Bites of History: Avoid guilt by customizing boxed desserts for yourself

Cooking outside the box

For even the most experienced home cook, making biscuits, pancakes or dessert often begins by opening a box and simply stirring the contents with a liquid ingredient or two. Why not? Boxed mixes save time and are foolproof. And with a little doctoring, they usually taste better than what most of us can conjure up from scratch.

Dry mixes were introduced during the Industrial Revolution as convenience foods. The first recorded mix was known as Bird’s Custard. This creamy dessert was created in 1837 by Birmingham, England, pharmacist Alfred Bird, who mixed up cornstarch, salt, vanilla flavoring and yellow annatto coloring to make a quick restorative for his wife, who was allergic to eggs and yeast.

In the U.S., in 1894, Charles Knox of Johnston, N.Y., developed granulated gelatin. That idea was improved upon in

1895, when Pearl B. Wait, a cough-syrup maker from Le Roy, N.Y., bought a patent for a sweet gelatin that had been around since 1845, and he turned the dessert into powder. Wait’s wife, May, experimented with adding fruit syrups and named her mixture “Jell-O.”

The first American mix made with flour was Aunt Jemima pancake mix and was produced in 1889, when the Pearl Milling Co. of St. Joseph, Mo., needed to get rid of an excess of (guess what!) flour.

Biscuit mix came about when General Mills sales executive Carl Smith was riding a train in 1930. Smith had arrived at the dining car too late to order, yet, in no time was served a plate of hot biscuits.

Turns out, the train’s cook kept an ice chest full of a mixture of lard, flour, baking powder and salt, and used this base to quickly make biscuits. Smith ran with this innovation, and General Mills’ Bisquick was the first biscuit mix on the market.

The ever-popular cake mix began with a surplus of molasses. On Dec. 10, 1930, John D. Duff of P. Duff & Sons, of Pittsburgh, applied for a patent for a gingerbread mix.

Duff had figured out how to dry his molasses and to it he added flour, sugar, shortening, salt, baking soda, powdered egg and spices, all the dry ingredients needed for gingerbread. This “cake-in-a-box” concept took off, and within the next few years, the company was manufacturing mixes for nut bread, bran muffins, fruit cake, and devil’s food and spice cakes.

In 1933, the Duff Co. also made arguably the biggest breakthrough in cake-mix history — it invented a mix that required the addition of fresh eggs.

The psychologically savvy corporation had somehow figured out that, in cakes, cooks preferred using fresh eggs over dried or powdered, and from the time of that revelation, manufacturers started changing their formulas accordingly.

Cake mixes really took off after World War II, with more than 200 companies churning them out by the late 1940s. But sales inexplicably dropped in the 1950s, so the industry hired psychologist Ernest Dichter, who declared that housewives were feeling guilty about using convenience foods.

Cake mix manufacturers responded by filling magazines with ideas for creating intricately decorated cakes shaped liked castles, football fields and circuses.

The artistic effort required to create these elaborate confections resulted in astronomical sales, and the rest, as they say, is cake mix history.

Today, we’ve gotten so attached to Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines that the younger generation probably doesn’t know there’s any other way to cobble together a layer cake. But, as you fry up your Café du Monde beignets and serve that Jiffy cornbread, don’t worry about your boxed goodies not being up to a food snob’s standards.

In blind tastings, many scratch “purists” routinely pick the sample that comes from a box. We’ve been consuming premixed goods for so long, we think they’re the way things are supposed to taste.

If you do feel guilty about taking shortcuts, try personalizing breads and biscuits with peppers, cheese and seeds, and boxed desserts with nuts, dried and fresh fruit, chocolate sprinkles or swirls of flavored icings or whipped cream. These enhancements will certainly make the dish your own, and, who knows, you just might create a classic.

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.

Sources: auntjemima.com; foodtimeline.org; bonappetit.com; Shapiro, Laura, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America; generalmills.com; Belson, Ken. “Upstate, Where it was First Made, Unwavering Devotion to Jell-O,” New York Times, May 4, 2008.