Duncan Hines Was a Real Guy! And, Apparently, a Jerk.

Reading between the lines.
May 9 2014 4:04 PM

Duncan Hines Was a Real Guy

And the cake-mix magnate was kind of a jerk.

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Worse, to my mind, Hines was a total snob. “Hines had no patience with people who had failed in life,” write Hatchett. After his first book was published in 1936, he surrounded himself with those he deemed “successful people.” “In Hines’s day, people from this social strata tended to travel frequently enough to experience ‘adventures in good eating’; hoi polloi did not. People who had succeeded in life, Hines felt, could be trusted; they had competently managed their careers and finances to the point where they were considered honorable members of society.” This was a remarkably callous view to hold during the Great Depression.

Duncan Hines.

It’s always difficult to take a person who lived by the standards of behavior of a different time and judge him by our own. But Hatchett has a stubborn blind spot where Hines’ character flaws are concerned: Even as he reports on evidence of Hines’ superciliousness, volatility, sexism, and cruelty, he asserts that Hines was a king among men. “Duncan Hines rose to fame simply because he possessed human qualities many Americans wanted to see in their fellow man: character, uncompromising honesty, and integrity,” he writes. Hines was “an average man who came to America’s attention, was perceived by them as unusually trustworthy and who, because of that perception, became an American icon. Surprisingly, the public’s perception and the reality were nearly identical.”

Hatchett isn’t the first biographer to revere his subject. But at times in this book, he seems less like Hines’ biographer writing in the 21st century and more like his PR man pushing a story to 1930s rubes.

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Hines was beloved by the public, Hatchett writes, because he refused to accept remuneration for his endorsements: “One restaurant offered Hines $10,000 for an advertisement; Hines refused, ‘preferring to keep his book uninfluenced by any commercial considerations.’ ” But what’s fascinating is that Hatchett maintains his reverence for Duncan Hines’ clean hands even as his own thorough research reveals that, by contemporary standards, Hines’ hands had an awful lot of dirt on them. (Or was that frosting?) He charged money for the restaurants he endorsed to display a “Duncan Hines Seal of Approval,” and, since the profit margins on his guidebooks were so low, he made most of his income this way (until he began shilling for cake mixes). “His sign rental business translated into an annual profit of almost $38,000 a year,” writes Hatchett, in an era when the average U.S. income was about $3,000. Hines also openly expected the restaurants in the “Duncan Hines Family” to sell his books to their customers, and he complained that those that didn’t “were nothing but ingrates.” Most ostentatiously, Hines accepted a Cadillac convertible as a birthday gift from the “Duncan Hines Family” restaurateurs. That these quid pro quo arrangements—in which Hines got most of his money, plus some sweet swag, from the very people he was endorsing—might constitute a conflict of interest never seems to cross Hatchett’s mind.

“The man who said ‘Every man has his price’ never met Duncan Hines,” writes Hatchett at the beginning of the book. As I read about Hines’ deal with ad exec Roy Park to put his name and photo on grocery items (including the enduring cake mix), I kept turning back to that page to confirm I’d really read those words. Park went on to sell Duncan Hines–branded jam, pickles, mushrooms, sherbet, salad dressing, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, bread, pancake mix, ice cream, cooking ranges, and coffee makers. By 1955, Duncan Hines products were bringing in $50 million (about $441 million in today’s dollars), with Hines earning royalties from each sale. Clearly, Hines had his price.

It’s not that I think Hines did the wrong thing by selling out. (Who among us wouldn’t take a cut of that $50 mil?) It’s just that there was clearly some tension between his vaunted objectivity and his business agreements. Instead of exploring that tension, Hatchett presents Hines’ personal mythology to modern readers who are long past accepting midcentury heroism at face value.

It’s easy to imagine a modern-day Duncan Hines launching a food blog chronicling his search for hidden meccas of regional cooking across the country, but it’s hard to imagine Hines launching a successful cake-mix brand today. In the mid-20th century, there was no obvious contradiction between Hines’ role as a booster for local, independent restaurants and his role as a spokesman for processed grocery store fare. Today, Hines would have to pick one role or the other: champion of the little guy or Big Food apologist? This odd but interesting biography makes it clear that Duncan Hines made a career out of having it both ways.

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Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Name in Food by Louis Hatchett. The University Press of Kentucky.

Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Name in Food
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