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“Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat food fight that revolutionized cook,” by Linda Civitello, Univ of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2017. This 254-page paperback tells the story of baking powder displacing yeast as leavening agent. The author reviews early cookbooks to show how baking has changed.

The traditional leavening agent used in baking especially bread is yeast. Yeast is a living organism that feeds on gluten in wheat flour to produce carbon dioxide (and alcohol) forming bubbles that cause the dough to rise. Families have passed down their yeast from generation to generation. Yeast is available from brewing beer, but that can add bitter flavors. Keeping the culture alive and free from spoilage can be difficult. Commercial yeast became available from Fleischman brothers in 1876. Yeast is active over a narrow temperature range. This makes breadmaking an art requiring skill and experience.

Baking powder is a chemical that reacts in the presence of moisture and heat to form carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide comes from baking soda and an acid. Sour milk has been used but cream of tartar (from wine making), alum (sodium aluminum sulfate), and sodium acid pyrophosphate are in commercial products. Formulations sometimes contain monocalcium phosphate, corn starch, and/or egg whites (albumin).

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Traditionally bread was served at every meal. Good bread was the measure of a good woman, a good wife, a good mother. A family of four or five would consume 28 lb of bread per week, or one pound per person per day. Baking bread was part of the homemaking tradition. Mothers trained their daughters. That began to change as women left the home to work in textile mills. In 1857, oven temperature was judged by seeing if a handfull of flour browns promptly and then if you can hold your hand in the oven for a count of 20.

New England was too far north for wheat; wheat bread was a luxury. Corn meal was used along with rye with white flour added when available. Corn lacked gluten making yeast difficult to use. After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, wheat flour from the midwest was abundant and inexpensive.

Protestantism emphasized literacy and encouraged women to read. Handwritten cookbooks were family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. Martha Washington had one. In New England female literacy was 100% by 1840.

Baking powder is used for biscuits, donuts, cookies, pancakes, cake, etc. It’s easier than yeast. Pearlash, potassium carbonate, from wood ashes, was an early baking powder. It was first reported in a Dutch cookbook in 1753, and in an American cookbook in 1796. Arm & Hammer began production of baking soda in the US in 1846 by injecting carbon dioxide into a solution of sodium carbonate. Sodium carbonate at the time was probably made from salt by the Leblanc process. (It is now mined in Wyoming.)

Baking soda made commercial baking powders possible. Initially ingredients were sold at drug stores packaged separately in paper. After the Civil War, Rumsford Chemical Works in Rhode Island began production using monocalcium phosphate (derived from powdered bones), baking soda, and corn starch. They packaged in glass bottles and sold in grocery stores. The corn starch increased shelf life by absorbing moisture. They tried to market in Germany, but bakers guilds resisted.

Royal Baking Powder began in Fort Wayne, IN, and sold its product in the midwest, but moved to Brooklyn become national. They used cream of tartar, potassium bitartrate, a natural product from wine making. Competitive products used cheaper alum. Royal advertised to promote their product as natural and more healthy. That gave free samples, cookbooks and recipe cards. Some baking powders are double acting. They form bubbles during mixing and then more when baked. Royal’s product was not double acting. It formed bubbles only during mixing. That meant more was required. Recipes were adapted to the baking powder brand.

Calumet Baking Powder was begun in Chicago in 1888 by a former salesman for Dr. Price Baking Powder. His formula was baking soda, cornstarch, alum, and powdered egg whites. The product was less expensive that cream of tartar baking powder and was sold at a moderate price.

Clabbergirl Baking Powder comes from Hulman & Company in Terre Haute, IN. The Hulmans were a German Catholic family that founded a wholesale and retail grocery business in 1853. Baking powder was well established in German cooking. The Hulmans began manufacture of Clabber Baking Powder using alum in 1899.

In 1899, Royal convinced the state of Missouri to outlaw food products containing arsenic, calomel, bismuth, ammonia, or alum. That outlawed their competitors. Yellow press journalism found a bribery scandal. The issue was over by 1903, but Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Next came a fight for market share. The Calumet tin had “Not made by the trust” on it; Royal had “Royal contains no alum. Leaves no bitter taste.” Harvey Wiley, Chief Chemist of the USDA, believed alum was an unhealthy food additive. President Roosevelt’s Remsen Board ruled that alum was safe in 1914. In 1912, Wiley resigned from the USDA and went to Good Housekeeping magazine. The Good Housekeeping seal of approval was withheld from alum containing baking powders until after his death.

Calumet had a test to show their product’s performance. A teaspoon of baking powder was added to three or four teaspoons of water in a glass. The Calumet product foamed much higher due to its egg whites. The test was not an indicator of performance, but made a compelling demonstration.

In 1928, Calumet became part of Postum Cereal, then General Foods, now Kraft-Heinz. In 1929, Royal and Fleischmann’s Yeast became part of Standard Brands, and later B&G Foods. Royal became part of Nabisco, later Mondolez, and then Hulman & Company.

Joy of Cooking was issued in 1931. More than one quarter of her recipes contained baking powder. She used Royal cream of tartar baking powder. In 1931, General Mills introduced Bisquick. It was self rising but also contained powdered milk and sesame oil. Paper packaging was replaced with non-porous parchment. Jiffy mix is a family owned brand founded in 1930 with popular mixes especially for muffins.

In 1931, Tony Hulman of Hulman & Company saw that chain stores would threaten regional brands. To gain share (in the midst of the Great Depression) Clabber Girl sold baking powder in 10 oz tins for $0.10–competing with national brands with 25 oz tins for a quarter. He gave grocers a free case for each case ordered. Clabber Girl became the leading brand.

Tony Hulman was noted for his philanthropy. He donated to Rose Hulman Polytech Institute, a leading engineering school in Terre Haute founded by Chancy Rose, the man who brought railroads to Terre Haute. He donated land for Schulte Catholic High School. He donated land for Terre Haute’s regional airport. He donated Hulman Auditorium at Indiana State University. He bought the Indianapolis 500 Speedway and modernized it. In 1950 Clabber Girl had a centennial dinner for 600 employees. Teamsters Union members received a $0.04/hr raise. Fifty year employees received diamond set gold pins and silver pens. He also acquired competitors Rumsford and KC. He died in 1977.

In 2019, Hulman & Company sold Clabber Girl Company to B&G Foods of Parsippany, NJ including Clabber Girl, Rumsford, Royal, and Fleischmann's. B&G owns Crisco, Spice Island, Green Giant and an array of other food products. In 2020, the Hulman & Co building in Terre Haute was sold to a local businessman. The building still houses Clabber Girl, as well as the Clabber Girl Museum, and Clabber Girl’s Bake Shop Café.

In 1934, Davis Baking Powder company introduced a new can with a popoff lid to protect it from air. It also included a parchment half cover that allowed leveling a measuring spoon. It became the standard of the industry. During World War II, rationing and work in war plants reduced time for baking at home. Commercial bread sales increased. By 1950, home baked fell to 10 to 15% of bread consumed.

Betty Crocker introduced cake mixes in 1947, followed soon after by Duncan Hines. Acceptance was slow. In the south, White Lily and Martha White special low gluten flours are preferred for unique Southern biscuits. JM Smucker owned Martha White as well as Pillsbury baked goods, and Hungry Jack pancakes but in 2018 sold to Brynwood Partners which operates under the name Hometown Food. White Lily is also part of Hometown Food.

The final chapter gives an overview of the fate of the founders in the industry. Tony Hulman is photographed with an Indy 500 race car in front of Clabber Girl.

This book is a fascinating history of the baking powder industry, a chemical additive for foods. It also describes progress in the lives of women and their baking practices. It illustrates the competitive aspects that brought improvements and lower prices. The advertising and marketing techniques used. Classical old recipes are included. A good read for a wide array of audiences. References. Index. Photos.
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