“Mention the name ‘Duncan Hines’ to Americans under fifty-five today and the image their minds will undoubtedly conjure is a cake mix package,” writes Louis Hatchett in the introduction to Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Name in Food, by way of explaining the necessity of a Hines biography. To older Americans, on the other hand, “Duncan Hines was a man … who recommended the best places Americans could eat and sleep when traveling along the country’s early paved highways at a time when they were thirsty for such knowledge.”
The newly published biography, which painstakingly traces Hines’ journey from renowned restaurant critic to cake-mix spokesman, is in fact a repackaging of Hatchett’s out-of-print 2001 book, which had the arguably pithier subtitle The Man Behind the Cake Mix. The timing of the new edition’s appearance is apt: The prospective book purchasers of 2014 include a fresh batch of millennials who are both intensely interested in food and ignorant of the fact that Hines was a real guy, renowned in his heyday not for canned frosting but for his best-selling, frequently updated, self-published guides to American restaurants and inns. There is something uncannily contemporary about Hines’ career trajectory: Although Hines’ books were a massive success in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, it’s easy to imagine that he’d fare even better in the Internet age. His writing was chatty, self-important, and marketing-friendly. If he lived today, Duncan Hines would be the world’s most famous food blogger.
Alas, Hines came of age a century too early to earn a cult following online. He was born in 1880 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the youngest child of a former Confederate soldier. Hines’ mother died when Hines was 4, and his father shipped him and one of his brothers off to live with his maternal grandmother, who raised them on “apple pie, pecan pie, … country ham, candied yams, turnip greens with fatback, beaten biscuits and cornbread,” as Hines later reminisced.
As a young adult, Hines headed out West to work for Wells Fargo and the Green Copper Company for a few years before settling down with his first wife, Florence, in Chicago. As a traveling salesman for a direct mail advertising firm, Hines began taking notes about the best places to eat across America; his search for decent restaurants soon became an all-consuming hobby. As Hines found himself inundated with requests for recommendations from friends and acquaintances, he decided to publish a pamphlet of his endorsements, which was so popular it morphed into a book, Adventures in Good Eating, in 1936, which soon spawned other books about cooking, eating, and traveling. All in all, Hines sold almost 2 million books between 1936 and 1947, and became so famous that in 1948 he had better name recognition than the vice president of the United States. This is why food manufacturers clamored to get Hines’ name on their products, and eventually succeeded.
In short, Duncan Hines was, objectively speaking, a big deal: one of the country’s first food celebrities, beloved by millions. “Americans regarded his every word with the highest esteem,” writes Hatchett. Hatchett regards Hines’ every word with the highest esteem, too—but that makes the book a little weird, because Duncan Hines sounds like—how to put this?—a domineering, narcissistic jerk.
As a child, he and his friends built a snowman on train tracks near their home, and as a train approached, “the engineer slammed on the brakes so hard to avoid hitting it the violent action uncoupled some of the cars.” This wasn’t a one-time event: He also greased up the tracks on an incline to prevent trains from reaching the top of the hill. Hatchett describes these incidents, which endangered passengers’ lives, as “mischief and merry-making.”
Hines’ youthful indiscretions weren’t the only thing that left a sour taste in my mouth after reading Duncan Hines. According to a former employee, Hines would hire female secretaries “if he decided he liked somebody’s looks.” His second wife, Emelie, divorced him on the grounds of “cruelty.” He had a violent temper; his nephew worked briefly for Hines, “but he quit after about three weeks because his uncle was partial to ‘blowing up’ at him over usually inconsequential matters.” Hines was vain and so craved attention from fans that he put up a sign in front of his home announcing that he lived there. (“Success did not go to his head,” Hatchett elsewhere asserts.)