When Harry Met Betty

Traipsing around Hollywood, cameras in tow, “Husted/Crocker enjoyed cocktail parties, sightseeing trips, luncheons, yachting excursions, and movie debuts,” wrote Susan Marks in Finding Betty Crocker, her history of the brand. “Soon she had free access to closed movie sets and permission to interview anyone she cared to.” Husted brought star power to Betty Crocker’s popular weekly radio show, revealing on air the secrets of Robert Taylor’s lemon meringue pie, Clark Gable’s cake frosting, and Joan Crawford’s potatoes on the half shell.

Inevitably, she found her way to the Brown Derby restaurant, where it’s likely she encountered Harry Baker’s cake. (A decade later, Husted collaborated with Cobb on a cookbook of Brown Derby favorites.)

This coincidental collision between Baker and Crocker on the eve of the Second World War is what propels Harry Baker’s personal history into the realm of cultural studies. Or, if you prefer, Fellini: The gay baker, exiled from his staid Midwestern family, enters the gossamer world of Hollywood fantasy. There, he meets up with the fictional persona of a culinary corporation. Like a relay runner, he hands off his life’s achievement, his signature cake recipe, to Betty; she in turn sells it back to America as the hallmark of the very domestic life that Baker had spurned.

This cycle is completed with a story from Sarah Baker, about the time when her father, Harry Baker Jr., who grew up to be a minister, was posted to a church in Gibsonburg, Ohio. “The women’s group at the church made up a cookbook,” she recalled, “and one of them contributed a recipe for chiffon cake. My mother said when she saw that, she felt like she had to keep her mouth shut. She just didn’t want to open up the subject.”

Betty Crocker’s image had as much to do with femininity as cooking. In her first radio broadcast in 1924, according to Finding Betty Crocker, Betty asked listeners, “If you load a man’s stomach with soggy boiled cabbage, greasy fried potatoes, can you wonder that he wants to start a fight or go out and commit a crime? We should be grateful that he does nothing worse than display a lot of temper.”

By the end of World War II, when Fortune Magazine named her the second-most-popular woman in America, surpassed only by Eleanor Roosevelt, Crocker’s image had become “supercharged with ideas about how a woman ought to be and behave,” Marks said. “She was about being the anchor of the family: A savvy consumer, a good wife and mother. The connection between love and food was a rich undercurrent.”

That connection was just a small aspect of a complicated set of cultural expectations that took hold during the 1950s. “During the war, women had worked and were educated and had aspirations,” said Elaine Tyler May, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota and the author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. “But after the war, doors closed, and the one big door that opened was the home. Women said, ‘I may not be able to be a doctor or an artist, but I’ll be a career homemaker.’ Take care of the children, be a good partner, and be sexy and glamorous.”

General Mills, through Betty Crocker, played no small part in creating this mystique. My 1956 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book includes, in addition to recipes and instructions for table settings, an illustrated list of “special helps” that hint at the frustrations of the career housewife: “Notice humorous and interesting incidents to relate at dinnertime when the family is together,” reads one. Another advises readers to “harbor pleasant thoughts while working. It will make every task lighter and pleasanter.” Still another suggests that they lie down on the kitchen floor to avoid fatigue: “Let your arms, hands, and head fall limp.”

The 1950s also saw an unprecedented wave of anti-gay sentiment. As Senator Joseph McCarthy executed his notorious crusade against communists, his colleagues, including Senators Styles Bridges and Kenneth Wherry, were taking steps to bar gays and lesbians from public service in the less-remembered “Lavender Scare.” The rationale for the politics was that homosexuals in government service would be susceptible to blackmail. Some went so far as to accuse communists of spreading homosexuality in order to undermine American values. As with today’s debates over gay marriage, vote-hungry senators divided and conquered the electorate by appeals to prejudice. Thousands of civil servants lost their jobs after laws (which stood on the books until the mid-1970s) were passed to eject gays and lesbians from the government.

These two gender codes of the 1950s—the homemaker and the homosexual, the domestic and the deviant—defined America’s protectorate and our enemy. More delicious than the flavor of chiffon cake, then, is its historical irony. “This cake was developed in the closet by a gay man—the farthest from the Betty Crocker mystique that you could imagine,” May said, “and then it was adopted as a postwar modern recipe for the new homemaker.”

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