Was there ever a time when Betty Crocker wasn't an American cultural touchstone? In the same class of advertising icons as Aunt Jemima and the Pillsbury Doughboy, Betty Crocker epitomizes the desire of cooks to please their families with fresh-baked goodies. Susan Marks spent six years researching this cultural phenomenon, writing a master's thesis, a documentary and Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food.

Betty's mission was to address the homemaking and baking concerns of legions of Gold Medal Flour customers who wrote in by the thousands. Marks includes some of these letters in the book, as well as recipes and a selection of advertisements featuring Betty Crocker. Over the decades, Betty's status as the First Lady of American Food grew as she saw America through the Depression, World War II and the 1950s with her penny-pinching recipes and radio programs, adapting to the needs of the dedicated homemaker. By the time the 1960s and '70s rolled around, Betty was synonymous with cooking.

Just as Betty's audience changed through the years, so did her appearance, as illustrated by a gallery of her ever-changing visage. From her first portrait in the 1930s (said to have been a composite of the women on the Gold Medal kitchen staff), Betty Crocker's image has kept up with what her audience deems both authoritative and comforting. That almost no one makes cakes and pancakes from scratch anymore is a testament to the simplicity she preached. But Betty Crocker's legacy extends beyond "just add water" mixes. We needed Betty to pour into our minds the idea that cooking wasn't onerous, even for busy parents and working stiffs. Betty and her big red spoon logo meant that the recipes perfected in her test kitchens were guaranteed successes, and by extension, so were the women who made them at home. Kelly Koepke is the restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal.

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