Duncan Hines gets dished and celebrated Sunday at Central Library

Discover the life of the real man behind the mixes.

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Duncan Hines wasnt a gourmand, he just liked good food.
  • Duncan Hines wasn't a gourmand; he just liked good food.
Duncan Hines, America's first national food reviewer was - despite the boxed cake mixes bearing his name - less likely to ever bake a cake than to eat one...and write about it. Hines was probably America's first official "foodie." Hines, who was a traveling salesman for most of his career, had two obsessions: food and watches.

"He was obsessed with watches," says Damon Talbott, the Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas. Talbott, the author of Recommended by Duncan Hines: Automobility, Authority and American Gastronomy, will discuss the life and times of Hines (1880-1959) this Sunday, April 7, at a 2 p.m. lecture titled From Famous Critic to Faceless Brand at the Kansas City Central Library. Reservations are suggested by clicking here.

Talbott says Hines would wear as many as 24 watches on his body at any one time: "He'd have wristwatches starting at his wrist and all the way up to his elbow. He had a clock built into his attache case. He had a hanging watch pinned to his lapel. It's an odd obsession, but Hines was a high-energy manic workaholic. He rose every morning promptly at 5 a.m."

And then there was his thing for ice cream.

"He ate a bowl of ice cream at least three times a day," Talbott says."If he was having corn flakes in the morning, he would eat them with ice cream instead of milk. At lunch, he would have ice cream as a palate cleanser. And he always maintained that he couldn't fall asleep at night unless he had a bowl of ice cream. In the 1950s, after he retired, he was wealthy enough to have a miniature refrigerator installed in his car so he could have ice cream with him when he traveled."

Like most Americans, Damon Talbott, a Virginia native, grew up thinking that Duncan Hines was simply a brand name: "Something made up, like Betty Crocker or Sara Lee," he says. (There is a real Sara Lee, by the way: Sara Lee Lubin Schupf. Her father, Charles Lubin, named his chain of Chicago bakeries, Kitchens of Sara Lee, after her; in 1956, he sold his business to Consolidated Foods.) Watching a food history segment on the Food Channel one night, Talbott learned that Duncan Hines had not only existed but also had been a major influence on American diners in the days before interstates, chain restaurants and food magazines. Suddenly, he knew he had to write about the man.

"He really was America's first restaurant critic," Talbott says. "There were newspaper critics in major cities, but they only wrote about the restaurants in the city they lived in. Duncan traveled all over the country as a salesman for different printing companies. He looked for the good places to eat on the road and he wrote a list of his suggested restaurants that he sent out in his yearly Christmas cards."

That restaurant list became so popular that Hines was inundated by requests for copies. From 1936 to 1956, Hines self-published a book called Adventures in Good Eating, mailing most copies from his home. The book made him a household name; he even appeared on the popular TV game show, To Tell the Truth, in 1957.

McDonalds Tea Room in Gallatin, Missouri.
  • McDonald's Tea Room in Gallatin, Missouri.
What made Hines such a star? In those pre-highway days, travelers would be lucky to stumble on a decent restaurant as they drove through small towns or in rural areas. It was actually on a trip through rural Missouri in the 1930s that Hines discovered a small tearoom, in Gallatin, that he later extolled as "one of the top ten restaurants in the United States." Hines made Virginia McDonald (1887-1969), the proprietor of the McDonald Tea Room, famous. She later wrote a cookbook that's still highly collectible (the recipes are great, by the way). The restaurant burned down in 2001.

"He was an average-looking man of average height," Talbott says. "He was relatively trim, which surprised people, who just assumed he would be overweight from all that eating."

Talbott says Hines loved home-style cooking as much as continental cuisine (the legendary Voison restaurant in New York City was one of his favorites). "As long as the dishes were done well, he was happy. One of his favorite desserts was an almond souffle, so he wasn't a man of simple tastes. He was a very open-minded person, but not an elitist or a gourmand."

In the 1941 version of Hines' book, he gave praise to only a few Kansas City restaurants, including the Myron Green cafeteria and the Harvey House restaurant in Union Station. Nine years later, he selected the fried-chicken restaurant called the Green Parrot Inn as one of his favorites and the long-razed Tea House at the Side of the Road (which was located in an old mansion where the Plaza Holiday Inn is now located). "He could be very severe when he dropped a restaurant from his listings," says Talbott.

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