March is a time to remember Duncan Hines

March is a great for foodies. This year we celebrate Easter, National Frozen Food Month; the federal government designated the second week of March as National School Breakfast Week. There are “extremist” groups as well, promoting the evils of caffeine during National Caffeine Awareness Month® (those of you who can’t function without your morning cup are most certainly aware!) to a call for vegetarianism on The Great American Meat Out Day (March 20, or the first day of spring).

And you thought there were only St. Patrick’s Day and the obligatory corned beef & cabbage dinner!

However, there is another food-story during March that few Americans know: Duncan Hines was born (March 26, 1880) and died (March 15, 1959) during this month. You didn’t realize Duncan Hines was a real person? Not surprising, considering the attention given Betty Crocker (a purely fictional persona).

The biography “Duncan Hines: The Man Behind the Cake Mix” by Louis Hatchett provides a fascinating look at the life of arguably the most powerful man on the American food scene during the mid 20th century. Although slightly dry and scholarly (it started as Mr. Hatchett’s thesis for his Master’s degree), the book is definitely worth seeking out. It provides glimpses of American life from 1936-1959 that are in many ways still relevant to us in 2008. We still purchase travel guides to help us find lodgings and restaurants (think Fodor’s and Zagat), and we still purchase convenience foods to make our lives easier (think Duncan Hines cake mixes).

Duncan Hines was a salesman and his hobby was seeking out good, local places to eat during his travels. Other salesmen who knew of Hines’ hobby eagerly sought his advice on where they might a good meal. Demand for this information eventually forced him to publish it in the form of a guide book, and in 1936 he self-published Adventures in Good Eating, a guide to roadside restaurants. The success of his book was predicated on the trust people placed in his recommendations. Duncan Hines did not accept paid endorsements from any restaurant, and went to great lengths to ensure that those establishments he recommended had consistently good food and sanitary kitchens. Why should this have been so important? Back in those days, refrigeration and widespread food safety knowledge were not the norm. Travelers who ate in restaurants literally took a chance with their lives; death from food poisoning was not uncommon. (This may sound almost comical to today’s traveler, who typically partakes of chain restaurant food, regulated by public health departments nationwide.) If a restaurant refused his request to inspect their kitchen he not only would not recommend it, he would not even eat there. So great was his influence on public opinion that both the restaurant industry and the hotel/motel industry were forced to maintain his high standards, or risk losing the patronage of his readers, often representing a significant portion of their business.

The Duncan Hines that most of us know, the name on the box of cake mix, did not come about until he was 68 years old. He agreed to lend his endorsement to a variety of food products – over 60 brands ranging from bread to canned pears. The first Duncan Hines branded product to hit store shelves? Ice cream, not cake mix.

In 1956 Procter & Gamble purchased Duncan Hines (yes it was happening even back then), eventually selling the brand to Aurora Foods in 1998. The brand was sold again in 2004 to Pinnacle Foods and the product line is limited to cake, brownie, muffin & cookie mixes; canned frostings, and the new “oven ready” brownies.

Though “big business” appears to have dealt rather roughly with the brand name Duncan Hines, his native state of Kentucky and Pinnacle Foods (as a financial sponsor) treat the memory of the person rather well. Bowling Green, the town he was born & died in, pays homage to their native son with the “Duncan Hines Festival” (August 14-16, 2008), and since 2007 The Kentucky Library and Museum has featured the exhibit “Recommended by Duncan Hines” where visitors can learn about “the man behind the cake mix”.

Bon Appetit!

Chef Glenn Burgess

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