- Series: Heartland Foodways
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: University of Illinois Press (May 22, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0252082591
- ISBN-13: 978-0252082597
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking (Heartland Foodways) Paperback – May 22, 2017
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"A thrilling tale of food business, especially the wonderful chapter seven, about the shenanigans of corrupt businessmen and politicians.”--Bruce Kraig, coeditor of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia
"[A] meticulously researched history."--Orlando Weekly
"Linda Civitello has mined her subject thoroughly and documented how it changed American baking to satisfy our hurry-up attitude toward life and food in general, as we embraced a quick and easy solution to the tiresome problem of supplying the family table. Along the way, Civitello records in detail the fundamental history of a business that is almost uniquely American--the baking powder business. Who knew that baking powder could be such a rich resource?"--Nancy Harmon
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Just like in the kitchen, there is a lot of prep work. Civitello puts women in their place, experimenting, inventing, and investigating ingredients and processes, pre baking powder. They communicated by the cookbooks they wrote. They messed with longstanding family recipes that did not work in the colonies, where the flour was different, corn was more available than wheat, and a distinct preference for light and sweet soon developed. Women were in charge of baking, and they ran with it. They innovated. Then however, men invented baking powder in 1850, and fought over it. Women were there to purchase it, and the men created a whole new way of living by getting them to buy it continuously.
When the big four competitors (Rumford, Calumet, Royal and Clabber Girl) decided to take on the women who insisted on making their leavening from scratch, their first thought was to take over the cookbook. They could add color plates and fancier layouts in these corporate cookbooks. And plaster them with their brand. They also competed in trade cards that were popular to collect (and which eventually morphed into bubblegum trading cards). And almanacs. Soon, they took to badmouthing each other via their door to door salesmen, their print advertising and their packaging. They tried to get laws passed banning the competition’s product. They bought media so effectively the media were not permitted to print replies and rebuttals that might criticize their product. With one or two exceptions, they ran their employees ragged, paid women less than men, and fought regulation, food safety and labor standards. So very little has changed.
Civitello’s life is food history. She collects it, researches it and writes about it. It looks like a niche she could simply own, and most of the images are from her own collection. Her book is a delight. She interlaces the absurd history with jabs at the male-dominated world and the racists – both men and women, who dominated it. Women stole recipes from their slaves and ads portrayed women at ease thanks to the black “help”. (There is a particularly nasty description of the revered Marjorie Kennan Rawlings.) Civitello lays it all our out for readers to judge. This mountain via molehill has a variety of villains and a variety of impacts. It moves quickly and brings back all kinds of pop culture memories. It is a sweet treat on its own.
I have a deep interest in 19th century history. It provides the background for several of my novels. I'm also a food blogger and all-around foodie. I am endlessly fascinated by the role of food in book world-building and in our own history.
Therefore Baking Powder Wars is perfect for me. At times, it's confusing because of the sheer number of names, but it never ceases to be interesting. The book begins with a discussion of leavening ingredients over time, starting with yeast and pearlash, and the development of different types of baking powder over the 19th century. The companies truly did wage a nasty political and commercial war for dominance, and two companies ultimately emerged victorious: Clabber Girl and Calumet. That's no spoiler, as I bet most folks have one or the other in their cabinet. (I was raised with Clabber Girl.)
What really interested me, though, were the cultural ramifications of baking powder. It obviously freed women from the kitchen and the hours and days it might take to create yeast bread, but baking powder also became integrated in different cultures and regions of the United States, and gradually changed traditional recipes to become baking powder recipes. Southern-style biscuits are a prime example of this. As baking powder became a symbol of modernity and civilization, it also played a part in controlling Native Americans on reservations (baking powder and flour were allotted to them, and became part of the reservation food Indian fry bread, which didn't exist before then) and perpetuating racist stereotypes of blacks through the 1930s and onward.
If you have any interest in food and history, seek out this book. I'll never look at my baking powder the same way again.