You may have a box of Duncan Hines cake mix in your cupboard, but you may not have known that, unlike Betty Crocker, Hines was a real person. Here are five things about the patron saint of powdered dessert mixes that might surprise you.
1. He Got His Start as a Salesman
Hines wasn’t a chef or a master baker himself. In fact, he was a traveling salesman for a printing company. The job doesn’t sound like it would help someone become a food expert, but since Hines was forever on the road – he averaged 40,000-60,000 miles of car travel a year - he ate most of his meals in restaurants. He and his wife, Florence, loved to travel on weekends, which made meals at home even more rare for Hines.
All of those restaurant dinners and lunches started to add up, and Hines soon found himself extremely knowledgeable on the best place to get a bite to eat in towns all over the country. Eventually he and Florence had a fun idea: they compiled a list of recommendations for their favorite restaurants in various cities around the country and sent it to friends as Christmas gifts.
It would be hard to top Hines’ restaurant list for the title of “Most Successful Christmas Newsletter of All Time.” His friends loved it so much that in 1935 Hines turned his travels into a book, Adventures in Good Eating. Book buyers adored Hines’ opinions as much as his friends did, and in 1938 he released a companion book, Lodging for a Night, that told travelers where to stay when they were seeking out these delicious meals. Hines soon became America’s favorite restaurant and hotel critic.
2. The Public Really, Really Trusted Him
Just how much faith did Hines’ readers have in their favorite restaurant rater? It extended well beyond culinary and hospitality matters. A 1946 profile in Life noted, “Some of Hines’ correspondents have grown to trust him so much that it makes him nervous.” The story related this anecdote: a New England reader decided he wanted to buy a farm in Kentucky. Who better to broker the deal than a trusted native Kentuckian like Hines?
The New Englander sent Hines an unsolicited letter asking him to purchase the farm and enclosed a blank, signed check. Hines understandably didn’t think becoming his readers’ real estate agent was a great idea, so he ripped up the check and sent it back to the man with a note asking him not to pull that particular stunt again.
3. He Didn’t Start Out Marketing Cake
Louis Hatchett’s biography Duncan Hines: The Man Behind the Cake Mix revealed the ice cream’s secret: it was heavier and contained more butterfat than its competitors. (Future Hines-branded snacks would follow the formula of making products that were richer than what was already on the market.) The ice cream was so tasty that it sold briskly even for the relatively expensive price of 43 cents a pint.
The success of Duncan Hines ice cream showed that Hines was a bankable star for grocers. Nebraska Consolidated Mills introduced the first Duncan Hines cake mixes in the summer of 1951. Duncan Hines bread and pancake mix hit supermarkets in 1952, and blueberry muffin mix followed in 1953.
4. He Wasn’t One to Waste Food
A 2010 piece on local history in The LaCrosse (WI) Tribune explained Hines’ utter disdain for anyone who wasted food. In fact, the potential for waste was Hines’ biggest qualm about the restaurant business, particularly when food was in short supply around the world following World War II.
According to the Tribune story, Hines had been in the kitchen of a favorite LaCrosse restaurant in that era when he began tallying wasted food. The damage included 25 pats of butter that diners had used to stub out cigarettes and a bushel basket of unfinished dinner rolls. The paper recorded Hines as saying that such waste showed a lack of both breeding and patriotism. In other words, you’d better finish that last slice of Duncan Hines cake. Or else.
5. His Favorite Cocktail Sounds Truly Disgusting
Yes, that sentence may sound judgmental, but wait until you hear the ingredients. The aforementioned 1946 profile in Life touched on Hines’ penchant for drinking neat gin or whiskey, but he also enjoyed “Mrs. Hines’s cocktail.” The ingredients: the juice of a watermelon pickle, a whole egg, cream, gin, grenadine, orange-blossom honey, and lime juice. Something’s telling us that concoction is not quite as tasty as Duncan Hines cake mix.