Though she celebrates her 100th birthday this year, Betty Crocker was never born. Nor does she ever really age.

Betty’s most recent official portrait – painted in 1996 to celebrate her 75th birthday – was inspired by a composite photograph, itself based on photographs of 75 real women reflecting the spirit of Betty Crocker and the changing demographics of America.

More importantly, this painting captures something that has always been true about Betty Crocker: She represents a cultural ideal rather than an actual woman.

In my academic research on cookbooks, I focus primarily on the way cookbook authors, mostly women, have used the cookbook as a space to explore politics and aesthetics while fostering a sense of community among readers.

From the very beginning, Betty Crocker emerged in response to the needs of the masses. In 1921, readers of the Saturday Evening Post were invited by the Washburn Crosby Co. – the parent company of Gold Medal Flour – to complete a jigsaw puzzle and mail it in for a prize.

In addition to contest entries, customers were sending in questions, asking for cooking advice. Betty’s name was invented as a customer service tool so that the return letters the company’s mostly male advertising department sent ... It also seemed more likely that their mostly female customers would trust a woman.

“Betty” was chosen because it seemed friendly and familiar, while “Crocker” honored a former executive with that last name. Betty eventually became a cultural juggernaut – a media personality, with a radio show and a vast library of publications to her name.

By their very nature, recipes are forward-looking; they anticipate a future in which you’ve cooked something delicious. But, as they appear in many cookbooks, recipes also reflect a fondly remembered past. Notes in the margin of a recipe card or splatters on a cookbook page may remind us of the times a beloved recipe was cooked and eaten. A recipe may have the name of a family member attached, or even be in their handwriting.

When cookbooks include personal anecdotes, they invite a feeling of connection by mimicking the personal history that is collected in a recipe box.

Irma Rombauer may have perfected this style in her 1931 book “The Joy of Cooking,” but she didn’t invent it. American publishers started printing cookbooks in the middle of the 18th century, and even the genre’s earliest authors had a sense of the power of character, just as many food bloggers do today.

But because Betty Crocker’s cookbooks were written by committee, with recipes tested by staffers and home cooks, that personal history isn’t quite so personal.

... while books like “Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book” open with a friendly note signed by the fictional homemaker herself, the recipe headnotes carefully avoid the pretense that she is a real person, giving credit instead to the women who submitted the recipes, suggesting variations or providing historical context.

... Betty Crocker books instead promote taste as a shared cultural experience common to all American families, and cooking as a skill to which all women should aspire.

The “Story of Two Brides” that appears in Betty Crocker’s 1933 pamphlet “New Party Cakes for all Occasions” contrasts the good “little bride” who “has been taking radio cooking lessons from Betty Crocker” with the hapless “other bride” whose cooking and shopping habits are equally careless. The message here isn’t particularly subtle: The trick to becoming “the most wonderful little wife ever” is baking well, and buying the right flour.

... the retrograde attitude of that 1933 pamphlet probably wouldn’t sell very many cookbooks today, let alone baking mixes, kitchen appliances or any of the other products that now bear the Betty Crocker brand, which General Mills now owns.

Published this year, for her 100th anniversary, the “Betty Crocker Best 100” reprints all of Betty’s portraits and tells the story of her invention. Rather than using the logo that appears on contemporary products, the front cover returns to the quirkier script of the early Betty, and the “personal” note at the opening of the book reminds readers that “it’s always been about recognizing that the kitchen is at the heart of the home.”

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