the task of preparing a delicious pineapple chicken dinner for my new hubby. It was a whole-day affair. I called my new mother-in-law for advice on how to operate a gas oven (Mommy has electric), then my own mother for detailed instructions on how to clean poultry. (That was a real eye-opener.) I followed a recipe from a cookbook, and two hours later proudly removed the dish from the oven just as my husband of two weeks walked in the door. I was feeling rather accomplished as I started to serve my firstever meal—when I accidentally dropped the pan with most of our dinner on the floor. I can’t remember whom I called for advice on how to remove grease from linoleum, but I’m sure I was stumped. It’s been over a decade since that first dinner Hubby and I still laugh about, and I dare say I’ve learned quite a bit since that early disaster. Over the years there’s been lots of trial and error, and advice has come from numerous sources.
As a clueless newlywed I even purchased a book entitled How Clean Is Your House? Hundreds of Handy Tips to Make Your Home Sparkle when I first discovered the phenomenon of dust. I’m still always on the lookout for advice, which is not exactly hard to come by in this day and age. Aside from multiple phone calls to Mommy, sisters-in-law and friends, my extensive cookbook collection and all the cooking magazines (especially Whisk!) that I read, there are countless websites and blogs I consult whenever I need help with a hard-to-remove stain or a tutorial on how to fold linen. Yes, balebustas aren’t (usually!) born but made, taught by example and by role models. So it isn’t hard to understand why for almost a century, millions of American women have turned to Betty Crocker, the homemaking information oracle. Under Betty’s patient tutelage, they’ve learned how to cook, bake and keep their homes organized and clean.
Aspiring to be a balebusta is something that crosses all ethnic and cultural lines. Until they stopped offering public tours in 1985, some two million tourists from around the world visited the famous Betty Crocker Kitchens in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to see their home economists churn out freshly baked goods from the gleaming ovens in their seven test kitchens. For many of these visitors, however, watching the recipe testing in action was only icing on the cake as they hoped to catch a glimpse of the woman behind the starched white apron— Betty Crocker herself. Unfortunately, it was a hope that could never be fulfilled. Receptionists at the facility were armed and ready with tissues and sympathy as they delivered the news to the multitudes of adoring fans who had made the trek only to discover that the woman they idolized, America’s ultimate balebusta and one of the best-known women of the interwar years, didn’t exist—and never had.
BETTY IS BORN
In 1921, a promotion for Gold Medal Flour in The Saturday Evening Post offered consumers a pin cushion resembling a flour sack if they correctly completed a jigsaw puzzle of a milling scene. Washburn Crosby, a forerunner of General Mills, which now owns Betty Crocker, was overwhelmed by the response to the campaign. More than 30,000 completed entries were received, many of them accompanied by questions and requests for recipes. Although up until then the company’s modest (and male-staffed) advertising department had handled customers’ inquiries, it occurred to them that their needs would be better served by an authority figure who would personally answer readers’ letters. This person, of course, would be someone who was supposed to know her way around the kitchen, i.e., a woman. They chose the name Betty, a popular name in the 1920s that connoted warmth and friendliness, and put it together with Crocker, the last name of one of the company’s retired executives, William Crocker, and voilà! Betty Crocker had an identity. Then a contest was held among Washburn Crosby’s female employees to pick a signature that would be Betty’s trademark. The winner, a secretary named Florence Lindeberg, had a plain but curly script that is still used on the company’s products today. The newly hatched Betty Crocker was now ready to share tips and recipes with the masses, “personally” responding to every inquiry the company received with her sage advice and unrelenting enthusiasm.
BETTY KNOWS BEST
The team of home economists behind Betty quickly learned how useful she was to the average American housewife. Consumers were relieved to be on the receiving end of Betty’s valuable guidance— confidentially. Unlike a prying shvigger or nosy neighbor, Betty Crocker was every woman’s kitchen angel, swooping in with her wisdom sans judgment or negativity. Betty also happened to have been born at exactly the right moment, when American women suddenly found themselves cooking in kitchens that looked nothing like their mothers’, boasting electrical appliances and industrial innovations their moms could only have
dreamed of. However, one of the corollaries of these labor-saving devices was an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness. While much of the tedium and drudgery of housework was rapidly disappearing, so too were many of the opportunities for interaction with other women engaged in the same tasks. Betty’s advice proved indispensable in the new kitchens America’s housewives were just learning to navigate. With their mothers’ recipes and techniques suddenly obsolete, a new generation of homemakers were in desperate need of help.
Posing as “Betty,” Washburn Crosby’s team of home economists started to give classes and baking demonstrations in test kitchens styled to look like the average home kitchen rather than an industrial one. They also fielded hundreds of letters and even phone calls from despairing women. The most important aspect of their claims was that Gold Medal products were “kitchen-tested” and “foolproof,” and provided perfect results every single time. Interestingly, the people behind Betty Crocker were the ones who singled out irregular-sized baking pans as a leading cause of baking woes and took up the mission of standardizing pan sizes in the United States—something to consider the next time you pull out a trusty 9” x 13”. But what really catapulted Betty Crocker to fame was her radio cooking show. In 1924, Marjorie Child Husted, a home economist, became the voice of Betty Crocker. It was she who wrote and hosted The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air, which was initially broadcast only in Minneapolis. The show later became a national phenomenon, featuring 13 different actresses in radio stations around the country reading from the same script.
At that point Betty’s subject matter expanded beyond baking; she also responded to listeners’ requests for marriage advice and help in dealing with in-laws and neighbors. Countless women poured out their hearts to her on paper, sharing their most private thoughts. At a time when women were moving away from rural hometowns and into cities, Betty offered the guidance their own mothers were too far away to provide. For example, Betty once said over the air: “I like to picture you as I talk. I can see experienced housekeepers peeling potatoes or doing some other ‘sitting down’ job while they listen for the little hints that help relieve the monotony of the old routine. I see busy mothers of small children, grandmothers, brides and young housekeepers, and the shut-ins who are bed-fast or helpless, who tell me they never fail to watch for this hour… Isn’t it wonderful that no matter where you are, we can meet this way to discuss the things we are all interested in? The radio admits no barrier of time or distance. Not so many years ago we had to go out visiting with near neighbors, perhaps gossiping over the back fence, or we waited for a club meeting or sewing circle to exchange recipes.
But now, though I am miles away, I can talk to you, and radio friends in Massachusetts can exchange ideas with those in California.” Thousands of women “enrolled” in Betty Crocker’s on-air cooking school. Students received a questionnaire to be returned to Washburn Crosby with their grocer’s signature, testifying that they used Gold Medal flour exclusively. How’s that for marketing genius? This enabled homemakers to earn a diploma and “graduate”; in the 27 years of its existence the program produced more than a million alumni. And it covered more than just baking tips and secrets. One series devoted a substantial amount of time to a discussion of how to find a husband and what qualities bachelors were looking for in a wife. In another, entitled “A Word to the Wives,” Betty interviewed husbands to glean tips on shalom bayis. One happy listener wrote the following letter:
Dear Betty, I enjoy your talks on what kind of girl men shall like to marry. It calls to mind the many little defects in our homemaking and appearance, which we are only too happy to improve on. Your talk is like a spiritual mirror, where we can see our defects. I am doing lots better in many things.
THE FIRST LADY OF FOOD
Betty Crocker was thus transformed into a cultural icon, much more than simply an authority on food and a beloved “kitchen confidante.” Indeed, in homes across America hers was an unseen guiding presence. At this point, though, her true identity was a carefully guarded insider secret. Most listeners believed that she was based in Minneapolis and that the other women who were on the air elsewhere were simply speaking on her behalf. Betty became a revered figure who set the gold standard for homemaking. Women would exchange gossip on whose skills didn’t meet the “Betty Crocker standard.” Here are some excerpts of letters that were written to “Betty” from Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food.
Dear Betty, I have wanted to write for some time now. I have just had my third son, born to me on November 16. I was so sure it was going to be a girl and we were going to call her Betty because you have helped me so very much in making my home a success. I had to settle for the name Teddy.
In addition, the people behind Betty Crocker ensured that her message was always timely. Throughout the Great Depression she discussed how to cook meals on Depression-era wages, maximizing relief staples. (In fact, in no small part thanks to her, General Mills was one of only a handful of companies whose stocks were unaffected by the economic downturn.)
Dear Betty, I used to be enrolled in your cooking school on the air.Then hard times hit this family and we moved to the farm. I had to sell my radio and G.E. refrigerator. I sure do miss them. What I want to ask of you is, would it be too much trouble for you to send me some of your recipes that you have given out within the past year?
During World War II, Betty was busy helping homemakers plan meals that would conserve rations for troops abroad, offering her usual dose of encouragement and providing alternative baking techniques to save on staples like sugar and butter, which were in short supply. After the war, she tried to help women who had relinquished their jobs to veterans find a comfortable footing back in their kitchens.
Millions of us are praying for this awful war to end so all these young people serving their country so unselfishly may come home to peace and happiness. And I understand, too, how much you and your husband long to return to your little Cape Cod house on the coast of Maine! But how wonderful that he could serve his country again in this time of need! You and your loved ones have had a big part in this “war to end all wars”! Cordially, Betty Crocker.
Although Betty had a voice, it wasn’t until 1936 that she was given a face, after countless requests from letter writers. Taking the features of all the women in the General Mills home service department, artist Neysa McMein blended them to create the first-ever image of Betty Crocker. Described in the press as “an ageless 32,” the widely circulated illustration strengthened the popular belief that Betty was a real person. One public opinion poll rated her as the second most famous woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. Although in 1945 Fortune magazine “outed” Betty, describing “the first lady of food” as “purely imaginary” and divulging her net worth as “$1 on the General Mills accounting books,” her adoring fans either weren’t paying attention or didn’t care. The letters seeking her advice and expressing appreciation kept pouring in.
Dear Betty, I tried your muffin recipe and found it delicious. My husband doesn’t usually care for muffins but he literally devoured these. “You know,” he said, “the recipes you get from Betty Crocker are worth the price we paid for the radio.” I agreed heartily and he doesn’t know the half of it. He doesn’t know about all the inspiration and help I get for my homemaking.
Dear Betty, I hesitate just a wee bit to tell you what I’m going to now, for it makes a difference in the way people feel towards me sometimes. You see, Betty Crocker, I am a blind girl, and when people know that, they can’t quite understand why I’m so interested in recipes and cookery ideas… They think a blind girl is utterly helpless and should do nothing but sit and try to be as happy as possible under the circumstances. Here is the reason I’m so interested and why you have helped so much. My mother died seven months ago, and since then I have been doing all the housework and cooking for my two brothers and father.
Dear Betty, This letter is going to be filled with headaches, but if I tell you just how it is, I think (I hope) you will be able to help me. To begin with, I am one of the poorest housekeepers there is. I have two children, and I never have any time for them. I’m short-tempered with them too. In fact, I never have time for nothing [sic]. I can cook enough to get by, but that is all. It never looks nice, and no one seems to enjoy it. It seems I’m always working, but the house is always a mess. I know I’m dumping a big load in your lap. But I do wish you could help me. Please send me anything you have that will get me straightened out. No one can blame my husband for being disgusted; I don’t. That is why I want and need your help. I listen to your program and get so tired of hearing women who have four or five children say that they still have time to do this and bake that, besides getting through most of their work every day without help. You may think I’m an old grouch and a pessimist, but I never get through. I’m always tired and mostly unhappy. I have two children—one is six and in school, the other 16 months. If you or someone could please tell me just how these other women do it—what’s their routine? I’ve got to get through or I’ll go crazy. I hope you don’t mention my name over the radio. I like to cook and bake, but I can’t seem to get things done… My husband is a teacher and he’s always out meeting people, but I feel in a rut. It’s horrible. Sincerely, “Young Mother” P.S. We can never get anyone to care for the children, but don’t you think he should be willing to watch them while I get out once in a while to do a show or to visit someone?
In 1950 Betty authored her first cookbook, Big Red, a compilation of recipes developed and tested by her team of home economists. It was an immediate bestseller, as were its subsequent editions, with over 65 million copies in print to date. It was the first cookbook to feature pictures with step-by-step instructions, opening the door to a wide variety of other popular Betty Crocker cookbooks. Nonetheless, when the company unveiled its first cake mixes in 1947, this revolutionary item wasn’t welcomed with open arms by consumers. No balebusta worth her salt would substitute the love she baked into her cakes for a powdery mix that came in a box. Many women used them in secret (hey, we’ve all done it!), but with Betty Crocker’s endorsement the practice slowly became more accepted. Betty underwent several facelifts over the decades; her image has been updated a total of seven times. For her 75th anniversary in 1996, the “ageless 32-year-old” was painted by John Stuart Ingle, who digitally combined the photos of 75 women General Mills felt embodied “the characteristics of Betty Crocker.” The new and improved Betty has an olive skin tone, representing American multiculturalism. Today, Betty Crocker’s signature and iconic red spoon still grace over 200 products in the supermarket. And while Betty is no longer on the radio, she’s kept up with the times. She now has her own website to answer your queries and offer helpful tips and recipes. In conclusion, regardless of whether you’ve already turned your house over for Pesach, use cake mix or bake from scratch, you shouldn’t feel intimidated by America’s quintessential balebusta. After all, she doesn’t really exist.