Real or Fake: The Names Behind 12 Famous Food Brands

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These names are probably all over your kitchen—but did they belong to real people?

1. Betty Crocker

Fictional. The name was created for the Washburn Crosby Company (which would later merge with other businesses to form General Mills) by Marjorie Husted as a way to personalize the company’s products and customer relations. Husted picked the first name Betty because it sounded “warm and friendly,” and combined it with Crocker as a tribute to retired Washburn Crosby executive William Crocker. 

2. Sara Lee

Real. Baker Charles Lubin owned a small chain of Chicago bakeries in the early 20th century. Among his products was a cheesecake named after his young daughter, Sara Lee Lubin. He later changed the name of the business to Kitchens of Sara Lee, and when it was later acquired by the Consolidated Foods Corporation, it became one of the company’s leading brands. Based on that strength, Consolidated Foods adopted the name Sara Lee for the whole corporation. Sara Lee didn’t follow her father into the baking business, but instead has worked to encourage and support women working in science.

3. Aunt Jemima

Fictional. Aunt Jemima-esque “mammy” characters have been used as racial caricatures for ages. The businessmen who developed an early ready-made pancake mix reportedly saw one such character in a black-face minstrel show in the late 1800s and appropriated the image to brand their new product. Aunt Jemima was later brought to life when the business’s new owner hired Nancy Green, a former slave, to portray the character in ads and at events. Green made her public debut in character at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she charmed the crowds and doled out pancakes from a booth. The Jemima brand soon became so popular that Green secured a lifetime contract, and the business was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Company.

4. Captain Morgan

Real. Sir Henry Morgan sailed the high seas during the 17th century as a privateer. The Welsh sailor made his name defending British interests and raiding Spanish ships and towns throughout the Caribbean. After a stint in prison for continuing to harass and pillage the Spanish after a peace treaty was signed, he was knighted and appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. 

5. Chef Boyardee

Real. Ettore Boiardi was an Italian immigrant who worked as a chef in New York and West Virginia hotels (where he supposedly catered Woodrow Wilson’s second wedding) before opening his own restaurant in Cleveland. There, he started selling bottles of his pasta sauce, and soon expanded the operation with a factory in Pennsylvania. He dubbed the canned and bottled products “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” to help consumers pronounce his name. 

6. Dr Pepper

Probably fictional. Pharmacist Charles Alderton developed the formula for Dr Pepper while working at W.B. Morrison & Co. Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas in 1885. The drink was named by Alderton’s boss, Wade Morrison. Records from the store show that they’d played around with a similar name before, and had a recipe for a digestive aid called “D. Pepper’s Pepsin Bitters.” According to the Dr Pepper Museum, there are dozens of stories that connect the name to real-life Doctor Peppers that Morrison might have known, but no conclusive links have been established. 

7. Famous Amos

Real. Wallace Amos was a entertainment talent agent who worked at the William Morris Agency. To woo potential clients, he’d send them packages of his home-made cookies. In the 1970s, friends suggested that Amos make cookies his full-time business. He opened the first “Famous Amos” store in Los Angeles in 1975 and then began supplying cookies to grocery stores around the country. 

8. Mrs. Fields

Real. Debbi Fields and her then-husband Randall opened their first bakery in 1977. Fields began franchising in 1990 and then sold the business while staying on as the company’s spokesperson. There are now more than 650 Mrs. Fields stores in the U.S.

9. Jimmy Dean

Real. Dean was already a well-known country singer, actor, and TV personality when he and his brother Don founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969. They later sold the company, and Dean stayed involved in management and as a spokesperson until management phased him out. 

10. Marie Callender

Real. Don Callender opened a wholesale bakery to supply pies to restaurants in the late 1940s. He named the business after his mother, claiming that no one would want to buy from a place called “Don’s Pies.”

11. Oscar Mayer

Real. German immigrant brothers Oscar, Gottfried, and Max Mayer ran a butcher shop in Chicago in the early 20th century, which was one of the first companies to get on board with the USDA’s new meat inspection grades. To capitalize on their hometown popularity, they started branding their products with Oscar’s name when they expanded their business. 

12. Uncle Ben

Maybe real. Converted Rice Inc. supplied rice to the American military during World War II, and the owners wanted a new brand name and image when they started focusing on civilian consumers towards the end of the war. According to the company, Uncle Ben was a real rice grower known for high-quality product in founder Gordon Harwell’s native Texas, and the brand was named for him as an homage. Not much else is known about the real Ben, and it’s not even his picture on the box. That image is instead said to be based on the maître d' of the restaurant where Harwell and his business partners sometimes met. 

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February 22, 2014 - 2:00pm
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