Non-Fiction Review: ‘ Baking Powder Wars’ by Linda Civitello

A bit out of place on this humble blog as unless I missed something there were no dragons involved in this non-fiction book about the history of baking powder. Nor did any of the major companies involved prone to hiring any type of magical assistance. So feel free to skip this review if the riveting battle between companies trying to sell flavorless white powder does nothing for you.

The Baking Powder War caught my eye because I am fascinated by the history of marketing and the blurb promised plenty of this. I was not disappointed on this front but I also got so much more than I expected. This was not a minor marketing battle between rival companies; the ‘war’ statement in the title of the book was in no way hyperbole. It can also not be overstated just how important the creation and distribution of this product was both in its time and leading up to today.

For those that don’t cook baking powder is a product that leavens bread. Almost any bread product bought today (outside of artisan loafs) as well as most cakes, cookies, etc contain this product. If you put it in an oven and it gets bigger, or if it is soft and fluffy, you know it has baking powder. If it can be cooked in less than an hour the same statement holds true.

Starting with the introduction of bread making in colonial America the author takes her time showing just how important bread making was in the time period; setting up just how revolutionary this simple product ended up being. From there the focus slowly shifts down two paths; how the product was changing society and what four major companies were doing to ensure they profited the most off it. Both of these aspects were fascinating.

On the societal change front it is almost shocking how much impact this simple product has. Bread making went from something that went on all day (and took constant prep to ensure the baker had yeast at hand as a dried version is years away still) to something that could be done on more of a whim. This leavening was so important that the first patent issued in America dealt with a baking powder predecessor. Many diverse aspects were looked into, often briefly. The rise of the tin industry (baking pans were suddenly needed for breads that didn’t stay self contained), the start of chemical additives to food (baking powder is convenient but it adds neither flavor nor nutritional value) and eventually the rise of chain grocers.

But the majority of the book focused on the cut throat war the various companies engaged in during a time with less ease of consumer information. Wholesale bribery of state legislature type of warfare; these companies were robber barons every bit as crafty as any steel tycoon. Early marketing was as horrifying as it is fascinating; one ad basically told women that a can of baking powder saved so much time it was like owning a slave!

I don’t review non-fiction much and this certainly isn’t an academic journal. Unlike fiction reviews I don’t see any need to discuss pacing or narrative style. I found The Baking Powder War to be easy to read and completely fascinating. I was expecting more on marketing and was slightly disappointed that it only came up sporadically but I got so much more than I realized from this book.

Recommended for those interesting in marketing, American history, and the quality of their food.

4 Stars

16 thoughts on “Non-Fiction Review: ‘ Baking Powder Wars’ by Linda Civitello

  1. Aw wow. I rarely read non-fiction, but over the past few years it has tended to be books that focus on something so mundane that you’d never expect to spin a whole book out of it. This sounds like a perfect candidate (and fascinating to boot). I adored Mark Kurlansky’s Cod for similar reasons.


  2. You’ve made me crave bread. Or cake. Hey, since you seem to be an expert, what’s the difference between baking power and baking soda? I should probably know that:-/


    • Baking powder contains baking soda but also contains starch. It is used more commonly but there is some way to make your own BP out of soda though I don’t know it. I have never cooked with baking soda but use baking powder all the time.


  3. It’s good, now and then, to move away from the beaten path and look for some… different road, and you seem to have found the perfect book for your detour: it sounds not only fascinating but also instructive. I would never have imagined that something so mundane would have such a intense history!
    Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚


    • I was expecting the racist advertising and what not but outright bribery of an entire legislative body. It was a pleasant surprise for me as well.


  4. Wow! Actually, that sounds amazing. Does the cover look like that? That’s a profoundly weird cover πŸ˜€ I work in marketing though, so it makes me even more curious. I think I’ll go look for this book. Especially after reading The Radium Girls, I feel like non-fiction can be super cool too, so I’d like to read more now.


    • I saw the Radium Girls the other day and thought about picking it up. Worth it? On working in marketing; I wish I had known more about it younger as looking back that is the direction I would have went in college.


      • Oh my gosh is it worth it. Radium Girls is easily the best non-fiction I have read in my life. It broke my heart, it made me cry, it made the thankful to those girls for suffering like they did and bringing some justice into our world. Who knows what horrors the industry would bring upon you if not for these girls. I loved the book so much that I don’t even know what to do about the review right now. Good book review pressure, lol.


  5. Fascinating, I’m not sure I’d give it a read because tbh (and I feel a bit shamefaced) but I never really read non fiction – which is bad I suppose. I like that you stepped out of your usual SFF zone though – I like to do so in a totally factional type of way – I think I would become a bit jaded if I read all fantasy and nothing else.
    Lynn πŸ˜€


  6. Unfortunately, I’m terrible at finishing my nonfiction reads (unless they play a direct research role for my writing projects), but this one sounds fascinating! I’m a sucker for reading about cutthroat robber barons in American history…it’s fun to watch competition from afar Lol. Thanks for the refreshing and informative review!


  7. Oh this one sounds great! I love weird topics like this. Or finding out about meat farming hippos in Louisiana for example. Or snails, HeLa, or the mortuary business. Thanks fer the recommendation matey.
    x The Captain


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