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Rock The Vote: Favorite Fake Culinary Icons

food-and-drink.jpgAs 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.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Julia

    aunt jemima, baby. she can pour some sugar/syrup on my pancakes anyday.

  2. Andrea

    How about the Quaker Oats Pilgrim-looking guy? He gets my vote, especially since he presumably practices a non-violent solution to conflict, along with providing a hearty breakfast. :)

  3. Gary Allen

    How about Rastus — the too cheerful guy on the Cream of Wheat boxes?

  4. Andy Smith

    Betty Crocker is probably the most successful of the non-existing culinary icons, but I personally like Uncle Ben — he went from a farmer to the Chairman of the Board in about 60 years. Now that’s truely reflective of the American spirit!

  5. Culinary Fool

    Interesting question. While Ronald McDonald may be the most recognizable icon – especially internationally – I would hate to believe the he is the epitome of American culture.

    The other three are all interesting and I love that they represent different slices of American life and history. I have to give Betty my vote, though, as she represents a broader view of the American culinary scene.

  6. Andrew Smith

    Andrea mentioned the Quaker Oat man– of course, the image had nothing directly to do with Quakers. Those who created Quaker Oats Company were not Quakers –they just thought Americans would be impressed with the image of Quaker man.

    From an historical standpoint, the Quaker Oats man was/is extremely important in culinary history for it was the first trademarked food product in America.

  7. Chris

    Andrew, thanks for this fun post. I hear you’ll be posting here all month.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the reference books a food writer who’s just getting started should have. Joy of Cooking and Bittman’s How to Cook Everything are great for recipe development. What about for background and history? I just bought
    American Food Writing: An Anthology: With Classic Recipes. I heard the Barrons guide as well as your books are helpful as well.

    Very interested to hear what you suggest, keeping budgets and shelf space in mind!

    Best wishes.

  8. Tom

    Since the hamburger is as American as apple pie, I’m afraid I have to go with Ronald McDonald. Why am I afraid? I loathe McDonald’s and everything it stands for. If we could keep the category strictly to products and eliminate services, I’d move to nominate the Quaker Oats guy but probably still vote for Betty Crocker.

  9. […] in Food and Drink , A-Featured , American History , Leisure on May 10, 2007 | Share This Last week we asked you to comment on the quintessential culinary icon that never lived. This week, Andrew […]

  10. […] Link – Thanks Kate Klenfner!   […]

  11. michael

    AUNT JEMIMA. I think everyone here knows that a good patriot always eats her flapjacks.

  12. PZR

    It’s all about the food. And that means Aunt Jemima wins. She makes pancakes and syrup, for goodness’ sake!

    Sure, Betty Crocker makes a lot of desserts but she’s always looked kind of pinched, like a person who skimps on the sugar and uses butter substitute.

    Aunt Jemima, definitely.

  13. Erik

    Aunt Jemima Forever!!! Bring me those lady shaped bottles!

  14. Darlene

    My mother never used prepackaged food items, but I longed for Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix. When I finally got the chance to buy it, I knew they weren’t as good as Mom’s. Although I also cook from scratch, I always keep a box of the Jemima mix in the cupboard. Her comforting face on the box is always welcome in my kitchen. It is also very easy to make just two pancakes at a time, as I live alone.

  15. Kristen

    Definitely the Little Debbie girl.

  16. john

    Gorton’s Fisherman – The nautical mascot for the Gorton’s seafood company based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Their company slogan reads: “Trust the Gorton’s Fisherman.” Since the 1990s, actor Denny Miller has portrayed the Gorton’s Fisherman in a series of print and TV advertisement. The Fisherman always wears a traditional yellow rain slicker complete with hat and galoshes. Gorton’s actually changed the Fisherman’s appearance on their product logo to resemble Denny Miller (as mentioned in his 2004 autobiography Didn’t You Used To Be What’s His Name?).

    The origins of the Gorton’s company trace back to Slade Gorton (born 1832) who worked for Annisquam Cotton mill. However, when his place of employment burned down on December 9, 1883, Gorton turned to fishing for salt Cod and Mackerel as a past time. However, at one point, his second wife, Margaret Ann announced. “You have been without work long enough. Now we are in the fish business.”

  17. Avital

    Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are racist icons, coming from stereotypes that were used to justify slavery. It doesn’t matter if you give Uncle Ben a promotion, he’s still “Uncle” Ben, from when that was the most respectful title given to black people (of course they were never deserving of a Mr. or Mrs.!) This is not something that we should be celebrating. It is however, part of the American legacy of bigotry and hatred- let’s not forget that.

    I’ll be voting for Betty Crocker, who is just as whitebread as her cakes.

  18. Ph00ey

    The Quaker Oats Man
    “In 1891, seven oatmeal millers combined to create the American Cereal Company. One of those seven was Quaker Mill of Ravenna, Ohio, which had trademarked the image of the Quaker man some 14 years earlier. In 1901 the American Cereal Company officially changed its name to Quaker Oats and retained the Quaker man as its logo.

    The American Cereal Company originated the idea of marketing a cereal brand directly to the consumer, packaging its Quaker Oats in a box with a guarantee of purity and cleanliness. The “Quaker Man” became the first cereal mascot in a national campaign.

    Quaker Oats Company is now the largest oat milling firm in the world, based in Chicago; now a multinational conglomerate in a wide array of food products. ”


  19. Frank S. Besner

    Man… what about Chef Boyardee?
    I probably wouldn’t have survived to adulthood hadn’t it been for the Chef. Remember those single serving plastic tubs that you were supposed to nuke? Those were great! especially the mini-ravioli. My vote goes to the Chef.

    Notable mention: The Kool Aid Jug

  20. toby

    Apple pie is the answer to the first question.

    The Ty-D-Bol Man – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPPBnciNAqI

  21. T Bone

    Chef Boyardee was a real person.
    He changed his name from Boiardi.
    He also pioneered uniformity in the canning process.

  22. Andy Smith

    Frank Besner mentioned Chef Boyardee, also one of my childhood favorites. However, unlike Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, and the Quaker Oats Man, Chef Boyardee was a real person. The Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi (1897-1985) was a chef in New York’s Plaza Hotel before he moved to Cleveland, where he first canned his spaghetti (as far as I know he was the first to can spaghetti, but if anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know…).

    Frank also mentioned the Kool-Aid jug face– and I like that too. For better and worse, it was converted into the smiley face that appears everywhere today, so unlike the other culinary icons, it graduated from a commercial symbol into a broader cultural icon.

  23. Storm

    Ahhh Aunt Jemima… just look at her. So happy in her work. So loving and full of life. She is the one who’s cooking I’d most like to try.

  24. Laura

    How ’bout LEAST favorite FAKE food icon?
    I vote for Rachael Ray, nobody’s more fake and talentless than the queen of over exposed.

  25. Andy Smith

    Laura and many culinary professionals don’t like Rachael Ray.

    I’ve always wondered why. She makes no pretense to culinary knowledge and she doesn’t think she’s the greatest gift to the culinary world (unlike a number of other television personalities). She is perky and a good entertainer. Moreover, she has a good business sense and she’s made millions. I’d tip my chef’s hat to her, if I had one.

  26. Brian Clayton

    Out of these four, Aunt Jemima gets my vote.
    Buuuut, Little Debbie is the queen! Even if she was based on a real person…

  27. […] Who do you think is the quintessential culinary icon that never lived? [reference] […]

  28. Ash Huzenlaub

    Here is additional background on Uncle Ben’s:


  29. Jen Montgomery

    There is a great little coffee table book called Meet Mr. Product with an array of product mascots–some well known, others less so. Many of them are food mascots.


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