"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I bought some Bisquick a few weeks ago so I could make strawberry shortcake; the thought of using those airy little pre-packaged sponges the store sells is not an option, not even a slight temptation -- not in this life, anyway.  My family has always done and still does plain biscuits that are hard on the outside but split in half and soaked with sugary fresh strawberry juice, layered with slices of fruit and topped with whipped cream.  For this we acquiesce to Reddi-Whip or Cool Whip, though there is nothing like heavy cream freshly whipped.  

I don't ever remember a time, growing up, when there was not a box of Bisquick on the kitchen shelf.  My parents made pancakes with it on weekends.  Dad made very thin, delicate, crepe-like pancakes, my mother more chewy, puffy ones, more like cake.  But in all these years, I have never once wondered who came up with the idea to put common baking ingredients together in one package, and when.  They did it, we use it, we like it, period. Good enough for my mom and dad, good enough for me, and as long as they keep makin' it  I'll keep buyin' it.

And then I started musing...what is the history of Bisquick, anyway?  Well, a quick visit to trusty Wikipedia reveals that Bisquick hit the shelves in 1931.  Apparently some General Mills sales reps ran into a railroad chef who had originally come up with the idea of mixing lard and dry ingredients together ahead of time to "make biscuits quick."  Smart guy.  But not as smart as General Mills, who capitalized on the deal.

From there I started thinking about other brands that have always been staples on our shelves.  Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup (1966 -- I lived ten years without it?)  Morton Salt, of course: "when it rains, it pours"(1848).   Wheaties: "breakfast of champions" (1922), Quaker Oats (1902), Wonder Bread (1921).  Oreos, in all their trans-fat greatness (1912).  Hershey's Chocolate Syrup.  Welch's Grape Jelly.  Jiff or Skippy or Peter Pan peanut butter.  Hunt's Ketchup and A-1 Steak Sauce.

Kiwi shoe polish (1906; my father had a whole shoeshine kit put together -- in a shoebox, of course; I loved the smell of the paste).  Scotch Tape.  Elmer's Glue.  Tide powdered detergent (1946).  Lysol disinfectant (1918).  Lestoil cleaner.  Figaro cat food.  Pledge furniture polish (1958 - a youngster!! - and my Saturday chore...it only came in the original fragrance then, still my favorite).  Dixie Cups.  Fig Newtons.  Lipton tea.  Ronzoni noodles.  Arm & Hammer Baking Soda.  How come nobody else ever manufactured baking soda??

So brand loyalty makes the world go round, but what makes brand loyalty?  Could be that the stuff really works, could be that we're just following in our prior generation's footsteps, could be the advertising convinced us and continues to convince us, could be any combination thereof.  It's fascinating to watch some of the old classic TV commercials on YouTube...you can instantly conjure up the product just by the slogan: "I can't believe I ate the whole thing..." (Alka-Seltzer), "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." (margarine), "Sorry Charlie" (tuna),  "You're soaking in it" (Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid).  In some cases, the brand has become so familiar and utilized that it literally becomes the product: "Kleenex," "Band-Aids," "Tampax," "Q-tips."  (And in England, "Hoover;"  as in, "Guests were coming so I quickly hoovered the carpet."  Yep.)

Marketing, I guess, demands that these companies tweak and freshen their design every now and again to keep their appeal.  They needn't.  Vintage is good.  Vintage bottles are charming.  And back when Listerine -- for example -- came in a round cardboard package, and Band-Aids boxes were metal, well, the Beatles were young and alive, gas was cheap, and we were blissfully unaware of what interesting things our government was involved with.  Hmm.

I think the medicine chest actually held most of our stand-bys and go-to stuff.  How about Noxema (1914)?  The blue jar sat prominently on the middle shelf, dipped into for sunburns (my bane) and as I got older, a face wash.  The minty, menthol smell, the funny whipped curd-like consistency of the cream, all a familiar comfort.  "No-X-ema" is a play on words that spelled success to its inventor, a doctor from Maryland.  We used Crest toothpaste, and only Crest (1955; it seemed so odd to be in someone else's bathroom and see Colgate).  Q-tips.  Chap-Stick.  Prell, Breck, and Halo shampoo until high school, when my brother started using Head & Shoulders (1961)and I embraced another iconic product which should never ever have been discontinued: Clairol Herbal Essence.  Sigh...

Neo-Synephrine nose drops, which we thought was pronounced "Neo-SNIFFrin."  (Hey, it makes sense.)  Vicks Vapo-Rub (1912), the only other thing really necessary to ride out a bad cold.  St. Joseph's Children's Aspirin (no, it wasn't chewable back then, my mother used to crush it between two teaspoons with a bit of water and shove spoon it in). Vaseline (1872) for burns and very sore, winter-chafed skin.  Dickinson's Witch Hazel (1870), made for years at a distillery just one town away from us, mostly alcohol but yes, distinctly herbal, good for bug bites and stings and sold to us in tall bottles that eventually got dusty on cabinet shelves but kept their "healing" properties.  When the Witch Hazel factory shut down, we were mortified.  You can still buy it though -- thank heavens.

Listerine mouthwash (1914), the smell of it burning your eyes, the reassurance that gargling it would wallop that sore throat, the directions that said it could (curiously) even be used on scalp.  (My father also smoked Listerine cigarettes once or twice; yes, they really existed.)  Arrid spray deodorant, Ban roll-on.  Ivory Soap.   Sucrets.  Bactine.  Phillips Milk of Magnesia.  Pepto-Bismal (I hated Pepto-Bismal).  Alka-Seltzer (funny story involving me as a teenager and cheap wine here). And Ex-Lax (they did no favor to any of us making it come in little chocolate squares; people, please, come on.) 
Then it came to me: some of the best memories I have of my childhood probably were when I was sick.  I won't say I got sick more often than the other kids in my school or neighborhood, but when I did get sick, I -- as my mother puts it -- "got things hard."  Not for me those mild sniffles for a day or a little bit of tummy upset.  No way.  My brother wasn't much better.  We both lay prostate and miserable, and took our time getting well again.  Any wonder I am a Felix Unger when it comes to germs?  And this was usual kid-stuff fare: chicken pox, stomach flu (we called it "the grippe" though I don't know why), German measles, ear infections, strep throat, and in my case whooping cough.  (Yes, I was vaccinated for it.)

Sickbed food never varied: tea with dry toast, Canada Dry Ginger Ale (1890, commercially available in 1919), Jell-o (1897), Saltines (1876), Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup (1869), soft-boiled eggs and sherbet.  My mother put a sheet over the couch cushions, set up a TV tray and let us watch game shows all day.  She kept her voice down and her cool hands on our foreheads.  It was a formula that always worked; it was reassuring and familiar and soft.  Something that you wished you could keep around.  On a shelf.  Maybe between the Bisquick and the Choc Full Of Nuts.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder how different the recipe for Oreos® is now from what it was in 1912. I'm certain much of the unpronounceable stuff in them now was not used 100 years ago, now would have even been considered remotely edible.