- Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking by Linda Civitello
By Linda Civitello. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017. ix +252 pp. Illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 paper.
Linda Civitello’s latest book, Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking, is quite a departure from her previous globally centered and broad work, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People. An attractive, full-color cover photograph of an old baking powder canister shot full of holes promises that the reader is about to embark on a raucous adventure of the leavening agent’s history. Yes, baking powder and raucous adventure just occurred together in the same sentence. Happily, Civitello’s work does not disappoint in creating a stimulating history of a now ubiquitous American ingredient.
Using numerous public, private, and corporate collections in California and throughout the Midwest, the author has meticulously researched the development of baking powder and its indelible links to industrialization, corporate structures, food policy, and advertisements touting quick-rising breads as a key feature of the American dream. However, Civitello writes more than a straightforward business history.
Before delving into the trade wars of baking powder moguls, she vividly explores how properly made daily bread—with the right amount of rise, a tender crumb, and consistently good flavor—was for centuries chiefly the burden of women. By the eighteenth century, bread making was closely associated with domesticity, wholesomeness, health, and purity. The stakes were high for women who struggled to turn out quality daily bread using potentially inconsistent leavening agents. Every loaf was potentially a shaming tool, used to either prove or ridicule her virtue as a good wife and mother. In response, women strove to create consistent and quick chemical leavening agents in their kitchens to alleviate the physical and social burdens of bread making. Their experiments with wood ash and tartaric acid eventually became the basis for a nationwide industry.
Science refined baking powder production and improved the preciseness of the chemical process by the early nineteenth century. Chemical leavening became big business after the end of the American Civil War, with each company closely guarding their own recipe. Civitello [End Page 245] does well to carefully point out how the baking powder industry fit into the larger development of Gilded Age consumer culture with its foundation of consistent mass production. In the associated advertising war, businesses focused their efforts on women, attempting to create both brand loyalty and assuage any lingering doubts about the safety of chemical leaveners in a multi-decade media campaign. By the end of the century, midwestern baking powder manufacturers like Calumet, Rumford, Royal, and Clabber (later Clabber Girl) dominated the industry and grocers’ shelves.
With industrial food production solidifying its place in American life in the first half of the twentieth century, the battle over baking powder shifted to the Federal Trade Commission and a resultant proliferation of self-rising flour, cake mixes, and quick breads touted as the solution to home baking for working women and harried housewives. By the twenty-first century, baking powder was ever-present but rarely considered due to this marked increase in quick mixes and commercial bakeries along with a significant decline in home baking. The recent antimodernist food movement has not changed that substantially.
Civitello’s work is, as promised, an exciting exploration of baking powder and a welcome addition to studies of food history. Using the seemingly ubiquitous white powder found in most kitchens across the United States as a device to trace the historic role of women in food production, the rise of industrial food and adoption of early chemical food additives, and evolving patterns of consumption is no small task. Civitello accomplishes that and proves baking powder is indeed as American as buttermilk biscuits.
Texas A&M University–Commerce