Most of us, today, associate the name of Duncan Hines with a cake mix. However, it might surprise you to learn there really was a man by the name of Duncan Hines, who, at one time, was considered “America’s leading authority” on good eating. Before Jane and Michael Stern began eating their way across America; before Ford and Lincoln-Mercury began publishing their “Treasury of Favorite Eating Places,” before Marian Clark began writing “THE MAIN STREET OF AMERICA COOKBOOK, A CULINARY JOURNEY DOWN ROUTE 66” and even before someone got the bright idea of publishing “COOKING THE HOLIDAY INN WAY” – Duncan Hines had taken the high road afore ye.
If you are a Kentuckian, you probably even know that Bowling Green, Kentucky, honors native son Duncan Hines with an annual Duncan Hines Festival in June. One lucky young miss is crowned Miss Duncan Hines, and at the festival in June, 2000, the local townspeople prepared the world’s biggest brownie! It weighed in at nearly half a ton, measured 30’ X 13’ (more than 390 square feet) and was the work of 250 volunteers who had baked 675 pans of brownies. And for those of you who like statistics, the world’s biggest brownie took 675 packages of Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownie Mix ®, 11 gallons of water, 2,025 eggs, 21 gallons of oil and 675 pounds of Duncan Hines ® Creamy Homestyle Frosting.
There is even an 82 mile Duncan Hines Scenic Byway, which begins on US-31 W at the site marking Hines’ former home and office.
Duncan Hines, who was born in Kentucky in 1880, was the youngest of six children. When he was four years old, his mother died of pneumonia. His father, who was a lawyer, found law practice and six children a little much to handle so Duncan and his brother Porter, the two youngest boys, spent a great deal of time on their grandmother’s farm. Duncan’s appreciation for good food apparently stemmed from his grandmother’s culinary skills. “Grandma,” writes Duncan in “FOOD ODYSSEY”, “was from Covington, Virginia, which is to say she had learned her craft thoroughly …Grandma had acquired a ‘feel’ that few cooks have today. Her only measurements were a pinch of this and a pinch of that sifted out through her slender fingers…”
Duncan wrote that his grandma had no cookbooks and her stove was “one of those great black wood-burners that stood in every American kitchen towards the end of the last century..”
Duncan Hines spent much of his early adult life as a traveling salesman. As he traveled, he began to keep notes about the restaurants he visited on the road, for future reference. Hines recounts how it all began in his book “DUNCAN HINES’ FOOD ODYSSEY” explaining that his wife Florence often accompanied him on business trips and was just as interested as he in discovering good eating places.
One year The Hines’ compiled a list of their favorite eating places, in a blue folder, and had it printed to give to friends instead of the usual Christmas card. The original blue folder contained the names of 167 recommended restaurants and dining rooms in thirty states and the District of Columbia. When Mr. Hines began receiving hundreds of requests for his restaurant guide as its existence apparently spread like wildfire, it occurred to him that no one else had ever published such a guide before. In 1936, Duncan Hines published “Adventures in Good Eating”. It was the first American restaurant guide and helped set a higher standard for dining.
Along with directions for getting there, the original guides provided descriptions of the food, specialties and prices, noting “…This place specializes on a real chicken dinner, all you can eat. The dinner is $2 and well worth it…” Testimonies from satisfied restaurant guide purchasers are sprinkled throughout along with some of Mr. Hines’ homilies (“Any man or woman under the influence of liquor is a nuisance in a well-ordered place” and “Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy’”)
Hines refused to accept a free meal or lodging or charge anyone for a listing. To do his book justice, he resigned from the printing firm where he had been employed, in order to become a full time traveler. In the Introduction to a later edition of “Adventures in Good Eating”, Mr. Hines offered a warning to places listed stating, “It is a distinct disappointment to me to learn that a surprising number of people have gone to listed places and received free meals and lodging because they have claimed to be relatives of mine traveling through the country to check on place, or that they were responsible for the place being included in my book..” Mr. Hines advises that no one was ever authorized to make such demands and should be refused.
In 1938, Hines published his second book, “LODGING FOR A NIGHT”, in 1939 “THE ART OF CARVING IN THE HOME”, in 1948 “DUNCAN HINES VACATION GUIDE” and in 1955, “DUNCAN HINES FOOD ODYSSEY” and “DUNCAN HINES DESSERT BOOK”. There was also, in 1952, a booklet titled “THE ART OF GRILLING, BAKING, BARBECUING” which looks like it might have been a free booklet that accompanied the purchase of the “new 1952 Estate Range” (i.e., stove).
I have a 1941 copy of “Adventures in Good Eating” which sold for $1.50 and appears to have been self-published and sold by Mr. Hines. His home address in Bowling Green is on the first page! In its Introduction, Mr. Hines explains, “ My first discovery was that the highways were crowded with gasoline pilgrims whose main interest seemed to be the relative merits of inns..” (It should be noted that this was long before the advent of Denny’s, McDonald’s, Howard Johnson’s and all the other chain restaurants that pepper the freeways from coast to coast – in 1941, we didn’t even HAVE freeways!)
Hines, in his “ADVENTURES IN GOOD EATING” notes “Tourists are free spenders and ‘eating out’ amid country surroundings is the modern vogue and prevailing recreational fashion….nearly everyone wants at least one outstanding meal a day. You may not be in that locality again soon so you want food that is satisfying and which can be remembered with pleasure—not the usual 50c or 65c meal…” (Imagine what Mr. Hines would think of restaurant prices today!)
In 1945, Mr. Hines published “ADVENTURES IN GOOD COOKING AND THE ART OF CARVING IN THE HOME”, taking his “ADVENTURES IN GOOD EATING” a step further. While the original book simply listed the names/addresses/and basic information about the places he had visited, and approved, “Good Cooking” offered recipes from the various restaurants. Mr. Hines became known nationally through a syndicated newspaper column and a weekly radio show, but probably achieved his greatest fame by sponsoring a line of food products.
In 1950, Duncan Hines became associated with Roy Park of Ithaca New York. Hines-Park Inc produced more than 50 kitchen items and 200 food products, which were marketed nationwide under the Duncan Hines brand name. In 1956, the company merged with Proctor & Gamble. Then, in 1998 Aurora Foods acquired the Duncan Hines brand from Proctor & Gamble.
A keener sense of the person who was Duncan Hines can be gleaned from the pages of “FOOD ODYSSEY”, in which the author tells the story of the best meal he ever ate, when he was a Wells-Fargo clerk at the age of 19. How did the boy from Bowling Green, Kentucky, end up a Wells Fargo clerk in Wyoming? It came about, the author explains, when a doctor diagnosed him as having asthma. A dry climate was the recommended treatment for asthma in 1899, so the young boy was sent to Cheyenne. (The best meal he ever ate? Ham and eggs, after being lost and walking around in circles for several days). And, it turned out, he didn’t have asthma after all!
On March 16, 1959, Duncan Hines passed away, at his home in Bowling Green, at the age of 78, of lung cancer. Yet his name lives on and was the obvious inspiration for the many “restaurant cookbooks” that followed.
One of these was “THE FORD TREASURY OF FAVORITE RECIPES FROM FAMOUS EATING PLACES”, which appears to have first appeared on bookstore shelves in 1950. The Ford Treasury books took famous restaurant dining at step further with colorful illustrations of the places they had found worthy and provide a recipe from each. It would be interesting to know just how many of these places still exist, more than 50 years later! As a Californian, I can attest to a few – Cold Spring Tavern, for example, is a place in the mountains above Santa Barbara. Bob and I have been there for dinner and the last time we visited the place, it was still a pretty famous restaurant.
I don’t know how many Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places were ultimately published; I have the first and third books; the third, published in 1959, lists Chasen’s and Perino’s restaurants in Los Angeles (neither of which are still in existence and Lawry’s The Prime Rib (which still is going strong)
Later, Ford would shorten the name of their series and call it “The Ford Times Cookbook” I have a 5th edition of the Ford Times Cookbook, published by Simon & Schuster in 1968.
In 1963, the Holiday Inns of America published “COOKING THE HOLIDAY INN WAY” which, admittedly, offered only recipes from the various Holiday Inns – still, the basic idea was the same.
Could Jane and Michael Stern or Marian Clark be far behind?
In the world of cookbooks, Jane and Michael Stern are familiar names, beginning with their travel guide “ROADFOOD”, published over 30 years ago. When the Sterns started out in the late 70s, they were worried that the country was becoming “a bit homogenized, on the verge of losing its regional diversity”. Michael recalled that when they published their first travel guide, they thought they were documenting something that was dying, that franchises were going to take over.
IN 1988, Andrews and McMeel published Jane and Michael Sterns’ “A TASTE OF AMERICA”, providing, along with recipes, an in-depth description of the places they had visited. “A Taste of America” appears to have grown from the publication of a weekly newspaper column. In the Introduction to “A Taste of America” the authors explain, “For fifteen years we have had the world’s greatest job. We drive around America eating the best food we can find, then we tell people about it in our books and in a weekly newspaper column called ‘A Taste of America’”.
This book was what the Sterns considered the cream of the crop.
In 1997 Jane and Michael Stern’s “EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE U.S.A.” was published by Broadway Books. “EAT YOUR WAY…” features 500 diners, lobster hacks, farmland buffets, pie palaces, and other All-American Eateries. The Sterns noted that they had begun traveling around the country looking for good food in 1974 and had driven more than three million miles, eating in tens of thousands of restaurants, with “EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE U.S.A.” the culmination of their quest.
Now here’s an observation for those of you who want to know these things; “A Taste of America” includes essays and a more in depth look at the places featured in the book. “EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE U.S.A.” seems more like the Duncan Hines books of old – a guide, small enough to carry with you in the glove compartment of your car as you venture forth in search of good food at good restaurants. Everything old is new again – a few decades had passed, but “Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A.” follows the path set by Duncan Hines long ago.
The Sterns have written quite a few books, not all of them about food. Since we are primarily preoccupied with food and cookbooks, other Stern books you may want to look for include “Good Food”, “ Square Meals”, “Real American Food”, “A Taste of America”, “American Gourmet”, “The All New Roadfood’, “Eat your Way Across the USA”, and “Chili Nation”. The Sterns are also the co-authors of “Where to Eat in Connecticut”, “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste”, “Roadfood” and “Goodfood”, “ Sixties People”, and one of my very favorites, “A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy” – the story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
In 1993, Council Oak Books published Marian Clark’s “THE ROUTE 66 COOKBOOK”. The author explains, “Route 66 and everything it stands for remains one of my passions. As I sit at my desk in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the old highway is only a few miles away. Chunks of the original pavement from various locations are in my collection of cherished totems. Memories of the people and places from the road are indelibly stamped in my mind…Route 66 is not just another American highway. For millions of travelers, this artery has forever meant ‘going somewhere’…”
In 1997, Marian Clark’s “THE MAIN STREET OF AMERICA COOKBOOK/A CULINARY JOURNEY DOWN ROUTE 66” was published by Council Oak Books. Both books are reminiscent of The Sterns’ “A TASTE OF AMERICA” – EXCEPT all of the restaurants and recipes in Marion Clark’s books come from (what else?) the famous Route 66.
The first time my then-husband and I and our one-year old son drove across country to live in California, it was 1961 and on Route 66. Shades of Grapes of Wrath! We had an ironing board and the baby’s bed tied to the roof of the car! (Now, forty years later, I can’t for the life of me imagine why I felt it necessary to tote along an ironing board when we could have bought a new one for a few dollars). What I do remember, fondly, however, are the good meals we enjoyed along the way. I also remember the nighttime sky, inky black, with millions of stars, as we drove across the Southwestern States, from Texas to Arizona.
Marian Clark’s books will bring back many happy memories for anyone who has traveled the famous “Route 66”.
So, even though Duncan Hines was first – and Jane and Michael Stern have perhaps perfected it – the quest for good regional food from coast to coast is still sought after by many, enough to garner any number of websites and newspaper articles. Don’t have a computer, you say? A friend of mine reports that, at her home in Oklahoma, she is able to spend one hour a day on the Internet at her public library.
On a closing note, in a cookbook published in 1949, titled “OUT OF KENTUCKY KITCHENS” by Marion Flexner, Mr. Hines provided the preface, in which he observes, “when a person asks, ‘Where is the best place to eat?’ I always say “in your own home.”
So, if you can’t make it to Mom’s Diner on Route 66, you might want to head home to your own mother’s house for dinner tonight.