When Harry Met Betty

One of life’s great truths—one that we desperately seek to avoid with proverbs and catechisms and even magazine articles—is that beneath its surface lies complexity. Our beloved fictions of heroes and villains crumble with scrutiny, leaving only convolution, shifting meanings, and unstable realities. The same is true of things. Even the simplest object has its hidden history of longing, love, and despair. Take, for example, cake. Chiffon cake.

Ask someone who lived through the 1950s to name the icons of that era, and chances are that—along with the ’57 Chevy, Lucy and Ricky, and the cul-de-sac rambler—chiffon cake will make their list. The recipe was introduced by General Mills in 1948 with a major marketing blitz that featured Betty Crocker, another 1950s icon. Betty, of course, is the fictional marketing persona invented in the 1920s by Marjorie Child Husted, a General Mills executive who sometimes posed as her creation. With Betty’s help, chiffon became a nationwide sensation. Billed as “the first really new cake in a hundred years,” thanks to its “mystery ingredient,” chiffon was light and fluffy like angel food cake, yet also rich and moist like butter cake, and it rapidly became a favorite of housewives from Syracuse to Oceanside.

Even today, the towering tube cake conjures a Kodachrome image of Mother, in lipstick and swing skirt, offering up love via food: the idealized feminine of mid-century America.
But just as the post-war feminine mystique had its dark, unspoken places, so, too, had the chiffon cake. The real mystery lurking beneath its lemony glaze is not a secret ingredient, but the secret life of its reclusive inventor: the appropriately named Harry Baker.

The shorthand version of his history, repeated in a thousand cookbooks, notes that the insurance-salesman-turned-baker invented the cake in Los Angeles in 1927. He baked his chiffon cakes in his apartment kitchen in the Windsor Square neighborhood and sold them to the glamorous Brown Derby restaurant, where they pleased the palates of Hollywood’s studio stars. In 1947, Baker sold his closely guarded recipe to General Mills for an undisclosed sum—“because,” as one General Mills publication quotes him, “I wanted Betty Crocker to give the secret to the women of America.”
The complete version of Harry Baker’s life is more complicated, and you won’t find it in any cookbook, or anywhere else for that matter. “Just to mention his name was forbidden,” said his granddaughter, Sarah Baker, who is an attorney in Portland, Oregon. “I remember, maybe about 1964, my grandmother had a tea party for one of her sisters,” she recalled. “I had gone down to the kitchen to help her. She had her back to me, getting dishes out of a china cabinet, when I asked her, ‘Whatever happened to Grandfather Baker?’
“She whirled around faster than I knew she could move, looked at me absolutely furiously, and said, ‘We don’t talk about him.’ ”

Although it was wildly popular in the 1950s, the chiffon cake had been figuratively gathering dust for decades by the time I discovered the recipe in the late 1990s. It was the tail end of the glorious dot-com boom years and I, a hopeless liberal-arts kid from way back, had landed a job, mainly out of curiosity, at a prestigious design firm in downtown Minneapolis. Visions of John Cheever and Darrin Stephens launched my wife and me into a sardonic but passionate craze for everything retro-1950s. Dressed for cocktails, she would greet me at the door after work, martinis in hand; during one such happy hour, while browsing in our 1956 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, I stumbled upon the recipe for chiffon.
The job, the dress, the quest for fifties kitsch: forgotten. But my Betty still falls open to the creased and batter-spattered pages with the step-by-step photo directions for chiffon cake because, symbolism aside, it makes a truly splendid dessert.
Before chiffon, there had been but two types of cake. Foam cakes, like angel food, contain no shortening and rely on eggs for leavening; while butter cakes rise with baking powder. Chiffon combines the two, relying on both eggs and baking powder, and, the clincher, adds Harry Baker’s secret ingredient: vegetable oil (or, as it was called in those days, “salad oil”—another General Mills product, as it happens). The recipe calls for seven eggs. Their yolks are mixed with flour, sugar, leavening, and the oil to make a batter, which is folded into their whipped-hard whites.

The result delivers on every one of Betty Crocker’s promises: Chiffon is simple, virtually foolproof. Light, moist, rich. And above all, “glamorous.” The lemon version (the only one I make) speckles starry citrus against a snowy sky of sweet, voluptuous crumb. Never dry, never cloying, never dull, it is, in short, the perfect cake. And the rave reviews earned by my first attempt brought me back to it time and again. Members of our extended family bring pies to Thanksgiving dinner. I make chiffon.

I had been an enthusiastic baker of the cake for some time when one day, drooling through back issues of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, I chanced upon an article on chiffon by food writer and Joy of Cooking contributor Stephen Schmidt. If you’ve read Cook’s Illustrated, you’ll already know that Schmidt tinkered exhaustively with the original Betty Crocker recipe to end up with something just a little better. (So he claims. I stick with the original.)

What caught my eye, however, was a sidebar article about Harry Baker. Schmidt repeated the standard biography: insurance salesman, 1927 discovery, service to the stars, etc. But he also uncovered some new details. For one thing, he noted that Baker, during his Hollywood heyday, shared his apartment “with his aging mother.” And the sale of the recipe to General Mills took on a new twist in Schmidt’s telling: “Having been evicted from his apartment, and fearing memory loss, the usually reclusive Baker trekked uninvited to Minneapolis to sell his recipe,” he wrote.

Every one of us is blessed with curiosity, and there are those among us who can keep it at bay. I’m not one of them. Taken together, these few scraps of information hinted at a story. One thing led to another, and eventually it turned out that I spent five years, on and off, chasing the elusive Hollywood inventor of my beloved chiffon cake.

In 1923, Paramount released Hollywood, a silent film that follows the misadventures of Angela Whitaker, a hapless girl from “Centerville” who can’t land a film part in the land of dreams come true. The film is laced with nearly eighty cameo appearances by virtually every star of the silent era: Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Pola Negri, Cecil B. DeMille, Will Rogers.

That same year, tycoons who owned the Hollywoodland Real Estate erected an enormous sign to advertise their corporation. Years later, Peg Entwistle, a real-life Angela Whitaker, would throw herself off the four-story “H.” Eventually, the Hollywood chamber of commerce toppled the last four letters of the sign and it’s been an icon of American dreams ever since.

1923 also saw the arrival of Harry Baker in Hollywood. He, too, came from Ohio. He was forty years old. Behind him he’d left his wife, Mary, and two children, Harry Jr. and Mary. His insurance business had gone sour. He was broke. Looking for a new source of cash, he turned to his lifelong hobby: fudge. A confectioner in the tony Wilshire neighborhood bought it from Baker for fifty cents a pound. It was enough to afford him a living.

Harry also began to tinker with cake recipes, and he would have put Cook’s Illustrated’s Stephen Schmidt to shame. He devised more than four hundred different recipes in his quest to bake a sweeter, moister angel food cake. He varied ingredients, measurements, and the baking time and temperature. Nothing satisfied. In later years, he described the eureka moment that led him to salad oil in almost mystical terms: It was, he told a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, a “sixth sense—something cosmic” that revealed his secret ingredient. And it worked.

During the time that Harry Baker was handing out experimental cakes to his neighbors, a handful of entrepreneurs pooled resources to launch a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. The Brown Derby opened for business in 1926, in a building shaped to match its name. Two years later—call it another cosmic twist—Harry Baker walked in with a sample of his unbelievable cake. It became one of the Derby’s signature dishes.

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