I found what must be the first Crisco cookbook ever at an estate sale. I am still hooting with laughter—or maybe crying in pain—at the allusions, double entendres, the claims of Crisco’s greatness, and the extreme uncoolness of the old-fashioned fats.
It’s interesting to see that the seeds of our current health tragedy were sown close to a century ago, with impeccable marketing by Procter and Gamble, the producer of this popular and inexpensive product. The advent of Crisco on the shelves and pantries across America kicked off what is probably the era of the greatest chronic degeneration in human health!
The cookbook is called A Calendar of Dinners, by Marion Harris Neil, and was first published in 1913. The retail price of this twenty-second edition, published in 1922: fifty cents. The book is beautifully illustrated, with sentimental, old-style photos of curvy, turn-of-the-century housewives rolling out pastry dough made with Crisco.
Marion Harris Neil was a prolific cookbook writer. In addition to A Calendar of Dinners and its sequel The Crisco Cookbook, she wrote Candies and Bonbons and How to Make Them, Canning, Preserving and Pickling, Economical Cookery and Favorite Recipes Cook Book. And she wrote for other companies besides Procter and Gamble, creating such titles-for-hire as Cox’s Manual of Gelatine Cookery, The Ryzon Baking Book (for foods using Ryzon baking powder), Delicious Recipes Made with Mueller’s Products and 43 Delicious Ways of Serving McMenamin’s Crab Meat.
A Calendar of Dinners contains 615(!) recipes and several introductory chapters, including one entitled, “The Story of Crisco.”
Neil probably provided only the recipes in A Calendar of Dinners—it is unlikely that a cookbook author could come up with the brilliant marketing ploys found in the introductory pages. Some examples:
• The culinary world is revising its entire cookbook on account of the advent of Crisco, a new and altogether different fat. [An appeal to novelty.]
• Many wonder that any product could gain the favor of cooking experts so quickly. A few months after the first package was marketed, practically every grocer of the better class in the United States was supplying women with the new product. [An appeal to distinction and snobbery.]
• This was largely because four classes of people—housewives—chefs—doctors— dietitians—were glad to be shown a product which at once would make for more digestible foods, more economical foods, and better tasting foods. [Appeal to all demographics and to a wide array of virtues!]
• Man’s most important food, fat. …..the three primary, solid cooking fats today are: butter, lard, Crisco. [Accompanying the legend are drawings of a slab of butter, a pail of lard and a larger fluffy pile of Crisco. Subliminal messaging!]
• The first step in the digestion of fat is its melting. Crisco melts at a lower degree of heat than body temperature. Because of its low melting point, thus allowing the digestive juices to mix with it, and because of its vegetable origin and its purity, Crisco is the easiest of all cooking fats to digest. [Pseudoscience, from the makers of Crisco.]
• The nation’s food is becoming more and more wholesome as a result of different discoveries, new sources of supply and the intelligent weighing of values. [If you are not intelligent enough to get this, you are obviously not worth much, and definitely do not deserve to eat Crisco.]
• America has been termed a country of dyspeptics. It is being changed to a land of healthy eaters and consequently happier individuals. Every agent responsible for this national digestive improvement must be gratefully recognized. [Amazing claims!]
• A part of the preliminary work done in connection with the development of Crisco, described in these pages, consisted of the study of the older cooking fats. The objectionable features of each were considered. The good was weighed against the bad. The strength and weakness of each was determined. Thus was found what the ideal fat should possess, and what it should not possess. It must have every good quality and no bad one. [As determined by marketers, that is.]
• It seems strange to many that there can be anything better than butter for cooking, or of greater utility than lard, and the advent of Crisco has been a shock to the older generation, born in an age less progressive than our own, and prone to contend that the old-fashioned things are good enough. [Invocation of righteous rebellion against the “false tradition” of the older generation.]
• Grandma was glad to give up the fatiguing spinning wheel, so the modern woman is glad to stop cooking with expensive butter, animal lard and inadequate substitutes. [While comparing “fatigue” to “expenditure” is somewhat illogical, it still goes over rather smoothly, just like Crisco!]
• A need anticipated. . . Great foresight was shown in the making of Crisco. [Read that. . . great foresight was applied in seeking out a profitable way to get rid of the industrial glut of cottonseed oil, as demand for lamp oil declined precipitously after the advent of electricity.]
• Crisco is Kosher. Rabbi Margolies of New York said that the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco. [This is a real leap, even by product marketing standards. But then they used Hanuman, the powerful mythological Monkey God, to market Bt cotton in India. And it worked. Invoking religion seems to work!]
• The quality and quantity of lard was diminishing steadily in the face of a growing population. Prices were rising. The “high cost of living” was an oft repeated phrase. Also, our country was outgrowing its supply of butter. What was needed therefore was not a substitute, but something better than these fats, some product which not only would accomplish as much in cookery, but a great deal more. [The choice of words is important!]
• Regarding fat . . .no other food supplies our bodies with the drive, the vigor, which fat gives. [Implicit here is the fact that fat is Crisco, and it’s a manly fat.]
• After years of study, a process was discovered, which made possible the ideal fat. [Hydrogenated fat, that is.]
• It [the research process] also solved the problem of eliminating certain objectionable features of fats in general, such as rancidity, color, odor, smoking properties when heated. These weaknesses, therefore, were not a part of this new fat, which it would seem was the parent of the Ideal. [Science improves on nature!]
• Not marketed until perfect. . . Then after four years of severe tests, after each weakness was replaced with strength, the government was given this fat to analyze and classify. The report was that it answered to none of the tests for fats already existing. [Indeed it did not. It was a concocted industrial product.]
• It was neither a butter, a “compound” nor a “substitute,” but an entirely new product. A primary fat. In 1911 it was named Crisco and placed on the market. The banishment of “That Lardy Taste” in foods. . . . There is today a pronounced partiality from a health standpoint to a vegetable fat, and the lardy, greasy taste of food resulting from the use of animal fat never has been in such disfavor as during the past few years. [Demonize the competition!]
• So Crisco is absolutely all vegetable. No stearine, animal or vegetable, is added. It possesses no taste nor odor save the delightful and characteristic aroma which identifies Crisco and is suggestive of its purity. [An appeal to moral and hygenic righteousness.]
• Today you buy this rich, wholesome cream of nutritious food oils in sanitary tins. [Nutritious indeed. My can of Crisco was in the back of my pantry for seven years, and looked pretty good when I got around to tossing it during our move. I guess no bug wanted to eat this nutrient-laden fat.]
A Calendar of Dinners contains a complete section on the importance of feeding children Crisco, most certainly a recipe for their physical degeneration.
Perhaps the most revolting recipe in the book is one for using Crisco in salad dressing. However, most of the recipes in A Calendar of Dinners are entirely serviceable. . . as the butter and lard in them were merely substituted with equivalent amounts of Crisco. I will re-use this cookbook by re-substituting the Crisco with butter, ghee and lard—ninety-seven years later!
I recall coming to this country from India (in the 1980s) and frying gulab-jamuns, a traditional, deep-fried sweet dumpling, in Crisco and marveling at a fat that could be used and reused and did not smoke. The little balls came out perfect, but my family did not want to eat them. My mom said they tasted funny. No one told me to stop using Crisco. I just did, of my own volition. When I was twenty something, I neither knew nor cared about fats. Or nutrition. No one told me not to use Shedd’s Margarine Spread. I just didn’t. And I still cannot fathom why. It was surely cheaper, and I was a frugal person.
Instinct in the face of such overt and covert marketing is a powerful and useful thing. I can only say that thanks to some very accidental actions, my family, in particular my children, were saved some of the deadlier of today’s chronic diseases. If I were a dietitian in that era, I would surely have succumbed to the Crisco and tofu allure―and worse, subjected them to it.
In this sea of heavy-duty marketing, an environment of deep-seated conflict between food profits and health, and frequently, outright food fraud, I applaud the Weston A. Price Foundation for sticking up for laboriously processed traditional foods that cost a “bomb,” can never be marketed with massive dollars, are largely locally produced and where the bulk of the purchase price goes to the producer rather than the marketer. You are giving our new generation a chance at growing up healthy!
By the way, today I willingly pay six dollars a pound for butter at the farmer’s market and ten dollars a pound for raw butter from my farmer. Crisco costs one dollar fifty per pound.
CRISCO: A SHORT HISTORY
The process of hydrogenation was patented by Wilheim Normann in 1903. Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati-based
soap company, hired Edwin C. Kayser, former chemist for Joseph Crosfield and Sons (who had acquired Normann’s patent
to produce soap), and patented two additional processes to hydrogenate cottonseed oil, which ensures the fat remains
solid at normal storage temperatures. Their initial intent was to completely harden oils for use as raw material for making
In 1905, Procter and Gamble began blending fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil with liquid oil to produce a semisolid
fat that could be used to make soap and candles. The spread of electricity made candles increasingly obsolete, but
luckily for P&G, hydrogenated oil looked enough like lard or butter to be recognizable to lard-eating Americans. The
name “Krispo” was already taken by a Chicago cracker company and the name “Cryst” was rejected due to negative
religious connotations. P&G settled on the name “Crisco” and began selling their new product in 1911, advertising it to
women as “An Absolutely New Product, A Scientific Discovery which Will Affect Every Kitchen in America.”
Success came from the marketing technique of giving away free cookbooks with every recipe calling for Crisco.
In 2002, Procter & Gamble divested the Crisco (oil and shortening) brand (along with Jif peanut butter) in a spinoff
to their stockholders, followed by an immediate merger with the J. M. Smucker Co.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2013.