Keeping Up With How We Cook


AS Betty Crocker celebrates 70 years of helping America cook, she is still asking the question: ``What do consumers need, and how can I help?'' Through the years, the fictitious spokeswoman for General Mills has worked hard to provide up-to-date answers to that question, sniffing out American food trends and keeping an eye on the future's bubbling pot.

So what trends does Betty spot these days?

On an individual level: people's lack of time and their need for convenience, nutrition, and variety.

On a national level: changing demographics, lower literacy levels, and no ``typical American cook'' in the kitchen.

Reflecting that stay-in-style role are the Betty Crocker portraits on display here at headquarters. Always wearing red and white, Betty Crocker has updated her image six times. These days, she looks more like a career mom than a homemaker (see photo, upper left).

``There's a lot of trust in Betty Crocker,'' says Barry Wegener, a real, live spokesman for General Mills, as he gives this writer a tour. General Mills has sold more than 25 million copies of their ``Betty Crocker's Cookbook'' since 1950, and her name appears on 200 products - from Gold Medal flour to ready-to-spread frosting.

Behind Betty's name are many professionals, including food scientists, nutritionists, marketers, researchers, home economists, and others. In 1989 the company conducted 374 studies and talked to nearly 80,000 consumers at a cost of $8 million. Studies included consumer pantry inventories (see accompanying story), menu censuses, and equipment studies.

``Always, time is an issue,'' says Ms. Tlusty. With two-career households and more single-parent families, people want to cook healthy, good meals, but don't have a lot of time. The average number of items on the American table used to be as many as 10;today it is 2.6. The latest Betty Crocker cookbooks list recipes that have fewer ingredients (generally six) and take less time to prepare (generally no more than 30 minutes). ``Betty Crocker's New Picture Cookbook'' (1956) has a recipe for Lasagne and Me at Balls that lists 22 ingredients. Vegetable Lasagne in 1988's ``Betty Crocker's SmartCook'' has eight.

``Today, `scratch' cooking is a mix,'' says Tlusty. Cooks want to have their cake and eat it, too - all in a few minutes. She adds: ``If our great-grandmothers saw the way we're cooking they would say, `What do they do with their spare time?'''

With microwave ovens (one survey found that 80 percent of American households own at least one) and foodstuffs that are increasingly ``instant,'' Americans have upped the ante of convenience and time spent when it comes to preparing food. Here in the test kitchens, microwave ovens made their debut in the early 1970s. Now there are at least two in each test kitchen (each with different wattage). Betty Crocker has four microwave cookbooks, with more on the way.

Yet while most people complain of time bandits, there are also those who revel in the joys of cooking. Here, that notion is referred to as ``the weekend chef concept.'' Such people see cooking as enjoyment, a sense of freedom and creativity, says Tlusty. More and more men are cooking and shopping for food. So are more teenagers and children, for whom Betty Crocker recently published ``Betty Crocker's Boys & Girls Cookbook.''

Lending cooking help to a country that is becoming more diverse isn't easy. Changing demographics and America's new ethnic and cultural ``mosaic'' means the people in the kitchen are probably less and less like the image of Betty herself.

Families are smaller, which has meant designing recipes for 4 to 6 people instead of 10 to 12. A lower literacy level and an influx of immigrants for whom English is a second language calls for simpler instructions and more diagrams. The fact that Hispanic and Asian populations are increasing, for example, may someday bring about cookbooks written in other languages, says Tlusty.

``Part of our research has to do with not what's happening at home, but what's happening at restaurants,'' says Wegener, because often those concepts may show up in the home.

Another continuing food trend is nutrition. ``The health issue is something everyone's talking about,'' says Tlusty. And the trend shows no sign of going down the garbage disposal, she adds. Today more Betty Crocker products and cookbooks contain nutritional information, including the basic ``Betty Crocker Cookbook,'' now in its sixth edition. Coming this fall is ``The New Betty Crocker Cookbook'' - revised for the 1990s with less salt, less fat.

But at the same time, Americans want to indulge, says Wegener. There's always that person who will drink diet soda with a piece of cheesecake. ``Some people remember Grandma's Sunday dinner,'' says Tlusty, full of fixin's and nostalgia. Enter ``Betty Crocker's Old-Fashioned Cookbook'' last year.

At the end of the day, Betty Crocker must provide consumers something that is economical, reliable, and tastes good. Those variables don't change much with food trends, says Wegener.

``The most important thing is consistent quality,'' says Wegener. Products and recipes are put through a battery of tests, including one for recipe ``tolerance.'' That test attempts to answer the question: ``How big a mistake may a home chef make before a recipe becomes a failure?''

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