“If you use your cook book often I can promise you real fun and lots of good things to eat,” Betty Crocker told her young readers. And she was as good as her word. The last chapter, “Rules,” which ought to have been first because it introduced the basics of kitchen safety, measuring, equipment, and vocabulary came after the recipes. The book led off instead with “Extra Special,” cakes, cookies, candies, and beverages “good things to make for parties—for holidays—for your friends—and just for fun.” Betty may have been a corporate construct, but she was no fool.. She shrewdly figured more children would be lured into the kitchen to stir up a batch of brownies than a pan of mac and cheese. Her beginners and their sweet-teeth learned right off the bat how to grease and flour pans, use a spatula to scrape the last of the batter out of the mixing bowl, and test a cake for doneness with straightforward recipes for chocolate sheet cake, cocoa fudge cake, and yellow layer cake. Recipes and directions for frosting a cake followed, strategically placed to build confidence before introducing the delectable subsection of party cakes.
.The soldier with the marching side drum in Archibald Willard’s “The Spirit of ‘76” (1876) could have been the inspiration for this drum cake, which would bring the family Fourth of July picnic to a cracking conclusion. It didn’t have to be made from scratch: Betty Crocker’ mixes would save energy for the all-important job of decoration. To imitate the zig-zag rope tensioning around the drum’s chocolate devil’s food shell, a pattern of peppermint sticks and maraschino cherries had to be pressed into the thick glossy coat of pure white fluffy icing.
Could eight- to twelve-year-olds, General Mills’ target audience, actually make this cake? Yes, because a group of home testers, eight girls and four boys identified on page 6, cooked every dish. Tester Bette Anne explained that “We had to say if things were easy or hard and did they taste good.” Veto power was in their hands. “ If we didn’t like it,” said tester Chris, “Betty Crocker didn’t put it in this book.” The children’s comments were run above the lower margins and they designate the dishes they would make again, offered helpful hints, identified skills they wanted to polish, and even conceded the vegetable recipes were tasty. The home testers were real kids who lived in Cranbury, New Jersey, but they would have been at home on Klickitat Street. They made the book for many of the baby boomers who have hung on to their treasured dogeared, sticky copies.The editorial team that compiled Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls in the decade after World War II saw the kitchen as a space where budget-conscious meals were made with what was on hand. Dinnertime came once a day, not once a year like taxes. As family members, kids were expected to help out with meal preparation, but they were also invited to be creative in the kitchen. If a child wanted to surprise the family with a heart cake for Mother’s or Valentine’s Day, a special shaped pan wasn’t necessary, with an 8-inch round and 8-inch square pan around. Mother didn’t have to hover because the young baker could be trusted to have enough good sense to get the pans in and out of the hot oven and cut up the cooled cakes with a long sharp knife without accident. It’s easy to point fingers at the outdated gender roles in the illustrations, like the exclusion of girls from the campfire cooking chapter or the insensitive representation of Indigenous and people of color in this cook book. Fifty-odd years out, I could not help but be struck at how refreshing it was refreshing to see no signs of the extravagant consumption signaling wealth and privilege— a batterie de cuisine, a cabinet of appliances, a gastronomic library of print and on-line resources, access to ingredients from around the world, etc.—that so much of today’s far more sophisticated home cooking depends upon upon. Cakes made with butter taste better than ones made with hydrogenated shortening or from a mix, but Betty Crocker’s drum cake from 1957 is still within the means of more people than the birthday cake dreamed up for a children’s birthday party in The Best of Gourmet (2005).I read and reread my well-thumbed copy of Betty Crocker until I had perfect recall of all the color plates of the iconic party cakes. I never made one of them. If the results were likely to fall short of the pictures (anxiety induced by the food styling?), I was too leery to try. I knew my health-conscious mother would nix my favorite, the drum cake, because it required hard candy and maraschino cherries, which were full of sugar and red dye number 2. She probably would have pointed out that the cake wouldn’t taste as good as it looked and I would have been reluctant to admit she was probably right. Better to never bring up the subject than to concede the field later. A face-saving explanation is that the cake construction gene skipped a generation. My daughter or nieces down under would tackle a drum cake in a heart’s beat as child’s play. All I have to do is ask.