The Sisters of Summit Avenue
Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1934
June had been working for Betty Crocker for two of her thirty-two years. Yet each morning when she arrived at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange Building with its wheat sheaves carved around the door and its imposing wall of elevators, and she clicked across the cavernous green marble lobby in her chunky-heeled nurse’s shoes, her purse swinging on her arm above her gloves and the skirt of her white uniform swishing against her hosiery, she felt as if she were on the verge of discovery. Of what, she didn’t know. As she rode up in the elevator thick with the smell of brass polish, she imagined herself to be like the heavy brown cicada larvae that lumbered up the trunks of the trees of her Summit Avenue estate in St. Paul. Her body was swelling, her too-tight shell was splitting, and her wings were unfurling to fly her up to the treetops—or in her case, to the ninth floor—where she might sing, or soar . . . or fall down to the ground to buzz clumsily on her back.
None of the other women in the Betty Crocker test kitchen would guess her fear of failure; at least she hoped not. All twenty-one of them had an area of expertise. Karen from Hastings, Nebraska, was the go-to girl on naming foods; “Pigs in Blankets” were “Wiener Turnovers” until she came along. Carolyn of Angola, Indiana, was the Queen of Stretching
a Dime, a handy skill when most people had so few of them these days. Eager little Darlene from Endeavor, Wisconsin, whose hunger for more than Bundt cakes was belied by her wholesome, well-scrubbed face, was their expert on pleasing men, proof that you should never judge a book by the cover.
June’s role around the Crocker kitchen was to be the Sophisticated One. The other girls called upon her to create menus for “smart luncheons” and “elegant suppers,” and to show how “distinguished social leaders” set their lovely tables in advertisements and cooking publications like last year’s Betty Crocker’s 101 Delicious Bisquick Creations as Made and Served by Well-Known Gracious Hostesses, Famous Chefs, Distinguished Epicures, and Smart Luminaries of Movieland. (Advertising’s title, not hers.) She was the Girl Friday to whom the others came when describing how to put on a proper plate luncheon, yachting party, or hunt club breakfast, activities the ad men imagined that Betty Crocker’s fans dreamed of.
While a campaign that featured the man-trapping properties of flour always played well, increasingly Advertising was turning its attention to the everyday housewife. Once they got her married, what did they imagine that the American Woman wanted? More, that’s what, of everything! She wanted, no, she deserved the High Life and all that came with it: furs and maids and Cadillacs, and most importantly, the burning envy of her peers. And once the ember of that desire was fanned and stoked into a raging fire of need, how might the American Woman attain it? How might your plain penny-squeezing Jane, at home frying cabbage for her unemployed husband and letting down the cuffs of her growing children’s coat sleeves, transform herself into the elegant, popular, tiara-wearing hostess portrayed in publications? By listening to that oracle of success (who happened to use a lot of flour) Betty Crocker—that’s how!
And so June had been hired. She was the only girl on staff without a home ec degree. Her husband had been her qualifier. Not only was Richard a prominent surgeon in town, but his family came from money.
Buckets of it. No one at the company had asked her who her own family was when they’d hired her. They still hadn’t.
“Here we are, Betty!” The elevator operator, Mr. Gustafson, an elfin, elderly gentleman with a long upper lip and bright gray eyes, folded back the brass restraining gate with the same zeal that he’d shown since hiring on a few months ago—grateful to have employment in these difficult times, June assumed. He called all the women who worked in the Betty Crocker kitchen “Betty.”
He pulled the heavy lever to open the doors. “Go make someone happy!”
June replied to him as she did every day. “I will, Mr. Gustafson, I will.”
She stepped across a mat bristling with the word WELCOME. Even the floor was friendly in Betty Crocker’s world. A push through glass doors brought June into the Tasting Room, a yellow-papered space bright with stylish caramel-colored Early American tables and chairs, ruffled curtains, and the smell of warm spice cake, frying bacon, and Lysol. The girls were already at work. You had to get up early to get ahead in the Crocker kitchen.
At her cubby, June peeled off her gloves, purse, and hat, stashed them on the shelf, checked her mirror (small blemish by her nose—who knew that you still got pimples at her age?), and readjusted her trademark pearl choker. She was the only Crockette to wear such an expensive accessory. She would have rather left it at home out of respect to the others, most of whom were the only breadwinners in their families and wore the same plain white dress every day to work, but her bosses complimented her on the necklace and encouraged her to wear it. For now, it stayed.
She took out her binder, and then went through an additional set of glass doors to enter what appeared to be a cross between a scientific laboratory and an appliance store. To the left gleamed a white-enameled bank of the latest in electric refrigerators, ovens, and ranges, upon one of which the previously detected bacon sizzled. To the right, a dozen
women in white, down to their shoes, tapped purposefully around the rows of white porcelain-topped tables, measuring concoctions, pouring mixtures into pans, or writing notes, even at this early hour. White sinks stood along the back wall, ready to sanitize.
But this was not your typical dull research facility. Pains had been taken to give the test kitchen the feel of a lady cook’s playground. Orange and navy plates marched across the cornice above the stoves. A tomato-red watering can and a copper teapot winked from the corner shelves. Blue checked curtains waved from windows open to the springtime breeze and a view of the nearby flour mill, atop which scrolling letters spelled out in lights: “Eventually.”
Eventually—Why Not Now? was the company’s original slogan. June supposed that “You’re going to want our flour sooner or later, so you might as well buy it now,” was probably not the most compelling argument to make a sale. But the forefathers had made a leap in figuring out how to net buyers in 1921, when one of them realized that a likable female character might sell goods better than even a catchy motto ever could. Hello, Betty Crocker!
June laid her notebook on one of the tables, then peered into the bowl that her neighbor, Darlene from Endeavor, hugged to her white lapels. Man-loving little Darlene, squeaky-clean, honey-blond, white-lashed, and every bit as energetic as you’d imagine someone from a town called Endeavor might be, was fresh out of the home economics department of the university in Madison. She wouldn’t last long. She’d gotten married last year and a baby would surely follow. They always did. Unless you were June.
“What are you making today?”
“Cheese and bacon waffles!” Darlene sang.
“Interesting. Do you put the bacon in the mix?”
“No, just the grated American, half a cup per recipe. I’m thinking I’ll lay cooked strips directly on the waffle iron, then ssssss—” Darlene acted out clamping a lid down on a waffle iron, sending a glop of batter from
her spoon into her bowl. “—I’ll seal them in. I got the idea in a dream last night. I woke up Gary when I wrote it down. He was quite the grump—until I made it worth his while.”
When they glanced at one another, Darlene laughed. Wife humor.
She ironed the grin out of her voice. “What do you think of using cheese and bacon waffles on a breakfast menu for Clark Gable?”
June raised her chin as if she and Richard, too, were going wild under the covers, although anyone with a touch of class might consider it just a wee bit gauche to boast about it. “Hmm. Sounds promising. I’ll think about it. Thank you.”
It was genius.
And there was nothing happening in her and Richard’s bedroom for her to brag about these days, even if she’d wanted to.
Anyhow, she had her own new recipe for Let the Stars Show You How to Take a Trick a Day with Bisquick, the booklet they were currently developing. Until twenty seconds ago, she’d been pleased with it. She’d gotten it last evening while being walked by the dog, a rambunctious German shepherd named Stella that Richard had chosen and she took care of.
It had been a glorious evening in May, with the air full of the scent of new leaves and blooming lilacs, the kind of evening that makes one feel inexplicably hopeful. Stella had been yanking her past a ragged man shooting a slingshot at pigeons on a telephone line (dinner, apparently) and some youths tossing a football on the lawn of the college down the street. Suddenly the boys’ calls to one another got louder and their dives for the ball more exaggerated. They were looking in her direction. June responded to the college idiots as did the peahens to the peacocks shaking open their tail feathers in the Como Park Zoo: she ignored them.
She was studiously doing just that as Stella wrenched her arm from its socket, when a football skidded on the sidewalk in front of her. The dog lunged for it, nails scrabbling on cement.
A boy slicked back the blond lock that was flapping in rhythm with the wide legs of his flannel trousers as he trotted up—a rich kid, or at
least his family had been, before The Crash. He grinned. “Hey, gorgeous, has anyone ever told you you’re beautiful?”
The knee-jerk burst of relief that came from hearing that as a matron of thirty-two, she had not yet totally lost “it,” evaporated. The heat of shame leaped up in its place, her fig leaf of status snatched away. Her Chicago-bought clothes, her Bes-Ben hat, her diamond ring were for naught. She was back to being a nobody, just a good-looking broad, unworthy of respect. How did he know?
Aware of the ragged man watching them as he stuffed a fallen bird into his gunny sack, she pried the ball from Stella’s mouth to make her escape. And then, even as the sweat of embarrassment sprang into the dress shields under her arms, it came to her: she could do a football-shaped chocolate cake for Take a Trick, playing up Clark Gable’s image as an athlete.
Already scheming how this might be achieved—she could cut the layers and reassemble them!—the milk chocolate frosting could be dappled to resemble leather!—she had absentmindedly heaved back the ball to the startled youth. Here, shake your tail feathers, sonny!
Now, as she smelled the bacon Darlene was cooking, she realized a cake that looked like a football would never excite men as much as something with bacon in it. Although she wouldn’t eat the stuff—she felt too sorry for the pigs—she knew that her bosses thought recipes with fatty meats, and any other foods that men particularly liked, sold flour well, even though women were the ones usually buying the product. Maybe if she used bacon as a seam on a football-shaped waffle . . .
She took a stool. As sophisticated as she and her pearls were supposed to be, she wasn’t the best at developing recipes, one of every girl’s duties on the job. They were expected to follow their products from the time the items were hatched in the research lab, through the famous Betty Crocker “Kitchen-testing,” then through market testing and on to promotion on Betty’s radio show and in publications. They all chipped in to answer Betty’s fan mail, too—four thousand letters on some days,
nothing to sniff at. They spent a portion of each day doling out their expert advice on cooking, homemaking, and, often, men. (Those letters were handed to Darlene.) They signed their responses in Betty’s rounded, uniform, maybe a tad childish signature. One of the fellows in Advertising had chosen it.
The glass doors to the test kitchen crashed open. In barged a substantial woman, hair-netted, wire-spectacled, and sprigged-cotton-clad. A large patent leather purse hung from one fleshy arm and a picnic basket from the other.
“We’ve come to see Betty Crocker!”
The girls stopped in their work, alert as a herd of deer.
Advertising had been stepping up their encouragement of Betty Crocker’s radio fans to visit her in her kitchen in Minneapolis. June worried about the wisdom of this. The country was oozing with lonely, desperate, destitute women, women anxious for something to cling to with so many of their men cut adrift. Over the last four years, America had become a nation of hoboes and Hoovervilles, bank robbers and soup lines, home foreclosures and skyscraper leaps. In Minneapolis, men walked around the Gateway District with a stunned, sheepish expression on their faces. Jobless single women lived in the stacks in the libraries or in the train station, speaking to no one, as elusive as ghosts. Packs of children snuck into the comforting darkness of the movie shows, where Frankenstein and King Kong scared them less than their own sleepwalking parents.
Even the weather had gone haywire, breaking heat and drought records across the country. In some parts of the West, waves of jackrabbits, grasshoppers, and spiders had descended, all of them hungry for the crops that had already been lost. Millions of families courted disaster of some sort each day, and they were starved for relief and diversion. Betty Crocker gave it to them. Oh, sometimes Betty’s radio shows sounded trivial, with her finicky football players looking for wives, her infantile bachelor doctors, and her no-roll pie crusts. She spent entirely too much
time showcasing the thoughts, desires, and recipes of movie stars. Who gave two figs what Bing Crosby ate for supper?
But often what Betty Crocker did was heroic. She was at her best when she cheered on everyday women, making them feel proud of holding their families together. She gave them the strength to dry their eyes on their aprons and get cooking for their paralyzed men and frightened kids, no matter what disaster was on their doorstep. She gave women hope. She gave them advice. She gave them cookies. She was America’s mother. June wished, fervently, that she were hers.
It was a shame that Betty didn’t exist.
At the visitor’s hip wavered her thin, younger version down to the same flowered print, as if Mama had been cranked through some sort of grinder that took off years and pounds. She ducked her head at the girls. “We don’t know if she’s here, Mother. She might be on the radio now.”
The mother’s small steel-edged teeth shone along with her glasses in the artificial light. “Can’t be. It’s not showtime.”
Over bowls and clipboards, the girls exchanged glances. Would she go easily or hard? You couldn’t tell by looking. Sometimes the sweetest old ladies fought like bobcats.
“Nonsense. She said to come visit her in her kitchen and here we are!” The mother lifted her arms, bashing her basket against a refrigerator. Out from under the lid popped the flop-eared head of a beagle pup.
Darlene from Endeavor went first. “Good morning!” She kept stirring as she approached the visitors. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we don’t allow animals in here. Health department orders.”
The dog dropped back inside the basket as if he understood.
“There was nobody at home to watch him.” The mother placed a protective hand over the basket lid. “We’ve come all the way from Topeka. At great expense.”
June eased to her feet, a green feeling rising in her throat. In her peripheral vision, she could see the other girls cautiously leaving their
bowls and pans and cookie sheets. She picked up one of the boxes of tissues placed around the kitchen just for these occasions.
“We’d better go, Mother.”
“No, Enid. Betty and I are friends! We’ve exchanged letters. I’ve got them right here.” The mother released her purse clasp with clumsy gloved fingers. When it gaped open, carefully slit envelopes, a handkerchief, a coin purse, a box of Milk Duds, a hand-colored portrait of a young man, and a copy of Betty’s 15 Ways to a Man’s Heart tumbled out in a colorful shower. The little booklet fell open to a photo of Betty Crocker. “It’s easy to have ‘A WAY WITH MEN,’?” it crowed, “just try these recipes!”
The other girls were scooping up the items and stuffing them in the woman’s purse when June stepped up, smiling in spite of the nausea that always flared before a confrontation. “May I help you?”
The mother gasped. “You’re . . . Betty.” She grabbed June’s wrist. Her voice broke. “Betty! It’s me. Blanche from Topeka!”
“I’m so sorry, dear, but I’m not Betty.”
The mother thrust her face close, her gloved fingers digging into June’s wrist. “Look at those blue eyes, that sweet smile, that slim neck, just like in your pictures. Though you’re blonder than I thought.” She squinted at June’s hair. “Did you peroxide?”
June actually did somewhat resemble the painting of Betty used by Advertising, although it was just a coincidence. The forefathers had had Betty drawn up years before June was hired. “I’m afraid I’m not Betty Crocker, ma’am.”
“I guess you don’t really sound like her.” Reluctantly, the mother let go. “Then where is she?”
June swallowed back another green wave. Her head was starting to pound. Her whole life, conflict had undone her. She didn’t know why. You’d think that her life as a society wife would have eased her discomfort, but it hadn’t. If anything, it had made it worse.
“I am sorry to tell you this,” she said, “but there is no one, single Betty.”
“What? What do you mean? I don’t understand.” The mother looked from June to the other girls, forming a semicircle around her. “Who’s that on the radio, the friend of all the movie stars and society folk, the peach who’s always helping gals to land men? She’s got those nephews who have that terrible habit of gobbling up all her goodies, the rascals. You know—Betty!”
“I think you might mean Agnes White,” June said gently. “Agnes performs on the national show. That’s her lovely voice that you hear.”
“Agnes who? Are those her nephews?”
June massaged her pearl choker. “You also might be interested to learn about Marjorie Husted. She writes all our marvelous radio scripts.”
The mother shook her head. “So she’s the aunt of those boys?”
“Wait a minute.” The daughter’s face had gone tight. “We know that Betty has a lot of helpers testing out her recipes and such. She says so on the radio and in her letters. Is that who you are?”
“Yes!” exclaimed Karen from Nebraska, perhaps too quickly.
“Well,” said the daughter, “we didn’t come all this way to meet them.”
The mother opened her purse again and drew out the portrait. “Here’s my boy Alvin who I wrote Betty about.” She displayed the picture with the edges between her palms so as not to fingerprint it. “I know that Betty says she’s having too much fun baking cakes to marry, but she’s got to be lonely.” She shifted as if irritated by her girdle. “I promise you, my Alvin will make Miss Crocker a bang-up husband. He’s a wonderful son and he’s got good work—he’s a brakeman on the railroad. Tell Betty that! She might be interested.”
“Mother,” the daughter said grimly, “don’t you see? What they are saying is that there is no Betty. I think they made her up.”
Still holding up the portrait, the mother gazed around the circle. “Why would they lie?”
“You’re getting double your money’s worth with all of us!” Darlene exclaimed. “We are all Bettys.”
“No, you’re not.”
The charade was over. Time to cut their losses. June held out the box of tissues, the sight of which released the woman’s tears. It always did.
The daughter’s voice was thick. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
June offered her a Kleenex, too, the pearls around her neck suddenly heavy. It was the third marriage proposal that Betty had received in the mail this week but the first delivered in person by a parent. She drew an exhausted breath. “They need water. Could somebody please bring these tired women a glass of water?”
She felt her way back to her stool and dropped down as the other Bettys helped the visitors.
Ten minutes later, mother and daughter were at a table in the tasting room, sipping water and eating Cheese and Bacon Waffles, a stack of autographed Betty publications next to their plates. Judy from Duluth, the most junior Betty, smiled and chatted with them as she signed another booklet in the slightly juvenile Crocker signature. Under the table, the beagle puppy lapped water from a china soup bowl that someone had produced.
Darlene settled next to June at their table in the test kitchen. “I’m all thumbs when we get caught, but you are so good at soothing people. How’d you ever learn that?”
The sleeves of June’s white dress swished as she crossed her arms. She drew in a breath, then let it out with a smile. “What other recipes do you have for Clark Gable?”