As American as______? What would you fill the blank in with? Ronald McDonald, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker or someone we didn’t mention? Who do you think is the quintessential culinary icon that never lived? Below Andrew Smith, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink gives us some history behind these American icons. Please let us know in the comments who your favorite is! Be sure to check back on Thursdays throughout May for more great posts by Andrew Smith who teaches culinary history and professional food writing at The New School University, serves as Chair of the Culinary Trust and as a consultant to several food television productions.
A. Ronald McDonald
In 1963 a Washington, DC McDonald’s franchise invented the Ronald McDonald icon. Ronald McDonald appeared on national advertisements beginning in 1965 and the following year, Ronald McDonald became McDonald’s official spokesman. He also became the centerpiece of numerous other advertising activities: his image appeared on television commercials and a vast array of products. McDonald’s Playlands, children’s recreational spaces designed as part of the restaurant, featured Ronald McDonald and a cast of other fictional characters. As McDonald’s expanded to other countries, so did Ronald McDonald. By the early 2000s Ronald McDonald was among the most popular children’s characters in the world. Ninety-six percent of American children recognize Ronald McDonald, about the same percentage of children who recognize Santa Claus.
B. Uncle Ben
In 1937 a Texan rice broker named Gordon L. Harwell began selling “Uncle Ben’s Plantation Rice.” The image of a smiling, elderly African-American with a bow tie was employed by Converted Rice, Inc. to promote its products. During the World War II, Forest E. Mars, the son of candy manufacturer Frank Mars, bought a controlling share of Converted Rice, Inc. In 1946, the company changed its name to “Uncle Ben’s Rice, Inc.,” and began marketing the brand with Uncle Ben’s smiling face throughout the world. In 2007, Uncle Ben, still a smiling African-American, was upgraded to the image of Chairman of the Board
C. Aunt Jemima
In 1888 a self rising pancake flour was created by a pair of speculators in St. Joseph, Missouri. In the fall of 1889 one of the speculators was inspired to rename the mix after attending a minstrel show, during which a popular song titled “Old Aunt Jemima” was performed by men in blackface, one of whom was depicting a slave mammy of the plantation South. The song, which was written by the African American singer, dancer, and acrobat Billy Kersands in 1875, was a staple of the minstrel circuit and was based on a song sung by field slaves. The product was transformed into a national one by creating a persona for Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green, a former Kentucky slave and cook in a Chicago kitchen, portrayed Aunt Jemima at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Her highly publicized appearance spurred thousands of orders for the product from distributors. The company also commissioned a pamphlet detailing the “life” of Aunt Jemima. She was depicted as the actual house slave of one Colonel Higbee of Louisiana, whose plantation was known across the South for its fine dining—especially its pancake breakfasts. The recipe for the pancakes was a secret known only to the slave woman. Sometime after the war, the pamphlet said, Aunt Jemima was remembered by a Confederate general who had once found himself stranded at her cabin. The general recalled her pancakes and put Aunt Jemima in contact with a “large northern milling company,” which paid her (in gold) to come north and supervise the construction of a factory to mass-produce her mix. This surprisingly durable fable formed the background for decades of future Aunt Jemima advertising.
D. Betty Crocker
In 1921, the Washburn-Crosby Company, makers of Gold Medal flour, ran a promotional contest, which generated hundreds of baking questions. Previously, a small staff had answered consumer correspondence over their own signatures, but the onslaught of queries called for the creation of a fictional spokeswoman to sign the letters. Company directors chose the names Betty (“one of the most familiar and most companionable of all family nicknames”), and Crocker (surname of recently retired director William G. Crocker). Betty’s “signature” was developed from samples submitted by female employees. A number of actresses took the role when the Betty Crocker Magazine of the Air was broadcast nationally in the 1950s. The first Betty Crocker cake mix was introduced in 1947. The comprehensive Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, one of the most successful and beloved American cookbooks, was published in 1950, and sold more than 1 million copies. In 1945 Betty Crocker was identified by Fortune magazine as the second most popular woman in America (after Eleanor Roosevelt). She was named one of the top ten advertising icons of the twentieth century by Advertising Age.