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Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food

By Susan Marks

Simon & Schuster

274 pages, $23

The title, "Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food," conjures up all sorts of juicy possibilities. Is she a Mata Hari-type spy who stole a recipe for chocolate frosting right out from under the nose of Duncan Hines? Does she substitute Crisco for cold cream to give her face that eternally youthful look? Does she spike the vanilla extract with amaretto?

Author Susan Marks keeps the reader in suspense only as far as the book jacket, where the secret spills out: Betty Crocker doesn't exist -- never has, never will. Marks writes, "Born in 1921 in Minneapolis, Minn., to proud corporate parents, Betty Crocker has grown, over eight decades, into one of the most successful branding campaigns the world has ever known."

The mythical culinary icon may not have been born out of love, but she was born of necessity. The author traces Betty's beginnings to a contest run by the Washburn Crosby Co., a forerunner to General Mills. The Minneapolis milling giant challenged readers of the "Saturday Evening Post" to re-arrange a picture puzzle, luring them with a prize of a pincushion fashioned in the shape of a Gold Medal Flour sack. Not only did Washburn Crosby receive over 30,000 pieced-together puzzles, they received almost as many questions about the basics of baking.

What Washburn Crosby needed was someone -- preferably a woman -- to respond to and advise all the inquiring consumers. The result was a marketing campaign that, in retrospect, defied the times in its brilliance.

The author explains that, "The first order of business was to choose a name for this fictitious woman. The surname 'Crocker' was in honor of William G. Crocker, a recently retired and well-loved director of the Washburn Crosby Co. And 'Betty' sounded cheery, wholesome and folksy." The women of the Home Service Department actually answered all correspondence, and signed "Betty's" name.

Within a couple of years, Betty Crocker went from a name at the bottom of a letter to a national phenomenon. The men in the Washburn Crosby boardroom proved visionaries again, when they took a chance on a new invention called radio to promote their product. And who better to present Gold Medal Kitchen-tested recipes over the airwaves than Betty? After buying a Minneapolis radio station, changing its call letters to WCCO to reflect the company's initials (a station still going strong today), and creating "The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air," Washburn Crosby started reaping the benefits of broadcasting by selling lots of Gold Medal Flour.

The show's format fitted the new medium perfectly. Each day, Betty would "drop by" and leisurely discuss food and its relationship to love. (Translated: the way to a man's heart is through his stomach). In 1925, Western New Yorkers benefited from Betty's sage advice on cooking and "female concerns" when WGR radio became the first station outside Minneapolis to air her shows. A local actress in each city provided Betty's voice, reading from a script sent from the home office.

Through the Depression and World War II, Betty Crocker's "keep a stiff upper lip and make the leftovers last" attitude endeared her to overwhelmed homemakers -- and men -- alike. Author Marks says at the height of her popularity in the 1940s, Betty received 4,000 to 5,000 letters per day. In 1950, "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" debuted. Nine editions and 30 million copies later, it's still going strong.

Like any good parent, General Mills, which merged with Washburn Crosby in 1928, saved enough of Betty's correspondence and radio transcripts to make Marks' book a six-year project. The author first became interested in her hometown domestic diva while giving tours at the Minnesota Historical Society. She was struck by the number of people who thought Betty was real.

The result of Marks' archival digging is a kitschy book as light and digestible as one of Betty's orange chiffon cakes. "Finding Betty Crocker" is a tasty treat that helps us all relive a simpler time when one of our biggest joys was watching mom whip up snickerdoodles -- and licking the spoon.

Carol Nigrelli -- formerly Carol Jasen at Channel 4 -- currently lives in St. Paul.