Tom Lohr is a navy veteran, world traveler, adventurer, baseball fan and hot dog aficionado. He loves dogs and hates political correctness.
The Strangers in Your Kitchen
They are there . . . they have always been there; persons in your home that you know little or nothing about. They lurk in your pantry and play an integral part in one of our most intimate domestic rituals: mealtime.
They are the iconic brand ambassadors of food products we enjoy. Everyone has a few loitering in their cupboard, waiting for the moment when they can become part of our lives. Without them, our meals would taste different and be far less convenient. Who are these unknown entities that stare back at us while we break bread? Are they real or made up? Why do they adorn the packaging of the products we place in our kitchens?
Most of the marketing vehicles for these products are based on actual people, while some are cartoonish images to designed capture our imagination. After all, who would question a 30-foot-tall giant about the freshness of his peas? It isn't enough to know that these folks are doing their job by convincing consumers, you need to get to know them. If they are going to hang out in your kitchen 24/7, they need to pass a background check. So start the dishwasher, clean off the table and allow me to introduce:
America’s favorite rice proprietor is actually a conglomeration of two people. An African-American rice farmer in Texas known as “Uncle Ben” was legendary in producing quality rice. His standard was so high his name was adopted for the brand. However the gentleman’s image that personifies Uncle Ben was actually a popular chef and waiter in Chicago named Frank Brown.
Though Uncle Ben's visage has adorned the packaging since the late 1940s, the image has been seen by many as racially insensitive—and it is currently undergoing review. While his rice will still be delicious, expect a new name and image for Uncle Ben's rice in the near future.
This woman was a staple in our freezer when I as a kid. Her children were probably put through college with the money my parents spent buying her fish sticks. In 1943 a Philadelphia power plant worker named Edward Piszek started selling crab cakes for extra cash. He would freeze the ones he didn’t sell and soon partnered with a friend named John Paul to start a frozen seafood business. Despite Piszek’s mother wanting the company named after her, the duo opted to name it after John’s mother and Mrs. Paul’s Kitchen was born (later shortened to just Mrs. Paul’s).
Ettore Boiardi is a true American success story. An Italian immigrant, he worked his way up to become head chef and was talented enough to cater the reception for President Woodrow Wilson’s second wedding. He opened a restaurant and subsequently needed a factory to keep up with the demand for his establishment’s recipes. Seeking to sell nationally the renowned chef changed his name so it would be easier to pronounce by the American public. Business boomed as he provided meal rations to the troops during World War Two. He eventually sold his company but his likeness continues to adorn Boyardee products.
The Texas native first gained notoriety as a country singer and his biggest hit, “Big Bad John,” was a crossover sensation. His singing garnered him a television show that was the first to give Muppets creator Jim Henson significant exposure. As his music career waned he founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company with his brother. Capitalizing on Jimmy’s name recognition the company did well and was acquired by the future Sara Lee Corporation in in 1984. Jimmy remained the spokesperson for the sausage until 2004 but the product still bears his name.
Being a cute eight-year-old has its advantages. That is how old Sara Lee Lubin was when her father Charlie decided to name his renowned cheesecake after his daughter. He then named his chain of bakeries in the Chicago area “The Kitchens of Sara Lee.” Great products blossom and soon Sara Lee was a national brand. The brand name became so strong that Consolidated Foods Corporations, which had purchased several brand names in the 1950s and '60s (including Chef Boyardee) was renamed the Sara Lee Corporation in 1985.
The queen of pancakes, our favorite aunt has been a breakfast icon since 1889 when the Pearl Milling Company developed the first ready-mix pancakes. While details are sketchy, it is widely believed that the pancake name was derived from a blackface actor (likely a man) portraying a woman in a traveling minstrel show billed as “Old Aunt Jemima.” Throughout the 20th century, several women were hired for long stints to publicly portray Aunt Jemima at events as prestigious as the World’s Fair. In 1989 the image of Aunt Jemima was updated by removing the kerchief from her head and adding a pearl necklace and earrings. After more than a century, Jemima reigns supreme in the world of pancakes.
Jemima's makeover kept her up with the times for a while, but considering her origins, Aunt Jemima products are slated to be renamed.
Joy Butterworth (Mrs. to you and I) also has a stake in the pancake market, but only as a delicious syrup topping. Debuting in 1961, the matron of pancake syrup has something in common with Aunt Jemima other than pancakes: neither existed in real life.
Like Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth causes discomfort for some and is due for a revamping of image and marketing. No word on how Mr. Butterworth feels about that.
The Jolly Green Giant
The big green guy has been hawking vegetables since 1925 and was named after a variety of peas. Afterwards, he became so popular that his creator, the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, changed its name after him. In fact, the Green Giant is the third most recognized advertising icon of the 20th century; just behind Ronald McDonald and the Marlboro Man. Third isn’t so bad considering peas are by far the healthier choice.
I am immediately suspicions of a Captain that cannot get promoted to Admiral after more than 50 years of service. But Captain Crunch has managed to do just that after setting sail on the SS Guppy and landing his sugary breakfast treat on our grocery store shelves in 1963. He shares the same creator as Rocky and Bullwinkle, neither of which were military material, so perhaps that is what keeps holding the Captain back. Or perhaps it’s that “I’ve had 20 cups of coffee too many” look in his eye that makes you wonder if he will make Snap, Crackle and Pop walk the plank.
Tony the Tiger
Tony is one cool cat. He is suave and convincing and really makes one believe his product is GRRRRRREAT! He has been gracing the box of Frosted Flakes since 1951 after beating out Katy the Kangaroo, Elmo the Elephant and Newt the Gnu for spokes creature. He was named Tony after the advertising man that help bring him to life, and in the 1970s was given a wife and children as well as an Italian-American heritage.
Originally E.K Pond peanut butter, the creamy staple of decades of kids’ lunches changed its name to Peter Pan in 1928. The flying youngster that graces most of the packaging is based on J.M. Barrie’s classic character. Barrie left a lasting legacy by gifting the rights to Peter Pan to The Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. His peanut butter pal and counterpart had an eye on the future as well, and in 1988 became the first brand to sell peanut butter in a plastic jar.
Tony (of Tony’s Pizza)
Dick Barlow started a pizza place in Salina, Kansas, in 1960 and named it after his brother-in-law Tony Pagilla. In the 1970s Schwan’s bought Tony’s and it soon became a frozen favorite around the nation.
Pottstown, Pennsylvania, native Amanda Smith began baking quality pies for family and friends in the first part of the 20th century. Her son Robert knew a good pie when he tasted one, and by 1922 was selling his mom’s pies full-time. In 1950, the company added frozen pies to its lineup and Amanda was soon the queen of the pie market. In 2003 Mrs. Smith was bought by Schwan’s (the company, not Mrs. Smith herself).
Perhaps inspired by Mrs. Smith’s success, Marie opened a pie shop in the 1948 using funds from selling the family car. She operated out of her trailer park home in Huntington Beach, California, with her son Don delivering pies via bicycle. The duo opened a retail store and added other foods to their lineup before opening a chain of restaurants. Marie added her name to frozen foods entrees that now adorn the supermarket freezers everywhere.
The Quaker Oats Guy
The German Mills American Cereal Company was founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1850. In 1877 it registered its first breakfast cereal: Quaker Oats. The company chose a Quaker for its pitchman because, in the early 20th century, Quakers were noted for honesty and integrity. Despite using one as their logo for over a century, Quaker Oats has no official ties to the actual Quaker religion. Today it is owned by Pepsi.
If there is one woman that could be deemed “Culinary Queen” it would be Betty Crocker. Easily the most recognizable icon of the American kitchen, Betty has been serving up grub and penning cookbooks for nearly a century. She would be the most famous cook in the nation . . . if she actually existed.
In 1921 the Washburn Crosby Company (one of the mills that would later comprise the conglomerate of General Mills) sought to personalize their products to put a name on responses to consumer questions. The company chose the name Betty because it sounded all-American and cheerful, and the last name of Crocker in honor of William Crocker, one of the company’s directors. While not an actual person, the image of Betty is a combination of the 75 real-life women.
This Indiana native spent most of his life pursuing the perfect popcorn. Dabbling in the fertilizer business to make ends meet while testing popcorn hybrids, he and his partner finally settled on a strain they called “Red Bow.” By 1970 he was in the popcorn business. Orville’s product was so well received that by the mid 1970s he had captured a third of the popcorn market. Today, Orville is still honored in the town where his popcorn in made, Valparaiso, Indiana, where a statue bearing his likeness stands, as well as the home of the annual popcorn festival.
All of the aforementioned culinary characters, real or made-up, are great at feeding the family. Unfortunately, they aren’t always neat about it. With a crowd like that in the kitchen you need a tough guy to clean up the mess. Mr. Clean is your man. Created by ship cleaning businessman Linwood Burton, it should come as no surprise that the image of Mr. Clean is based on an unknown sailor from the Pensacola, Florida, area. Often mistaken for a genie, this sanitary man of the seas has been swabbing kitchen decks and countertops since 1958. With his debonaire good looks and smooth head, he has a large international presence under various monikers but the same likeness. Perhaps the most suave being his Spanish persona “Don Limpio.”
Get to Know Your Culinary Team
Clamoring around the cabinets while vying for a spot on the menu, this cast of characters ensures that even in the most solitary households you are never alone in kitchen. The next time you hear a sound in the middle of the night it might be the wind . . . or one of the strangers in your kitchen.
Reward for a Job Well Done
Liz Westwood from UK on June 24, 2020:
I was surprised that I recognised quite a few of these from brands sold in the UK. The background information in your article is interesting.