Let Them Eat Cake

Edward Southerland’s “The Back Page” that appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Texoma Living!

While Marie Antoinette gets credit for the “Let them eat cake” line, it is doubtful that she ever said it. And if she did say it, it is doubtful that she was referring to what we call cake. (That “she didn’t, but if she did” construction is called pleading in the alternative for you fans of arcane legal practices.) But I digress. I always have considered cake a truly noble endeavor. As a kid I worked on the theory that if one slice of cake was a good way to finish off supper, then a couple more slices would serve as a perfectly good breakfast.

In the time before desserts came in a box, cakes were not as common as pies on home tables. Cakes were more complicated, took more time and were prone to failure. Cake mixes were introduced in the late 1920s, but the results were less that satisfactory. The cakes made from the mixes just were not very good, especially when compared to the homemade versions.

The nation’s two big millers, General Mills and Pillsbury, began working in earnest on a better mix cake in 1943, but it was six years before General Mills introduced its first Betty Crocker mix. It was not a success.

The mix had everything; all the homemaker did was add water. The cakes baked up high, moist and tasty, and when test panels were offered mix cakes and homemade cake, without knowing which was which, they could rarely tell the difference. So why weren’t mixes selling?

It took the researchers a while to figure it out, and when they did, the answer surprised them. It wasn’t the cake; it was the advertising.

At first, General Mills promoted the product as relief for the housewife from the drudgery of baking a cake in a hot kitchen—a cake that did not always turn out as it should. They showed pictures of happy homemakers on the golf course, playing tennis or taking in a movie now that they had more time for themselves. That was the wrong approach by 180 degrees.

It took careful questioning and some psychological insight to come up with the real problem. Most American homemakers of the era viewed their principal duty in life as taking good care of their families. The idea that they should substitute a store bought product, one that took almost no effort to prepare, for something they made themselves struck a wrong chord. And the idea of using the time saved for personal pleasure made things worse.

Once Madison Avenue understood this dynamic, they were quick to solve the problem. The powdered eggs came out of the mix, and the directions were revised to have the housewife add her own fresh eggs. That gave the finished product a more personal touch.

The new advertisements emphasized the fact that mix cakes were more consistently good than the hit or miss homemade products. No more foisting off an inferior cake on the family. They also changed the images in the ads. No more golf or tennis or movie matinees; now the pictures showed mom doing things for the family she never had time to do before— no more guilt over dereliction of familial duties. Game, set, match, and the cake mix became as American as—well, to mix metaphors, as apple pie.

Angel food cakes were popular in the 50s, especially when a mix came out. The directions called for the addition of 13 egg whites. Why 13? Who knows, but conspiratorialists could probably find evidence of collusion between the millers and the butter and egg men of America.

The idea for the cake feature in this issue started with memories of coconut cakes. It was one treat I don’t recall either my mother or grandmother, both excellent bakers, ever making. For that monumental test of the Southern cake baker’s skills, I looked across the street to Davy Jones’ house. Davy’s maternal grandmother lived in Pecos, but a couple of times a year she would come to Bonham for a visit. She was a coconut cake baker par excellence. Two or three days into her stay Davy would invite me over for a piece of cake. More than a cake, it was an experience—tall, three layers at least, moist, enrobed in white frosting and showered with confetti of shredded coconut.

Befitting a creation so ethereal, it was always displayed in solitary grandeur on a crystal cake platter in the middle of the dining room table. The creator of this masterpiece would slice a big wedge for each of us, and Davy and I would head for the kitchen in search of milk. You gotta have milk.