Aunt Jemima’s never made a pancake. Uncle Ben doesn’t know beans about rice. And Betty Crocker couldn’t bake if she tried. Why? They’re imaginary foodist figureheads, created out of whole cloth by companies hoping housewives would buy products presided over by personable “real” folks. Slashfood’s post “Who Are the Top Fake Culinary Icons?” points the way toward brief biographies of pseudopersonae like Crocker and, um, Ronald McDonald (what’s he doing in here?), written by the editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.
The figure with the strangest history proves to be Aunt Jemima. She was named after the popular song “Old Aunt Jemima,” Jemima being a “mammy” figure in an 1889 minstrel show attended by a Missouri businessman who’d coinvented a self-rising pancake flour. The flour company hired former slave Nancy Green to portray Aunt Jemima at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, flipping pancakes and wowing the crowd. Her act proved so popular that the flour company still uses the Aunt Jemima image today, albeit a de-mammified version.
Later, a series of African American women were hired to portray Jemima at regional cooking demonstrations, but the Quaker Oats Company, owner of the Jemima line of mixes and flours, quietly dropped her trademark kerchief and backed away from Jemima’s official biography, which depicted her as a plantation slave with a secret pancake recipe. As Wikipedia notes, an early ad contained this copy:
On the old plantation, Aunt Jemima refused to reveal to a soul the secret of those light fragrant pancakes that she baked for her master and his guests. Only once, long after her master’s death did Aunt Jemima reveal her recipe. It’s still a secret.
Anyone getting hungry for griddle cakes? Or possibly for justice?
An interesting detail not unearthed by the faux biographies is that one of the most famous consumables mascots, a guy you would swear was invented by a group of marketing schlubs sitting around a conference table, was real: Chef Boyardee, the mustachioed canned-spaghetti king, was actually Hector Boiardi, a Cleveland restaurateur who reportedly made an Italian red sauce so good customers would carry it out of his joint in old milk bottles. Um, Mr. Boiardi? I think you’ve got some quality-control issues with the sauce.