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Duncan Hines: An Early Food Celebrity

Duncan Hines carving a turkey, 1953. If he lived today, he would be the world’s most famous food blogger. Illustrates BOOKS-FOOD (category e), by L.V. Anderson (c) 2014, Slate. Moved Friday, May 9, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of University Press of Kentucky/Slate.)

Duncan Hines carving a turkey, 1953. If he lived today, he would be the world’s most famous food blogger. Illustrates BOOKS-FOOD (category e), by L.V. Anderson (c) 2014, Slate. Moved Friday, May 9, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of University Press of Kentucky/Slate.)

“Mention the name ‘Duncan Hines’ to Americans under 55 today and the image their minds will undoubtedly conjure is a cake mix package,” writes Louis Hatchett in the introduction to Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Name in Food, by way of explaining the necessity of a Hines biography. To older Americans, on the other hand, “Duncan Hines was a man … who recommended the best places Americans could eat and sleep when traveling along the country’s early paved highways at a time when they were thirsty for such knowledge.”

The newly published biography, which painstakingly traces Hines’ journey from renowned restaurant critic to cake-mix spokesman, is in fact a repackaging of Hatchett’s out-of-print 2001 book, which had the arguably pithier subtitle The Man Behind the Cake Mix. The timing of the new edition’s appearance is apt: The prospective book purchasers of 2014 include a fresh batch of millennials who are both intensely interested in food and ignorant of the fact that Hines was a real guy, renowned in his heyday not for canned frosting but for his best-selling, frequently updated, self-published guides to American restaurants and inns.

There is something uncannily contemporary about Hines’ career trajectory: Although Hines’ books were a massive success in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, it’s easy to imagine that he’d fare even better in the Internet age. His writing was chatty, self-important and marketing-friendly. If he lived today, Duncan Hines would be the world’s most famous food blogger.

Alas, Hines came of age a century too early to earn a cult following online. He was born in 1880 in Bowling Green, Ky., the youngest child of a former Confederate soldier. Hines’ mother died when Hines was 4, and his father shipped him and one of his brothers off to live with his maternal grandmother, who raised them on “apple pie, pecan pie, … country ham, candied yams, turnip greens with fatback, beaten biscuits and cornbread,” as Hines later reminisced.

As a young adult, Hines headed out West to work for Wells Fargo and the Green Copper Co. for a few years before settling down with his first wife, Florence, in Chicago.

As a traveling salesman for a direct mail advertising firm, Hines began taking notes about the best places to eat across America; his search for decent restaurants soon became an all-consuming hobby. As Hines found himself inundated with requests for recommendations from friends and acquaintances, he decided to publish a pamphlet of his endorsements, which was so popular it morphed into a book, Adventures in Good Eating, in 1936, which soon spawned other books about cooking, eating and traveling. All in all, Hines sold almost 2 million books between 1936 and 1947, and became so famous that in 1948 he had better name recognition than the vice president of the United States. This is why food manufacturers clamored to get Hines’ name on their products, and eventually succeeded.

In short, Duncan Hines was, objectively speaking, a big deal: one of the country’s first food celebrities, beloved by millions. “Americans regarded his every word with the highest esteem,” writes Hatchett. Hatchett regards Hines’ every word with the highest esteem, too — but that makes the book a little weird, because Duncan Hines sounds like — how to put this?— a domineering, narcissistic jerk.

As a child, he and his friends built a snowman on train tracks near their home, and as a train approached, “the engineer slammed on the brakes so hard to avoid hitting it the violent action uncoupled some of the cars.” This wasn’t a one-time event: He also greased up the tracks on an incline to prevent trains from reaching the top of the hill. Hatchett describes these incidents, which endangered passengers’ lives, as “mischief and merry-making.”

Hines’ youthful indiscretions weren’t the only thing that left a sour taste in my mouth after reading Duncan Hines. According to a former employee, Hines would hire female secretaries “if he decided he liked somebody’s looks.” His second wife, Emelie, divorced him on the grounds of “cruelty.” He had a violent temper; his nephew worked briefly for Hines, “but he quit after about three weeks because his uncle was partial to ‘blowing up’ at him over usually inconsequential matters.” Hines was vain and so craved attention from fans that he put up a sign in front of his home announcing that he lived there. (“Success did not go to his head,” Hatchett elsewhere asserts.)

Worse, to my mind, Hines was a total snob. “Hines had no patience with people who had failed in life,” write Hatchett. After his first book was published in 1936, he surrounded himself with those he deemed “successful people.” “In Hines’ day, people from this social strata tended to travel frequently enough to experience ‘adventures in good eating’; hoi polloi did not. People who had succeeded in life, Hines felt, could be trusted; they had competently managed their careers and finances to the point where they were considered honorable members of society.” This was a remarkably callous view to hold during the Great Depression.

It’s always difficult to take a person who lived by the standards of behavior of a different time and judge him by our own. But Hatchett has a stubborn blind spot where Hines’ character flaws are concerned: Even as he reports on evidence of Hines’ superciliousness, volatility, sexism and cruelty, he asserts that Hines was a king among men. “Duncan Hines rose to fame simply because he possessed human qualities many Americans wanted to see in their fellow man: character, uncompromising honesty, and integrity,” he writes. Hines was “an average man who came to America’s attention, was perceived by them as unusually trustworthy and who, because of that perception, became an American icon. Surprisingly, the public’s perception and the reality were nearly identical.”

Hatchett isn’t the first biographer to revere his subject. But at times in this book, he seems less like Hines’ biographer writing in the 21st century and more like his PR man pushing a story to 1930s rubes.

Hines was beloved by the public, Hatchett writes, because he refused to accept remuneration for his endorsements: “One restaurant offered Hines $10,000 for an advertisement; Hines refused, ‘preferring to keep his book uninfluenced by any commercial considerations.’ ” But what’s fascinating is that Hatchett maintains his reverence for Duncan Hines’ clean hands even as his own thorough research reveals that, by contemporary standards, Hines’ hands had an awful lot of dirt on them. (Or was that frosting?) He charged money for the restaurants he endorsed to display a “Duncan Hines Seal of Approval,” and, since the profit margins on his guidebooks were so low, he made most of his income this way (until he began shilling for cake mixes). “His sign rental business translated into an annual profit of almost $38,000 a year,” writes Hatchett, in an era when the average U.S. income was about $3,000. Hines also openly expected the restaurants in the “Duncan Hines Family” to sell his books to their customers, and he complained that those that didn’t “were nothing but ingrates.” Most ostentatiously, Hines accepted a Cadillac convertible as a birthday gift from the “Duncan Hines Family” restaurateurs. That these quid pro quo arrangements — in which Hines got most of his money, plus some sweet swag, from the very people he was endorsing — might constitute a conflict of interest never seems to cross Hatchett’s mind.

“The man who said ‘Every man has his price’ never met Duncan Hines,” writes Hatchett at the beginning of the book. As I read about Hines’ deal with ad exec Roy Park to put his name and photo on grocery items (including the enduring cake mix), I kept turning back to that page to confirm I’d really read those words. Park went on to sell Duncan Hines-branded jam, pickles, mushrooms, sherbet, salad dressing, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, bread, pancake mix, ice cream, cooking ranges and coffee makers. By 1955, Duncan Hines products were bringing in $50 million (about $441 million in today’s dollars), with Hines earning royalties from each sale. Clearly, Hines had his price.

It’s not that I think Hines did the wrong thing by selling out. (Who among us wouldn’t take a cut of that $50 mil?) It’s just that there was clearly some tension between his vaunted objectivity and his business agreements. Instead of exploring that tension, Hatchett presents Hines’ personal mythology to modern readers who are long past accepting mid-century heroism at face value.

It’s easy to imagine a modern-day Duncan Hines launching a food blog chronicling his search for hidden meccas of regional cooking across the country, but it’s hard to imagine Hines launching a successful cake-mix brand today. In the mid-20th century, there was no obvious contradiction between Hines’ role as a booster for local, independent restaurants and his role as a spokesman for processed grocery store fare. Today, Hines would have to pick one role or the other: champion of the little guy or Big Food apologist? This odd but interesting biography makes it clear that Duncan Hines made a career out of having it both ways.