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Shortcuts soothe frustrated homemakers

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The Dallas Morning News


Betty Crocker of the 1950s was the precursor to today's home diva, Martha Stewart.

The year 1955 was a big one for Betty, advertising symbol to the postwar generation of cheerful homemakers who could "bake someone happy." That year, Betty got a significant makeover. Although perpetually age 32, Betty's 1955 face softened, her hair grayed at the temples and she looked like a sweet aunt instead of a dour hausfrau. Above all, she looked content.

This was important because Rosie the Riveter was having some adjustment problems. After working outside the home for real wages during the war, Rosie resented returning to the traditional women's place where the work was just as hard and never-ending. At least she could clock out at the factory.

But homemaking was the patriotic thing to do. Rosie had to make room for returning GIs who needed jobs. National sentiment declared it was her privilege, as well as her destiny, to bear and care for a passel of baby boomers while keeping house in a new bungalow built with a loan from the Veterans Administration.

This created a market for convenience foods and appliances, anything that would relieve some of the drudgery that Rosie had grown up watching her mother endure. Never underestimate the liberation of sliced bread. Available at the grocery store.

In the mid-'50s, women took to convenience foods such as cake mixes and TV dinners as enthusiastically as tranquilizers and alcohol to relieve the stress felt by a generation expected to be perfect mothers and wives. The "sudden loss of wartime independence bred disturbing new trends in depression and substance abuse," writes Susan Marks in her recently released history called "Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food."

At least in the old pre-war days, no one portrayed an American woman who ran the vacuum in high heels and pearls, prepared thrilling meals and had the kids' hair slicked down by the time Dad got back to his castle, stretched out and put his feet on the furniture while watching the new television.

Speaking of the small screen, Betty (played by various actresses) had parlayed her radio broadcasts into daytime television devoted to recipes using General Mills products, such as Gold Medal Flour. But she was as much about personal advice as snickerdoodles and homemaking tips: a kinder, gentler Dr. Phil gets real with a properly congealed salad.

She urged a tired and frustrated homemaker to "see a doctor, take time out for herself, accept your husband for who he was and concentrate on raising her children," according to Marks' chapter on Betty's postwar marketing phase.

With new products and new appliances came a new kind of cookbook. Published in 1950, "Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook" was an instant best-seller with sales close to that of the Bible. In 1955, "Big Red" - as it was known in the industry because of the bright red cover - was the soul of Gold Medal's diamond jubilee.

Among other innovations of the era:

-Campbell home economists developed the Green Bean Bake, still a shortcut to the ideal Thanksgiving.

-Tappan produced the first home microwave ovens priced at an inconvenient $1,300. Better Homes and Gardens magazine jump-started the trend by converting conventional recipes for the microwave.

-Ray Kroc's first McDonald's began serving what is today known as "fast food."

-Pillsbury brownie and frosting mix hit the market.

-General Mills revised its cake mix formula to require the addition of fresh eggs. Consumers resisted using cake mix that only required adding water. Too easy and they felt guilty.

Thirty years later, enter Martha Stewart, who has carried the Betty Crocker tradition into the 21st century by making cooking and housekeeping spectator sports through television. Whereas Betty gave how-to tips to match her motto, "You can do it. I can show you how;" Martha's fantasy homemaking is more vicarious gratification and retail instead of kitchen therapy.

Watching someone be perfect is easier than actually trying it at home.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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