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Food Friendly May: How Convenient is Convenience? | Manolo for the Big Girl

Food Friendly May: How Convenient is Convenience?

A big part of the history of food in the twentieth century and beyond centers around efforts to make cooking a more convenient process.

When the year turned to 1900 (or 1901, choose your date because in this case it really doesn’t make a great deal of difference) cooking took up a great deal of time in the average woman’s day. Most of the appliances we take for granted today didn’t exist, and nothing came in a jar unless the lady of the house or someone she knew had put it there herself. There were no frozen foods, no stoves with regulated thermostats, no electric coffee grinders, no mixing machines, no bread machines, no microwaves, no dishwashers to ease the cleaning process…cooking was a long and labor-intensive job and a great deal less predictable than it is today.

One thing, however, already existed on the market which has remained firmly in place ever since: the powdered mix. Aunt Jemima pancake mix had been on the market since 1889. The key to that  mix was that it was based on a self-raising flour. Pancakes are actually quite easy to make from scratch. Eggs, flour, salt, sugar, a pinch of baking soda, a quick stir, heat your griddle and you’re ready to go. All the same, Aunt Jemima’s mix sold like…well…if not precisely like hot cakes, at least respectably enough to stay on the market for decades.

The next big innovation in boxed mixes came in 1931 when General Mills introduced Bisquick. It was similar in concept to the Aunt Jemima pancake mix, but took the idea a bit further. Pancakes are easy. Anyone can produce a respectable pancake from scratch fairly easily. Biscuits, however, are another matter. Some women (and men) have the ability to make their biscuits light, fluffy, and delicious every time. Others have the misfortune to produce an endless stream of hockey pucks. If the dough is over worked, or if the oven temperature fluctuated too much, well, even the best baker could produce a big batch of wasted ingredients.

Bisquick made biscuit making only slightly faster (biscuit dough really doesn’t take very long to make from scratch), but by adding just the right proportion of shortening directly into the mix, it did save a few minutes. What it did more than that was offer greater consistency of result. And depending on whether the cook wished to make simple biscuits (just add water!) or something fancier involving eggs, sugar, etc. she could tell within an acceptable margin what would come out of her oven.

It took longer for cake mixes to be accepted on the market. This despite the fact that cake was probably the single most demanding thing a woman could choose to bake and one of the greatest breeding grounds for potential culinary disaster. In the days before mixers, just creaming the butter and sugar could take seemingly forever and required a great deal of upper arm strength to accomplish well. In the days before temperature regulated ovens, a tiny fluctuation in heat could burn the outside and leave the inside nearly raw. If your eggs were larger or smaller than usual (and you didn’t buy them in cartons of clearly marked size before the big supermarkets came along), it could throw off the proportion of liquid to dry ingredients and create a huge, wasted mess.

Cakes were not convenient, yet mixes were resisted for a very long time. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of mix companies. Duff introduced the first boxed cake mix in 1931 – the same year Bisquick came out – for a gingerbread. Over the course of the next few years, they added several other flavors (white, spice, and devil’s food).

Duff wasn’t the only player, either. By 1947 there were some 200 cake mixes on the market. Most of them, however, were distributed only regionally, and none of them sold particularly well. Sales, however, had risen a bit during WWII. People still had birthdays and weddings and anniversaries, after all, and these occasions usually call for cake. By buying a boxed mix, there could be cake for the event without the whole family having to sacrifice their precious sugar ration for days or even weeks.

But it wasn’t until WWII was a memory that the two flour giants of American industry – General Mills and Pillsbury – got into the game. By 1953, sales of cake mixes had risen to almost a hundred and sixty million dollars annually. They’ve been big business ever since.

These days it’s rare to know someone who makes their cakes from scratch. The very concept is enough to scare the living pants off of a lot of perfectly competent home cooks.  The funny thing is, with today’s conveniences cakes are nearly as foolproof from scratch as they are from a boxed mix. Ovens are carefully calibrated to assure even temperature control. Mixers, whether hand-held or stand, take the physical effort out of creaming the butter and eggs. Those eggs can be bought in the size your recipe calls for from the grocery store without guesswork. Ingredients are not rationed by anything more than our wallets.

Of course, there is the time you save. A study was done at Michigan State College in 1954 to determine just how much time that was.

The result? Thirteen minutes.

In terms of quality, I find most mix cakes bland yet cloying in flavor and either too dry or too soggy in texture for my taste. By contrast, my first from scratch cake which I baked at age eight was a revelation of flavor, texture, and sense of accomplishment – not to mention the delightful bonding experience I had with my mother over the task. Now I bake cakes from scratch whenever the whim takes me.

Your mileage may vary, but I’m going to take those thirteen minutes (which I freely admit I am privileged to have) and make my cake the inconvenient way.

23 Responses to “Food Friendly May: How Convenient is Convenience?”

  1. dr nic May 9, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    Amen. I do use cake mixes occasionally but never make them according to the directions, I’m always doctoring them up somehow. I’m one who doesn’t have a ton of spare time, but baking is one of those things I really enjoy.

    You should see the looks I get when I talk about baking bread (without a bread maker).

    The thing I really don’t understand are the pre-made chilled cookie doughs. Today, I made roughly 3 dozen chocolate and peanut butter chip cookies completely from scratch in less than an hour (including baking time). Plus I have enough leftover dough to freeze the rest and have several rolls (3 or 4 at least) of homemade slice and bake cookies. These cookies taste so much better than the chilled dough version and maybe added an extra half an hour of time.

  2. Twistie May 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    I think as less and less people do their own baking, it’s become a mysterious thing for a lot of people. They assume it takes a lot of time, even when it doesn’t in actual practice.

    That’s why I think it’s interesting to break down the real difference in time and effort in the first place.

    I do own a bread maker, but I have to say it spends a lot of time gathering dust. I mostly use it when I have a reason to want to have fresh, hot bread when I get up in the morning. If I’m baking during the day, I tend to want to do my own kneading because it’s just so darn satisfying. Take that, dough!

    But cookies? They take an extra ten minutes or so if you start from scratch instead of using a completely pre-made dough. Ten minutes ain’t worth it to me.

    Then again, I’ve been mixing up and baking my own cookies literally since I was six.

  3. class factotum May 9, 2009 at 1:16 pm #

    My husband loves Oreos and Twinkies, etc, because that’s what he ate as a kid. His mom did not bake much.

    I feel sorry for him – my mom made cookies, cakes and pies from scratch. I think store-bought snacks taste awful. I bake and cook almost everything from scratch (I am very fortunate that I have the time to do this as a SAHW), although I draw the line at pie crust. I buy that. My grandmother, when she dies, will be spinning in her grave, bless her heart.

    I was thinking yesterday as I was hoeing the garden that there was a reason women 100 years ago were not overweight. I am gardening for the fun of it and because homegrown tomatoes taste so good. But it is hard, hard work. (I dug up the lawn to make the garden bed). I am glad to be doing it as a hobby rather than as a necessity.

    The same thing with cooking from scratch. I do it because I like to. If I had to make every single meal, without the option of getting a pizza or going out now and then, I would probably get a little bitter.

  4. Twistie May 9, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Gardening is hard work, class factotum, but even with the hard work of keeping a kitchen garden, doing all the cooking on wood or coal stoves and without a KitchenAid (my precioussssssssss!) or a food processor, doing the laundry for a husband and five children, keeping the house in order sans a Roomba, etc. my great grandmother was still a very stout woman in all senses of the term.

    In fact, it’s kind of nice having pictures of her from every stage of her life from adolescence onward. Since I look precisely like her (no, really, I’m talking peas in a pod spitting image, here), I know that my shape is what it is and how my face will change as I age. It’s sort of like having a mirror that tells the future…only with seriously retro hair.

    Pie crust does my bidding, so I’m no way buying it in, but I do have to make a confession: those biscuit hockey pucks I spoke of earlier? Yeah. That’s how mine keep turning out. I don’t bake a lot of biscuits. If I want bread with a meal, I’ll make rolls, which turn out a lot better for me. They take longer, but it’s worth it to me because I can be sure nobody is going to lose a tooth to them.

  5. Mo May 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    And baking from scratch is so fun! you can take a basic cake mix recipe, and it’s anything goes from there! My mom isn’t a fan of chocolate, so her birthday cake was a normal cake mix recipe that I then jazzed up with her favorite flavors: Banana, macadamia nuts, and coconut. She adored her tropical cake, it was easy, and the Bundt pan ensure a pretty shape. It’s really something more people should learn to make. I’ll take a homemade cake and the love that went into it over a storebought heavily frosted piece of junk anyday. (especially because I do NOT like frosting.)

  6. class factotum May 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Twistie, I thought about what I wrote while I was in the shower and realized that I was generalizing from one data point — my skinny farm grandmother — and my assumption that farmwork would cause a calorie deficit and constant starvation that would take someone down from her setpoint, neither of which might be the case.

    My town grandmother was plump.

    Guess which one I take after?

    Only — Skinny grandmother is flat-chested and plump grandma had bosoms. So I get the plumpness but not the chest. How fair is that? :)

  7. La Petite Acadiene May 9, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Twistie: I’m not much of a baker (adding toffee bits to a cake mix is about as good as it gets for me), but I have found a biscuit recipe that works great every time. Let me know if you want me to email it to you, okay?

  8. TropicalChrome May 9, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    My mother is a prize-winning pie baker. Maybe if I liked pie more I’d put in the time and effort to learn to make a decent pie crust. But as it is, I hate ANYTHING where I have to cut fat into flour – it takes forever, I never know if I’ve cut it in enough or too much, and frankly, it is a lot less personal aggravation to go buy a frozen crust that’s already in a pie pan. (And don’t even get me started on rolling out anything. I hate it.)

    I’ve made cakes from scratch, and they’re not rocket science…IF YOU LIVE AT SEA LEVEL. I live at roughly 5500 ft above sea level. Cake mixes make that adjustment easy – it tells you right on the box what to do to make it work. And it does.

    Most scratch cake recipes, though, aren’t as kind. So while they may take only 13 minutes more on the first run through, you can double or triple the total amount of time for the failed fallen cakes while you tweak the recipe for altitude. (Not that fallen cake isn’t yummy in parfaits and the like, but still…..). Even for something as simple as Bisquick Banana Bread it took about 4 attempts to get it right – even though Bisquick did include “high altitude adjustments” which didn’t work worth a darn.

    So I’ll stick with cookies and brownies and other recipes that don’t need much rising, and thank goodness for boxed mixes when I need to make a cake. (I have a scratch brownie recipe that takes approximately 5 minutes longer than a boxed mix and is infinitely better.)

  9. Twistie May 9, 2009 at 7:11 pm #

    @ class factotum: sometimes genetics are extremely unfair.

    @ La Petite Acadiene: Foolproof biscuit recipe???? WANT!!!! Just remember that my otherwise golden baking hands turn all thumbs when biscuits are on the line. OTOH, I’m always eager to see if I can turn that around…and who knows? If it still doesn’t work for me, I may take up hockey some day.

  10. Twistie May 9, 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    Oh, and @ Tropical Chrome: If you’re ever interested in making cakes from scratch without moving to sea level, here’s a site you might find interesting/useful: http://www.highaltitudebaking.com/bakersforum.htm

  11. Twistie May 10, 2009 at 4:07 am #

    Oh, and @ Tropical Chrome: If you’re ever interested in making cakes from scratch without moving to sea level, here’s a site you might find interesting/useful: http://www.highaltitudebaking.com/bakersforum.htm
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  12. La Petite Acadiene May 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm #

    Twistie, I tried emailing you the biscuit recipe, but it kicked back, so I’m going to post it here:

    CLOUD BISCUITS

    2 cups flour (I just use regular flour. If you want whole-wheat, mix half white and half whole-wheat so that they’re not too dense.)
    4 tsp. baking powder
    1 Tbsp. sugar
    1/2 tsp salt
    2/3 cup of milk (I use 1%, but it really doesn’t matter what kind you use)
    1 large egg, beaten
    1/2 cup shortening (I just use plain old Crisco)

    All measurements are level, not heaping.
    ____________________________________________

    Sift flour, baking powder, sugar and salt into a big bowl.

    Cut in shortening (get one of those pastry cutter gizmos that looks like a torture device — they’re worth it), until your mixture looks like coarse crumbs.

    Combine your milk with your egg and mix it well, then dump the whole thing into your flour mixture.

    Flour your board now before your hands get messy.

    Mix it all together — some people use a spoon but I prefer to mix it with my hands. Pat it all together into a ball-ish shape, plop it out onto your board, and roll gently with a rolling pin until it’s about 3/4 inch to an 1 inch thickness. I tend to err on the side of them being really thick, ’cause I like a really big honkin’ biscuit.

    Cut them with a round cutter — don’t twist your cutter: just down, a little wiggle, up, and pop it out. When you’ve cut as many as you can, you can just wodge all the rest of the dough together, make it into another ball, re-roll, and keep on going. Put them on an ungreased baking sheet, and bake them at 450 degrees for about 10-15 minutes on the middle rack. When they start to look golden on top, you can take them out.

    Enjoy! (Let me know how they turn out for you, okay?)

  13. La Petite Acadiene May 10, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    I just realized that I was probably over-explanatory with the recipe — I forgot that you already bake. Oh well, the extra details would be good for someone who’s new at this, I suppose. :)

  14. Twistie May 10, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    Thanks for the recipe, La Petite Acadiene! I’ll be trying it soon.

    And don’t worry about the extra details. After all, the recipe is going to go to both experienced bakers and newcomers being posted here. It’s important that the newcomers get the information.

  15. ChloeMireille May 11, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    I barely cook as it is, but I used to love it. Truthfully, I miss doing it.

    The problem lies in the fact that I like cooking for myself more than for other people. At least if I mess it up, I’m the only one who has to eat it. Unfortunately, I don’t live alone, so anything I cook instantly becomes community property.

  16. Kimks May 11, 2009 at 6:54 pm #

    Twistie- this is an awesome post- I do most of the cooking and baking in our house- from scratch- the Ine exception is bread- not because I cannot do it, but we have a local organic bakery that is amazing and between sandwiches and family breakfast, it is way easier to pay the pro for the three or four loafs we go through in a week- and I get fresh bread. I make all of the cookies, cakes, pies and tarts from scratch- its my stress relief.

    You would not believe the crazy looks I get when people compliment me on my baking and want to know what mix I use. They always give me the yeah-right look. It doesn’t take longer than a mix, and the results are better. I also strive to eat locally and organically whenever possible and doing my own baking and cooking helps to insure that at least what I am making is good for the family. I have also gotten to know a lot of the local farmers and vendors and have been able to really appreciate good, fresh food.

  17. raincoaster May 12, 2009 at 5:40 am #

    I have a foolproof scone recipe: does that count? I swear, you can add anything to this, including ground up pony hooves, and they would still come out fluffy, delicious, and gorgeous.

    About ten years ago I read an interesting statistic: that the average hours of housework a week had increased in the last fifty years by one for women and four for men. My solution to this housework inflation is simple: lower my standards.

    Quentin Crisp was right, after year four the dust never gets any worse.

  18. Twistie May 12, 2009 at 10:53 am #

    raincoaster, I’m always up for another good scone recipe. They do my bidding, and I adore them…particularly on those days when I decide to spend the day curled up on the sofa watching the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. Scones and good Jane Austen adaptations go together so very well.

    And yes, Quentin Crisp was absolutely right. What’s more, I’ve got the dust bunnies to prove it. There’s Fred, and George, and Larry, and….

    Kimks, I know what you mean. I’ve had people ask what mix I use, too. I pull out whichever cookbook I got the recipe from and watch jaws drop. People don’t believe me when I say it doesn’t take significantly longer. Now I’ll be able to quote that study and shock them further. I must admit, I enjoy surprising people probably more than I ought, if I want to be a truly Nice Person.

    Then again, sometimes nice is over rated.

  19. La BellaDonna May 13, 2009 at 6:15 pm #

    @ class factotum: Oh, don’t kid yourself! There were overweight ladies then, as there are now. Granted, there were very probably fewer of them – but for many/most periods, the definition of what was overweight was also very different from what it is today. I cherish one diet ad wherein the user regained her former slender shape, returning to her original 180 pounds …

  20. Felicity May 17, 2009 at 2:40 am #

    Over here from kateharding.net.
    I dunno, I’ve tried making a cake from scratch, and it.. tasted okay, but was kind of lopsided. It wasn’t particularly better than a cake mix cake in my opinion.
    I lived at sea level too actually.
    But maybe it’s time I tried it again.