Michael Y. Park
Before you turn up your nose when your mom offers to bring a box of cake mix to your house the next time she visits, consider the story of how the much-maligned timesaver came to be in the first place.
Though the standard line is that the cake mix was born after World War II and was developed by corporate mills that had too much flour on their hands, it's really older-it was brought into being at least as early as the 1930s, thanks to a surplus not of flour but of molasses.
We have a Pittsburgh company called P. Duff and Sons to thank. On Dec. 10, 1930, the company's John D. Duff applied for a patent for an "invention [that] relates to a dehydrated flour for use in making pastry products and to a process of making the same." In the application, Duff's mix for gingerbread involved creating a powder of wheat flour, molasses, sugar, shortening, salt, baking soda, powdered whole egg, ginger, and cinnamon that the home cook could rehydrate with water, then bake.
"What it was really about was about using up molasses," says culinary historian Laura Shapiro, author of Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America and queen of cake-mix historians. "People were eating differently, and food and how they made it had changed drastically. So Duff figured out how to dry it and add it to a flour mix."
And the Duff recipe certainly wasn't stingy with the molasses-each batch calls for 100 pounds of wheat flour and 100 pounds of molasses.
See more: Reduced Guilt Fried Chicken
"Then they figured out they had a good thing on their hands," Shapiro says.
Indeed, the company seems to have believed it had stumbled on the future of baking, and eventually brought the method it patented to bear on cakes, giving us what appear to be the first cake mixes.
"In the ordinary preparation of pastry products, there are a large and varied number of ingredients which must be used which means keeping a complete stock of materials on hand," Duff explained in what would become U.S. patent no. 1,931,892. "This is not only expensive and inconvenient, but necessitates careful measurements and mixing and, therefore, the provision of suitable apparatus therefor. In addition to the above, unsatisfactory results or failure occur too frequently which represent a serious loss of time, of money, of materials and of energy."
In other words, sometimes the hungry families of the early 1930s just wanted a damn cake on the table.
According to a surviving pamphlet believed to date to 1933 or 1934, Duff's mixes came in several varieties, some of them not quite cake, like nut bread, bran muffin, and fruit cake. But two flavors would be instantly recognizable to any Duncan Hines devotee-devil's food and spice cake. The mixes sold for 21 cents per 14-ounce can.
The first Duff baking-mix patent was granted on Oct. 24, 1933, but the Duff company had already been tweaking the formula. On June 13, 1933, the company had informed the U.S. Patent Office that it had made a major breakthrough, arguably the biggest, in cake-mix history-a cake mix that required the home baker to add fresh eggs.
"The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered eggs is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint," Duff wrote in the application.
The date of the patent application (it was granted on Oct. 8, 1935, patent no. 2,016,320) is notable because it definitively debunks the most well-known myth about the development of the cake mix-that it took psychologist Ernest Dichter, the man who coined the term "focus group," to turn around the tepid sales of cakes mixes with his revelation that American women wanted to feel more involved in the cake-baking process, and that cake mixes that required them to add eggs would sell better. Dichter did work with General Mills' Betty Crocker brand, but that wasn't till the 1950s. It's a tale even Michael Pollan falls for.
What the urban legend does get right is the fact that cake mixes didn't really take off until after World War II, when the big flour companies, which had spent the war years "revving up" for the postwar market, as Shapiro puts it, got into the cake-mix game once the G.I.s were home. Taking a page from the Duff playbook, the big flour mills figured the best way to move their products was by creating a new demand in a busy modern world. They weren't in the flour-selling business anymore; now they were selling convenience.
See more: Your New Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie
By the end of the 1940s, more than 200 companies were putting out cake mixes, with the lion's share going to Betty Crocker or Pillsbury. Interestingly, while General Mills and Duncan Hines went the add-eggs route, Pillsbury stubbornly stuck to the just-add-water method and only phased it out later.
"Just add water and two of your own fresh eggs," actress Adelaide Hawley Cumming cooed in character as the fictional Betty Crocker in an early '50s commercial. "Those eggs keep it moist and tender to the last crumb-not that you'll ever have any crumbs!"
A contemporary survey learned, however, that though people said they were more likely to buy mixes that required eggs, they were actually more likely to buy those that didn't. But eggy or eggless, cake mixes were charging forward into a wide open field of postwar prosperity.
And then they ground to a halt. In the 1950s, sales of cake mix flattened out, companies closed up shop, and executives at those that survived racked their brains to figure out where they were going wrong. Dichter made his appearance, and proclaimed that housewives needed to feel like a more integral part of the creative process.
He was right. But the innovation that saved the cake mix wasn't the egg-it was the icing on the cake.
And not just a layer of white frosting. Box covers, recipes, and home-making magazines showcased elaborate cake constructions that looked like miniature football fields, or European castles, or three-ring circuses. Women pored over pages-long instructions on how to bake their own wedding cakes using basic cake mixes and tubs of frosting.
"There was this faux creativity to make up for fact that you're not actually baking a cake," Shapiro says. "This decorating obsession sold the idea that, this way, you're making this cake yours."
And it didn't hurt that slathering a cake-mix cake with sugary, buttery frosting helped mask the off-putting chemical undertones that still haunted every box.
It worked. By the time the over-the-top cake-decorating fad was over, cake mixes had invaded the average American kitchen, and have been there ever since.
"One of the most dramatic things that ever happened to me was, as a reporter was in the '90s, finding out that in a survey women always say they bake from scratch-but they meant they used a mix," Shapiro says. "Cake mixes redefined what 'baking' meant."
So go ahead, brew some coffee, and bake up that angel's food cake Mom brought over. Cut up a slice for her and for yourself. And when you take that first bite, remember that a cake-mix cake isn't just another pastry-it's a piece of American history.
SEE MORE FROM BON APPETIT:
10 Snacks You Thought Were Healthy But Really Aren't
7 French Toast Mistakes You're Making
25 Ways to Use Sriracha