Duncan Hines was a real person.
Source: Original photo by Medicimage Education/ Alamy Stock Photo
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Duncan Hines was a real person.

Stroll through the baking aisle at any grocery store, and you’ll likely find instant cake mixes and containers of frosting emblazoned with the Duncan Hines name. But unlike other boxed mix competitors (looking at you, Betty Crocker), Hines was a real-life food personality whose name was once synonymous with fine dining. For a man who couldn’t cook, Hines became a surprisingly well-trusted authority on American cuisine for nearly three decades, all thanks to an iron stomach and fearless forays into restaurant kitchens. 

Duncan Hines rated American restaurants before the Michelin Guide did.
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Incorrect.
It's a Fact
The Michelin Guide is known for ranking fine dining establishments with a three-star system dating back to 1900. But the European brand didn’t review eateries across the Atlantic until 2005 — almost 70 years after Duncan Hines published his first guide to American restaurants.

Born in Kentucky in 1880, Hines worked as a traveling salesman from the ’20s through the ’40s, a life that didn’t allow for regular home-cooked meals. While putting anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 miles on the road each year, he kept a meticulous journal of his dining experiences, listing noteworthy restaurants that provided budget-friendly dishes. But Hines didn’t just review meals — at a time when health codes and food inspections weren’t yet standard, he went so far as to audit kitchens himself, monitoring food safety practices, cleanliness, and even examining the garbage. 

Flooded with requests from fellow travelers, Hines attached a list of 167 restaurants to his 1935 Christmas card. A year later, he self-published Adventures in Good Eating, a comprehensive compendium of U.S. eateries that was updated annually until 1962. With each edition, Hines solidified his reputation for honest critiques, in part because he refused payment for good reviews (though he did profit from renting signs bearing his stamp of approval to restaurants, and once accepted a gifted Cadillac from a happy restaurant owner). By 1949, Hines had teamed up with businessman Roy Park to launch Hines-Park Foods, which sold under the Duncan Hines label — moving the reviewer’s name from print to the containers of more than 250 grocery items. The brand’s iconic boxed cake mixes debuted in July 1951 in just two flavors  — vanilla and devil’s food. Today, the cake mixes are beloved by many, even if the man who originally helped create them has been forgotten.

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Numbers Don’t Lie
Hines’ budget-friendly, preferred price for a restaurant meal in 1935
$1.25
Last year Hines’ compendium was published, three years after his death
1962
Estimated number of guidebook copies Hines sold annually by 1959
300,000
Number of Americans who purchased a boxed cake mix in 2020
186 million
The first big Duncan Hines product was _______, not cake mix.
The first big Duncan Hines product was ice cream, not cake mix.
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Think Twice
The first cake mix was invented during the Great Depression.

Duncan Hines’ cake mixes were a hit with home cooks, but the idea for easy-to-prepare baked desserts wasn’t at all original — another company had created and sold instant cake mixes almost two decades before Hines’ name graced grocery store aisles. P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburgh molasses company, launched the first commercially available mixture in 1930 out of necessity; the company experienced a molasses surplus and sought out a creative way to boost sales. By combining flour and molasses (along with powdered eggs, spices, and more), Duff and Sons created instant cake blends in popular flavors such as devil’s food and spice cake, along with a line of muffins and breads. While launching a new product during the Great Depression might seem like a gamble, the company sold its tins at 21 cents (today’s equivalent of $3.64), marketing them as a cost-efficient way for cooks to provide a tasty dessert without the expense of buying individual ingredients. Even so, it wouldn’t be until after World War II that boxed cake mixes became grocery store standards, as flour companies and others served a burgeoning market once the G.I.s returned home.

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