After Hours – June Swoons: New Organic Lines; The Secret Life of … Betty Crocker?; Cake Mix Goes Gourmet

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research , and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

New Organic Lines / The Secret Life of … Betty Crocker? / Cake Mix Goes Gourmet

New Organic Lines

Healthy may not be what most kids want in a snack, but Healthy Handfuls delivers plenty of other things they do. Taste, for one. This new line of certified organic snacks delivers taste, flavors, mouth feel, you name it, that are not only appealing, but right in line with the expectations set by non-organic counterparts – without the usual enhancers of trans fats, hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup. The line consists of two savory and two sweet snacks. The savory are thin, crisp little knots called Python Pretzels and Lucky Duckies (shaped like what else?), which are every bit as satisfying as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, without the salty assault. The sweet items are Oatmeal Raisin Crocodile Cookies and Koala Krackers (think: animal crackers), both of which take their pleasant sweetness from evaporated cane juice.

As for other kid appeal, the pieces are sized for non-adult hands, the graphics are goofy in a friendly way (the hand-scrawled font turns a lower-case “e” into a toothy mouth poised for chomping), and the pretzels and koala crackers come in plastic tubs that are easy to open and reseal. These are kids’ foods that adults will want for themselves as well.

Another new line worth nibbling is the organic produce from Newman’s Own Organics . The line-up consists of carrots (baby and full grown), potatoes, and a variety of single and mixed greens, including baby spinach, arugula, romaine hearts, and an herb salad enlivened by fresh, aromatic dill and parsley. All come in bags (five ounces to a pound for the greens, one and five pound for the carrots, and five pounds for the potatoes), while some greens are available in clamshell boxes. The clamshells are actually worth attention in their own right, because they are made from corn. Yes, corn. It yields a plastic that biodegrades phenomenally quicker than petroleum-based (a few weeks as opposed to thousands of years), which means that clamshells can go from shelf to kitchen to compost heap. (NatureWorksPLA has more information about corn plastics in its FAQ .)

My samples were clean, crisp, and beautiful (even the potatoes!), and, as is generally true with organic produce, every single item packed more potent flavor than its conventionally grown cousin. If you’ve never tasted organic carrots or romaine lettuce, both are revelations; the carrots are much sweeter, while the lettuce actually has…flavor. Although the labels suggest using greens within two or three days after opening, the ones I sampled remained in acceptable condition for a week in my refrigerator.

The Secret Life of … Betty Crocker?

One of our most enduring culinary icons was an unintended consequence of an advertising promotion for a bag of flour. In 1921 the Minneapolis-based Washburn Crosby Company ran a full-page ad-cum-contest on the back cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The contest offered a Gold Medal Flour pincushion as the reward for cutting up a picture puzzle and reassembling the pieces into a quaint street scene. Along with the expected entries – some 30,000 – came hundreds of pleas for baking advice. Having been so dramatically informed of a previously unsuspected consumer need, the company’s advertising staff jumped to fulfill it.

And so began Betty Crocker, a figure who grew to be so looming in the American psyche that the lobby of her namesake test kitchens initially kept tissues on hand, so frequently did pilgrims burst into tears at the revelation that she did not exist in the flesh. That one quick decision to birth a helpful, trustworthy kitchen advisor led to developments that still affect kitchens today – including the standardization of baking pan sizes and photograph-laden step-by-step instructions in cookbooks. In the process, she provided jobs for a lot of women (the company’s traveling demonstrators, as well as the college graduates who staffed its Home Services Department) and shored up countless more. She dispensed household tips, marital advice and moral support in a radio show and, later, shorts; when World War II came, she waged a full-tilt morale boosting campaign championing the patriotic contribution of the homemaker. And as she morphed into a brand for baking preparations, she weaned her followers off her advice and preached the reliability of boxed mixes.

Her evolving existence and impact on both American society and the food industry fill the lively pages of Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food by Susan Marks. The book, released by Simon & Schuster this year, is a brisk, light-handed and fascinating social history. The gallery of Betty through the ages is especially fun, as are the reproductions.

Cake Mix Goes Gourmet

One marketing brainstorm of the Betty Crocker brand was formulating packaged mixes to require the addition of eggs, so that the home baker had more of a sense of ownership of the results. The King’s Cupboard follows her lead with its new Triple Chocolate Layer Cake Mix. Or rather, it follows her as far as requiring add-ins and then leaves the ready-made realm where supermarket cake mixes reside, for new, indulgent territory, population: one.

Dark, rich, dense and moist, this is not a cake for most children. The sweetness is much more restrained than the name would make you think, even in the frosting, which comes in a 10-ounce jar and fluffs up with a half-minute of beating. (Surprisingly, sugar is the first listed ingredient, no doubt to tame all that chocolate power.) Save it for adults and special occasions. At about $18 total for the mix and frosting, the cake prices out in the range of a good grocery store bakery cake. And you can say you made it yourself.

Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.

Posted in: After Hours, Book Reviews, Food