Duncan Hines, the cake and the man

So I have mentioned that I am dogsitting in a house that has a kitchen that is equipped for cooking with mixes and not from scratch. The dogs' owners come home from Florida tomorrow, so I decided to make myself one of these mixes to test out how they are (and because I feel celebratory because it is almost time for me to go home). It is usually my feeling that mixes are more expensive than cooking from scratch, and also may have other unwanted ingredients included like preservatives. It is also usually my feeling that all a mix really does is give you the dry ingredients already mixed together (which takes about two minutes to stir together yourself). I guess it also saves you having to look up a recipe. I always doubted if they tasted very good. Well, here I am to tell you that actually the Duncan Hines Devil's Food cake mix is not bad. It is just about as good as a homemade cake as bread made from a bread machine mix is as good as bread made from scratch. You get a lot of the same benefits as a homemade cake - it is warm, fluffy, and your house smells like cake all night, with a little bit less effort - ok fine. I like to make things myself as you get more control over the ingredients, and you can customize things a little more, but I am here to tell you it is not bad. I bet I could bring this cake made from a mix to my friends and coworkers and I am not sure they would know it was not completely homemade.

We had a book by Duncan Hines in the archive at my work, and I wasn't sure if it was a man or a company. I looked it up, and if turns out he was an actual man. I've become more and more obsessed with him the last few days. He was a traveling salesman who went all over the U.S. and Canada. He started out with just a list of good restaurants he saw along his way, and so many people were interested in his list that he ended up writing a book "Adventures in Good Eating" (1935). I was reading the book today, and what I liked about it is how friendly he is through his writing. He writes as though he is writing to a friend, and in fact there are all kinds of little asides between the restaurant reviews that say things like "Even if you don't have a lot of money you deserve to eat in a clean restaurant" and "I wish I could meet each and everyone of my readers." Reading his reviews you feel like you are right there with him traveling throughout the country. It doesn't matter that most of these places do not still exist - it is still a good read. I also liked all the pictures of the 1930s outfits and cars, and the fact that most meals are about 65 cents. He said that he felt like a friendly host in writing the restaurant reviews. He also wrote a book about where to stay for a night (1938), and a book about cooking (1939). All in all, his name was associated with the highest standards of quality in food and service. By pointing out in his books which restaurants were good, it pushed the restaurants he visited to keep their standards high in regards to taste and sanitation so that they could be included in his guidebooks (or at least he claimed in the book). I'm sure if he were around today he'd probably have a blog, and probably have a huge following just like the Pioneer Woman. (In fact, anyone think she may be likely to sell a brand of cake mixes one day?)

You can read in the Wikipedia entry how he got involved in the cake mix business, but he died only a few years after they started being produced. His face was taken off the boxes after he died in 1959 to be respectful. Here is a commercial for the cake mix from 1960.

When I looked through the copy of "Adventures in Good Eating" we had at work today, I thought it was really interesting. He reviewed some restaurants I have been to that still exist. Peter Luger "only has steak, but it is good steak", he said. "Grand Central Oyster Bar shucks more oysters than any restaurant in the country". He visited many cities in upstate NY including Troy and Schenectady. He talked about two sisters from Albany who ran a restaurant in Lenox, MA. He called Bennington, VT "one of the prettiest towns in the country". He reviewed the Williams Inn, where my boss had her wedding reception in the 1990s. He enjoyed three restaurants in downtown Albany that didn't sound familiar to me at all. He did give exact directions, so it could be fun to show up at those corners and see what exists there now. His writing makes him feel like a great travel companion whose adventures you can enjoy from the comfort of your home (in the tradition of Bill Bryson)Here is someone who has retraced some of his steps. There is a museum exhibit based on him in Bowling Green, KY. Here is a story from Saveur about him.

Anyways, my new appreciation for the man makes me in some weird way like the brand more. I know he sold the rights to it, and then died, and then the name carried on - but the man himself was a food writer who wanted to express his opinions in an open, honest, and friendly way. He wanted people to have high standards about food, and he seemed to enjoyed discussing what exactly that meant to him. Duncan Hines turns out to feel like a kindred spirit to me, who knew? I like that he approached eating like an adventure. He didn't want to spend an enormous amount of money on his food, and he liked meeting friendly people who worked at restaurants throughout the country. I think I would have liked him if I had been able to meet him.

One thing that is funny is that he had a comment in his book about how a lot of cooks fail because they try to improve on "good eggs, rich milk, butter, and a loving touch, and it just can't be done" - which makes it a little ironic his name lived on being associated with cake mixes. Anyways, I am happy to be going home tomorrow, and I'll eat some of my Duncan Hines Devil's Food cake in celebration.


  1. I was wondering how I could have gone my whole life and not known about Duncan Hines the man. I too thought he was like Betty Crocker, a created persona. I just found information when writing about the history of Chalet Suzanne which after 83 years just closed their doors as a restaurant and inn located in Lake Wales, Florida. Duncan Hines was integral to their early success. Loved your post! Hope you visit my blog which can be found here: http://theinspiredtradersvintagevoice.blogspot.com/


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