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Face value — Fictional Betty Crocker gives big business a human touch

GOLDEN VALLEY, MINN. — At 87, Betty Crocker is about the only person who looks younger as she gets older.

At the General Mills headquarters, eight Betty Crocker portraits hang on a wall in the kitchen complex that bears her name. If you compare her matronly 1936 features with her 1996 "soccer mom" look, you start wondering if cake mixes work better than Botox.

Actually, Betty Crocker is a fictional character dreamed up in 1921 by the Washburn Crosby Co. (forerunner to General Mills). She's no more real than General Mills' other icons, the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant. Even so, in 1945 she was voted Fortune magazine's second-most-famous woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt.

Advertising Age ranked Betty Crocker No. 4 in the top 10 most-recognized advertising icons of the 20th century. (The Green Giant was No. 3, Ronald McDonald No. 2, and the Marlboro Man was ranked at the top. The other baking-mix queen, Aunt Jemima, was ranked seventh, behind the Pillsbury Doughboy.) The industry magazine ranked the images that had the most powerful resonance

in the marketplace, based on effectiveness, longevity, recognizability and cultural impact.

Today, the Betty Crocker Kitchens are a conglomerate of 19 fully equipped workstations, where recipes for the Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Green Giant labels are created, mixed, cooked, baked and taste-tested. Before they were closed to the public in 1985, an estimated 1.5 million people had toured them.

When members of the Association of Food Journalists toured them in late August, the staff had just finished testing entries for the Pillsbury Bake-Off. But typical of the mystique surrounding the Bake-Off, there were no revelations or even broad hints about what recipes had made the finals.

Instead, journalists tasted some of the company's current products. There were Flaky Cinnamon Twists, Green Giant Healthy Weight Vegetables (a blend of edamame, carrots, snap peas and black beans in a buttery sauce); and a carbonated yogurt called Fizzix (think of Go-Gurt mixed with Pop Rocks).

All this is a long way from Betty Crocker's humble beginning in 1921 at the Washburn Crosby flour mill in Minneapolis. According to General Mill's history, it began with a Gold Medal flour promotion that offered consumers a pin cushion if they correctly completed a jigsaw puzzle.

The company received thousands of responses, and a flood of baking questions. "Betty Crocker" was created as a signature to personalize the responses: "Betty," because it sounded friendly, and "Crocker" to honor a recently retired company director, William G. Crocker. Female employees submitted sample "Betty Crocker" signatures; the one judged most distinctive is the basis for the one still used today.

Also in 1921, the company began sponsoring cooking schools across the country and hired a home economist to test its flour. Within two years, consumer demand for baking information and Betty Crocker's popularity spurred the company to expand its home economist staff to 21. This was the beginning of the Betty Crocker Kitchens.

In 1924, the voice of Betty Crocker was heard on the radio (actually it was various actresses). "The Betty Crocker School of the Air," became one of the longest-running programs in radio history.

"Homemakers at that time were very isolated, because a lot of time was spent in their homes doing housework," said Suzy Goodsell, General Mills archivist. "With the advent of radio, here was a link to the outside world, a voice sharing advice, who would affirm and elevate what they were doing as important.

"You could hear a recipe from New York or Kansas, or anywhere around the country, so it really united people. She got a lot of letters, and we had a staff that responded to every single letter that came through the door."

Goodsell said some of those old letters illustrate how important she was to listeners. "There are letters like, 'I had to sell my radio because of the Depression, but could you send me the recipes you've been broadcasting?"'

In 1936, the company had artist Neysa McMein blend together some features of the company's home economists into an official portrait. This image reinforced the popular belief that Betty Crocker was a real woman, as did cameo TV "appearances," where an actress might pop in to bake a cake for George Burns.

During World War II, the Betty Crocker wartime booklet "Your Share," helped people make the most of their wartime rations. There were recipes for making cakes without eggs and stretching ground meat with Wheaties. More than 7 million copies were distributed.

In the 1950s, General Mills launched its Betty Crocker Cookbook. Millions of copies of "Big Red" (as it came to be known) have been sold over the years.

Since the original 1936 portrait, Betty Crocker has had seven makeovers. In all eight official portraits, she wears red with white at her neck. However, the General Mills archives have a portrait of her in green that was never used for the public, said Goodsell.