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2000s Archive

In the Mix

Originally Published August 2002
What's inside that little box is not just a mix, says Laura Shapiro, but a cultural phenomenon that has changed the way American home cooks think about baking—and themselves.

One day in the mid-1950s, Poppy Cannon, a popular food writer and the author of The Can-Opener Cookbook, got on a plane to Paris with a suitcase full of cake mixes. They were a gift for her friend Alice B. Toklas, the legendary companion of Gertrude Stein and a renowned cook in the French style. Cake mixes? Toklas was appalled by the very idea, but Cannon believed in them, so Toklas agreed to try a few and report back. "About the mixes, I've had huge success with the yellow cake. It is perfect," she wrote to Cannon after the experiment. "The devil's food cake was equally successful…Delicious!"

And they probably were. Surely, winning the heart of Alice B. Toklas ranks as the high point in cake-mix history. The low point may well be represented by a linguistic development I first heard about several years ago. Working on a magazine story about American home cooking, I spoke with the publicist for a brand of shortening, who told me that whenever her company surveys homemakers about their baking habits, women say they make cakes from scratch. "Home baking lives!" I exclaimed. But I was wrong. What they most often mean by "scratch," it turns out, is that they use cake mixes. In other words, adding eggs and liquid to a bowl full of powder—an act once widely understood to be a shortcut—now constitutes going back to basics.

With this change in the very definition of home baking, cake mixes reach the triumphant conclusion to their long struggle for respectability. Whether the cakes themselves are any good is a question that may be debated—quite usefully—forever: Many expert home bakers say mixes can be nudged into distinction; others dismiss them with a grimace. But to tell the truth, there are cakes made the old-fashioned way that also fall somewhere short of delicious. What's important about mixes, I've come to believe, isn't the cakes they produce but the cooks they produce.

Cake mixes first went on the market in the 1930s, but they didn't attract much attention until right after World War II. Oddly enough, flour companies provided the spur. Flour sales for home use had been falling for years, as more and more families turned to store-bought bread and other commercial bakery items. Hoping to increase home baking by making it fast and foolproof, the flour industry began directing tremendous resources into cake-mix research. Women were intrigued enough to give it a try-cake-mix sales nearly tripled between 1947 and 1948—but the first generation of mix users converted to instant baking more reluctantly than stereotypes of '50s cooking suggest. In 1953, 75 to 80 percent of all cakes baked at home were still made from scratch.

Why did women hesitate even for a moment to adopt what the press used to call "magic in a package"? After all, many of them could have used a little help in this department, especially in the days before electric mixers, reliable ovens, and much-simplified recipes were widespread. Baking could be a fussy and unpredictable enterprise, and failures were hard to disguise. Yet a mix might not have struck many homemakers as the miraculous solution promised in the ads. In 1951, a study at Michigan State University (MSU) comparing cake-mix cakes with traditional ones noted that apart from measuring out the ingredients, similar work was required for both kinds of cake. A later MSU study pinpointed the time saved at exactly 13 minutes and 2 seconds. Other studies (these projects were hugely popular in college home-ec classes) tended to find that cakes baked the old-fashioned way were more "palatable" than the ones that came from a box.

But a more popular explanation for women's early uncertainty about cake mixes is the egg theory. This idea was developed by Ernest Dichter, whose research in consumer psychology was much in demand by food companies during the 1940s and '50s. Interviews with homemakers had convinced him that mixes typically made a housewife feel useless, simultaneously devaluing her role and threatening to put her out of a job. If manufacturers would leave dried eggs out of their cake-mix formulations, thus requiring women to add fresh eggs themselves, the homemaker would feel more personally involved in the making of the cake and be able to serve it proudly as her own work.

There's some truth to the egg theory, although eggs per se may not have played precisely the role Dichter assigned to them. Whatever their relation to women's role confusion, the food industry knew very well that dried eggs gave cakes an unpleasant "eggy" flavor. In the end, boxed mixes from both Pillsbury, which offered the convenience of dried eggs, and General Mills, which featured the better flavor and baker participation provided by fresh eggs, became market leaders.

But Dichter was on the right track—he just missed an important factor. It was not eggs that proved pivotal to the eventual success of cake mixes, but frosting. And shredded coconut. And extra oil, or vanilla, or baking powder. And miniature circuses complete with tiny hoops for tinier elephants. Women knew exactly what was missing when the cake they served came out of a box: the cook herself. That's why their instinct was to apologize. "You don't have to feel guilty" became the theme of countless ads, magazine articles, and cookbooks designed to legitimate baking with mixes by making personality part of the recipe. "See how elegant-and unusual-you can make a cake-mix cake!" "With the basic cake as merely step number one, the creative cook can go as far as her imagination will take her." "Now your own personal touch can create 'homemade' perfection in cake-mix cakes!"

With creativity the new imperative in baking, women built football fields on cake-mix chocolate cakes, using green sugar for turf, candy sticks for goalposts, and a piece of apple for a football. They put chocolate petals on gumdrops for flower cakes; they carved and stacked cake layers to look like hearts, Easter bonnets, Christmas trees, and clowns.

Sometimes creativity took a lot more time and attention than homemakers would have needed to bake a cake the traditional way, but creaming butter, adding sugar, and sifting flour were starting to look like awfully pedestrian activities. "No longer plagued by kitchen-maid chores that have been taken over by the food manufacturers, anyone can become an artist at the stove," wrote Poppy Cannon in a 1961 cookbook aimed at beginners. Basic skills began to seem redundant and, finally, intimidating.

These days, it doesn't take much time or talent to make a simple cake from fresh ingredients. But cake-mix cakes—tall and sweet and golden, perched on the kitchen counter like supermodels—have altered the whole equation. Sifting, measuring, and mixing aren't easy enough, half an hour in the kitchen is too long, and the honest flavors of butter and vanilla aren't exciting anymore. The work of our own hands has lost the symbolic power that made a slightly lopsided layer cake an acknowledged masterpiece in the art of hospitality, if not of patisserie. And though we've banished the guilt that used to go with shortcut baking, we've replaced it with something that may be far more insidious. As a friend's grandmother used to say, opening a box of cake mix, "Betty Crocker does a much better job than I do."