Cooking

Stir Mix-a-Lot

A brief history of boxed cake mix
Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
Chocolate Cake

I'm licking a beater dripping with Funfetti batter right now, for research.

Like most children of suburbia, I'm no stranger to boxed-mix cakes. At least one spongy sheet cake or batch of multicolored cupcakes had shown up at nearly every birthday party and bake sale in my younger years. A typically from-scratch-only kind of baker, I fancy myself ~above~ boxed cake mix, but I'll admit that for my 17th birthday, I whipped up a dozen Duncan Hines vanilla eight-inchers and made my friends decorate them with me. (I was a cool kid; can you tell?)

My brief foray into vintage recipe blogging piqued my interest in cake mixes, so much so that I wrote a full research paper on the subject in college. Not interested in an unabridged historical dessert scholarship, you say? Let me break the gist down for you.

1837: English food manufacturer and chemist Alfred Bird produces Bird's Custard Powder, a cornflour-based powder to be mixed with milk and heated. Other similar custard mixes follow.

1889: Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood, owners of Pearl Milling Company, launch Aunt Jemima just-add-water pancake mix to sell off their surplus of flour to a dwindling market. The mixture includes hard winter wheat, corn flour, boiler water-treated phosphates, baking soda and salt.

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1920-1922: A man known as Mr. McCollum of New Brunswick, New Jersey, develops recipes for corn muffin and pie crust mixes.

1929: John D. Duff of Pennsylvania molasses canning company P. Duff & Sons successfully dehydrates molasses in a vacuum oven, intending to find a use for his company's molasses surplus. Once he succeeds in turning the syrup into powder, he develops a gingerbread baking mix.

1930: Duff applies for a patent for the packaged dehydrated baking ingredient mixture that results in gingerbread cake. Wary of the plummeting American economy, Duff notes the foolproof quality of the product in his application. At the time, even middle-class families were struggling, and "[they] just wanted a damn cake on the table," Michael Y. Park explains in Bon Appétit.

1933: The patent, Process of Making a Dehydrated Flour Mix, is issued to Duff. The mixture can be rehydrated with water, then baked to create a gingerbread cake.

1935: Although sales of his first mix are steady, albeit few, Duff acquires a subsequent patent, which requires the addition of fresh eggs to the bake. "The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs," Duff details on his patent application. Duff also introduces mixes for white, spice and devil's food cakes.

1939: With the outbreak of World War II, consumer cake mix development and distribution is put on hold in favor of creating dry mixes for the troops. Though the mixes have an infinite shelf life, due to the poor quality of powdered milk and eggs, they are widely avoided.

1948: Pillsbury is the first company to launch a chocolate cake mix, also including powdered eggs.

1951: Food chemist Arlee Andre invents Duncan Hines cake mixes. His mixture calls for the addition of fresh eggs; after just a few weeks, Duncan Hines controls almost half of the cake mix market.

1951: The first documented mention of incorporating oil into a cake mix appears in the New York Times.

1988: Though there is not much documented on when Pillsbury officially launched its version of confetti cake known as Funfetti, commercials are aired for the product.

2016: A food editor (let's call her "Becca") purchases a box of cake mix for an article she's writing and falls in love with the suburban staple all over again.

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