Duncan Hines is known today mainly for those ubiquitous boxes of cake mix in supermarkets. But he was no Betty Crocker. A real person, not a fictional brand symbol, he was a onetime traveling salesman with an appreciation of good food honed by many years and countless miles on the road.
Hines took his knowledge of where to eat and published a dining guidebook that proved so popular and influential that it spurred the restaurant industry to, literally, clean up its act. Hines’ name became synonymous with quality, which eventually led to that fateful cake mix tie-in.
“He was a pioneer,” says Michael Stern, the Bethel, Conn.-based co-author of multiple dining guides with his former wife, Jane Stern. “Now it’s common for people to travel across the country and take photos of the food and explore the culinary landscape. Before Duncan Hines, that would have been inconceivable.”
Dining out was risky business in the first decades of the 20th century.
“As Duncan Hines liked to say, more people died of restaurant food poisoning than hit-and-run accidents,” says Louis Hatchett, of Henderson, Ky., author of the biography “Duncan Hines: The Man Behind the Cake Mix.”
Hines kept a list of the best restaurants he had encountered on the road. Word of that got around quickly, and he was constantly asked for recommendations. The requests grew to such volume that he decided to publish a restaurant guidebook, “Adventures in Good Eating,” in 1936.
He quickly became a national figure, acclaimed as a savior of the motoring public. He kept his star bright with frequent revisions to his restaurant book, issuing a companion volume in 1938, “Lodging for a Night,” and, a year later, a cookbook titled “Adventures in Good Cooking.” Other works followed.
Hines worked hard on behalf of his readers, making it clear he never accepted a free meal or advertising. And he had standards. Restaurants hoping to be included in his guidebook had to modernize their operations, Hatchett notes, and kitchens had to be open for inspection by any customer who asked.
So well-known and trusted did Hines become that he was approached by a businessman named Roy Park to introduce a line of food products bearing the Duncan Hines name. The resulting company, Hines-Park Inc., began in 1949 with ice cream; cake mixes came a few years later. (Hines-Park was sold in 1956; Pinnacle Foods Corp. owns the brand today.)
Hines died in 1959 at age 78 in his hometown of Bowling Green, Ky. Every summer, the Bowling Green Junior Woman’s Club hosts a Duncan Hines Festival to raise money for charity. Western Kentucky University houses an exhibit on Hines in its Kentucky Museum.
“We have to do a lot of Duncan Hines 101,” says Marissa Butler, marketing director for the Bowling Green Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “People know the name, but that’s where it stops.”
Too bad. For Hines deserves credit, and perhaps a silent prayer of Thanksgiving, for helping create the dining landscape so many take for granted today.
“Duncan Hines changed the way Americans looked at restaurants,” Hatchett says. “Before he came along, restaurants were places to be apprehensive about. After he came, restaurants were places of enjoyment, safe places to eat.”
Duncan Hines’ dining
A sampling of restaurant reviews published in the 1947 edition of Duncan Hines’ “Adventures in Good Eating: Good Eating Places Along the Highways of America.”
Baltimore: Chesapeake Restaurant. “They feature prime beef, charcoal broiled, with the slogan ‘Cut your steak with a fork else tear up the check and walk out.’ As this is seafood territory, theirs should be good. The kitchen is the first spot I inspect in an eating place. You are invited to visit this one.”
Chicago: St. Hubert’s Old English Grill. “Some think of this as a man’s restaurant. The first floor is reserved for men only. The second floor for ladies with escorts or alone. It is squeezed between two tall buildings on a little known Loop street. A bit of Old England with carved oak beams, stained-glass windows and red-coated waiters bearing aloft, most likely, platters of mutton chops two inches thick! Amazing, those chops! Perhaps that is why the ladies long for invitations.”