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.