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Your favorite food icons: Fact or fiction?

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

When it comes to food mascots — those iconic faces and names that we've heard so often over the years they are part of the fabric of our American life — it can be difficult to discern the fact from the fiction.

I learned this recently when a friend commented that she was surprised when I printed in an article that Betty Crocker wasn't a real person. She never knew.

That's exactly what the folks at the Washburn Crosby Co. of Minneapolis (which later became part of General Mills) were hoping for back in 1921, when they created the persona of the perfect American housewife named Betty Crocker.

According to research by the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University in Virginia, the company received thousands of letters each year with baking questions. Company managers decided that it would be more intimate to sign the responses personally, so they combined the last name of a retired company executive, William Crocker, with the first name Betty, which was thought to be "warm and friendly." The company held a contest among its female employees for her signature (it was won by a secretary), which still appears on Betty Crocker products today.

Betty Crocker went on to host her own radio show and later did television spots, always being portrayed by actresses. In 1936, the company added a face to the name (over the years, there have been nine official portraits).

She became so ingrained in society, even today some folks are surprised to learn that she wasn't real.

This revelation sparked an exchange among some of my Facebook friends about exactly who was real and who wasn't.

So I took it upon myself to compile a list for future reference, to impress your friends at cocktail parties and family holiday dinners, to settle trivia debates and bar bets, and in case any of you ever get to be a contestant on "Jeopardy!"

Colonel Sanders: Real.

This is a softball. Harland Sanders did indeed found the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain and developed the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices.

The colonel part, however, was honorary. Sanders was named a "Kentucky Colonel" in 1935 and again in 1950 by two different governors. The title is an honor given out by the state to recognize outstanding citizens for their accomplishments or service.

Chef Boyardee: The man is real; the spelling was changed.

Hector Boiardi was born in Italy in 1897 and immigrated to the United States in 1914. By 1924, he had moved to Cleveland, where he opened Il Giardino d'Italia (the Garden of Italy) restaurant. After customers began asking him for his recipes, he came up with the idea to sell them. On the labels, however, he changed the spelling to Boyardee so that customers would have an easier time pronouncing it.

Duncan Hines: Real.

Hines was a traveling salesman from Bowling Green, Ky., who turned his many years of dining on the road into a travel guide and later wrote about restaurants around the globe. He went on to found with a partner Park Hines Foods, which distributed baking mixes under his name. He died in 1959.

Sara Lee : Real.

Baker Charlie Lubin named his line of cheesecakes after his young daughter. Lubin's company was purchased by Consolidated Foods in 1956, and he went on to serve as an executive there for many years. In 1985, Consolidated Foods took on his daughter's name as well.

Howard Johnson: Real.

He developed a chain of restaurants and later motor lodges, beginning in 1925 in Quincy, Mass. More trivia: In 1961, the Howard Johnson company gave a job to an up-and-coming young French chef by the name of Jacques Pepin.

Aunt Jemima: Fictional.

The character was created to help sell ready-made pancake mix by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood of the Pearl Milling Co. In 1890, R.T. Davis purchased the company and brought the Aunt Jemima character to life when he hired former slave Nancy Green to portray her, according to information from the Quaker Oats Co., which currently owns the brand.

For the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, actress Anna Robinson was hired to portray the character and did so until her death in 1951. In the 1950s and 1960s, actress Aylene Lewis portrayed her at the Aunt Jemima restaurant in Disneyland.

She is no relation to Mrs. Butterworth of pancake syrup fame, who also was fictional. The fact that she was a talking glass bottle should have given that away.

Fannie Merrit Farmer: Real.

She was a Massachusetts native and cooking instructor who, in 1896, published "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book," often referred to as the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook."

Fanny Farmer candy stores, founded shortly after her death, were named in her honor. In 1992, the Archibold Candy Corp., which operated the Chicago-based Fannie May candies, purchased Fanny Farmer. The two merged into one brand under the Fannie May name.

Little Debbie: Real.

In 1960, when company founders O.D. and Ruth McKee were trying to come up with a name for a new family pack of snacks, a supplier suggested the name Little Debbie in honor of the McKees' 4-year-old granddaughter, according to company history.

Wendy: Real.

Wendy Thomas, an Ohio native, was the inspiration for her dad Dave Thomas' hamburger chain. The real Wendy, all grown up, is currently featured in television commercials for the chain.

Marie Callender: Real.

According to company history, Marie Callender began making pies at home in her native Orange County, Calif., in the 1940s, and delivering them to area restaurants. By 1948, along with her husband and son, she turned it into a bona fide business, complete with a wholesale bakery. The first pie and coffee shop was opened in 1964 in Orange, Calif., by Marie's son, Don. Other pie shops soon followed and in 1969, the shops began serving a full restaurant menu, with many recipes created by Marie herself. The shops eventually became a nationally franchised chain, and now are under the same corporate umbrella as Perkins Family Restaurants.

Mrs. Paul: Real.

She was real, but she had little to do with the founding of the frozen fish company. According to company history, in 1946, power-plant worker Edward Piszek started selling deviled crab cakes in a Philadelphia bar to earn money while his plant was on strike.

One week, when he made too many, he stuck them in a freezer in the bar. When they were still fresh a week later, Piszek and a friend, John Paul, each chipped in $350 and started a frozen seafood business.

Piszek's mother wanted her son to name the company after her, but instead, they named it Mrs. Paul's Kitchens after John Paul's mother. Piszek bought out Paul's share of the business in the 1950s but kept the Mrs. Paul's name.

Uncle Ben: Fictional.

According to company history, in the 1930s, British food chemist Eric Huzenlaub developed a new steeping and steaming process to increase the nutritional value of white rice. Simultaneously, Houston food broker Gordon Harwell was experimenting with converting rice. Forrest E. Mars (of candy bar fame) backed the process financially, acquiring the rights for easy-to-cook parboiled rice in 1942.

The rice was called Original Converted Brand Rice. As it grew in popularity, legend has it that rice growers compared it to the high-quality grains grown by "Uncle Ben," an African-American Texas farmer, who grew rice so well that other farmers used his as a standard of excellence. The company adopted the name Uncle Ben's Original Converted Brand Rice and his face has been on every box since. Legend has it the picture on the box was Frank Brown, a maitre d' of a Chicago restaurant, who was asked to pose for the portrait.

Gidget Chipperton, aka the Taco Bell chihuahua: Real with an actor's voice.

Gidget was just 3 years old when she began her rise to fame in the 1997 Taco Bell advertising campaign, which ran until 2001.

Sadly, Gidget was euthanized on July 21, 2009, after suffering a stroke in the home of her trainer, Sue Chipperton. She was 15.

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