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.