Unboxing Betty: A weird and wonderful journey through vintage Betty Crocker recipes
Now you can follow along vicariously with Unboxing Betty, a fun YouTube channel featuring America’s [fictional] sweetheart, Betty Crocker, which has all the ingredients you crave for a fascinating — if not always tasty! — trip down memory lane.
The creator of Unboxing Betty, Melinda Sekela, is on a mission to cook her way through Betty Crocker’s 1971 Recipe Card Library, taking viewers on a trip back in time to the world of mid-century American cooking.
But it’s not only about the recipes themselves — Melinda is also using this project as an opportunity to explore the role that food corporations like General Mills have played in shaping American food culture.
Along the way, she is connecting with viewers about their own favorite recipes from the past, and how these dishes are a part of their family history.
Here, we’ve interviewed Melinda about what inspired this cool vintage cooking project, and what the experience of making some seriously wacky food has been like so far. We’ve also compiled some fun retro (and unusual) decorative food ideas for your celebrations with family and friends!
Interview with Unboxing Betty creator, Melinda Sekela
Click Americana: What is your background? Any culinary experience before you started?
Melinda Sekela: Professionally I work as a graphic designer, but I’ve always been an avid home cook, ever since I was a young kid. I remember for my eighth-grade birthday I got a chef’s knife and cutting boards. The Food Network was constantly on in the background, so I had a fair bit of culinary experience when I started.
That said, I’m not usually one to follow recipes closely, I like to improvise. And there are a lot of recipes, ingredients, and techniques in the Betty Crocker Library that I’ve never tried before. I’ve learned a lot while making this show.
CA: What was your inspiration for this project?
Melinda: Back in 2015 I read this New York Times Magazine article about The Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library and was fascinated by it. I knew there was a project in there somewhere. Every once in a while I’d think about it.
Finally, in 2020, I decided to buy a box off Etsy — not quite sure what to do with it. I thought it would be nice to have as a fun quirky decor object for my home.
Once I received it, I started reading about Betty Crocker. When I found out that Betty Crocker wasn’t a real person, but a marketing invention of General Mills, my interest piqued.
I learned how impactful this fictional character was in women’s lives. How women would write her letters with cooking questions and staff would answer as her. Soon she had a cooking show on the radio, and started a home legion program to support women during WWII. She helped people feel less alone in the kitchen, like a friendly neighbor.
At that moment I knew I had to start a project where I not only explored the wacky recipes in the box, but Betty Crocker’s history and impact as well.
The cards lend themselves well to an episodic format, so a YouTube channel felt like the best way to capture my journey.
Each episode, I cook what’s on the card, give it a rating, and if it’s relevant, provide some history of Betty Crocker or other food brands involved in the recipe. This was during the first year of the pandemic, when everyone seemed to be cooking more at home — it was an opportune time to build an audience to follow along with me.
CA: How do you pick recipes to demonstrate?
Melinda: I try to follow the seasons and holidays, and want an even mix of savory dishes and sweet treats, so those watching along every week get a good variety.
Every few months I flip through the sections and pull out the cards that catch my eye visually — either for being beautiful, or gross, or ridiculously complicated. If something has a new product, ingredient, or technique I want to try, I find that an interesting way to select cards as well.
Many viewers reach out who have the box too, so I ask what their favorites are, or ones they are too afraid to try, and add those to my schedule.
CA: What is the grossest recipe you’ve made?
Melinda: The grossest one so far has probably been Crusty Salmon Shortcakes — sort of a spin on biscuits and gravy. It’s from the Impromptu Party Fare section, so the idea is you’re making it mostly with pantry items you have on hand, but it’s supposed to look festive.
You make Bisquick biscuits, and a canned salmon and cream of mushroom soup mix to serve on top. The end results looked really gross, and the taste was disappointing — really bland with an off-putting texture. I would not recommend serving this at a party!
CA: What was the tastiest recipe you tried?
Melinda: I recently made Angel Food Waldorf, and was so happy with this recipe. Using Betty Crocker’s boxed Angel Food Cake mix was super easy, and the resulting cake was perfect. And I just think angel food cake and whipped cream is such a pleasing texture combination.
The whipped cream had a rich chocolate flavor, and the almonds on top added a nice crunch. It was low effort but very showstopping, which is Betty’s specialty.
CA: Which recipe surprised you the most (in a good way)?
Melinda: Deviled Ham Snacks — I had never had (or heard of) deviled ham before, and I did not think I would be a fan, I was bracing myself to hate it. But it was so flavorful!
You mixed cans of deviled ham with cream cheese, olives, and a few other ingredients to make these super cute retro snacks.
They had a really complex flavor profile from relatively simple ingredients and looked pretty fancy. I was shocked, and might actually make them again someday!
CA: Which recipe was the biggest disappointment?
Melinda: Lemon Meringue Chiffon was a pretty big disappointment. I read in Finding Betty Crocker. by Susan Marks that the Betty Crocker team had helped develop the recipe for chiffon cake, and described how popular it had become as a result, so I was eager to see what the fuss was about.
It was very labor intensive to make this cake — they don’t make boxed chiffon cake mix anymore, so I made it from scratch, then I had to make a lemon curd and a meringue frosting, and at the end of the day, I thought it just tasted the same as if I had used a regular boxed cake mix! What was all that effort for?
CA: Which recipe do you think could be served today without being obviously retro?
Melinda: Two of my favorite recipes so far are Giant Burger and Giant Strawberry Shortcake — there’s something fun about a supersized version of a dish, and makes it more communal to eat. I think that would be fun for families today without feeling retro.
CA: Why in particular do you think these recipes seem so dated?
Melinda: I’ve learned that a big focus in the 50s and 60s was presentation. Instead of going out to restaurants or theaters, people were invited into the home for dinner parties, and home cooks had this responsibility to entertain with their food, not just feed.
It was all about the way it looked — did your meal look expensive and colorful? Was it crafted in fun shapes and sizes? Are you delighting guests with unexpected combinations?
These things were prioritized over how it tasted. So a lot of these recipes look really interesting, but the flavors are bland and less thought out compared to how we cook today.
Another reason these recipes feel dated is the idea of convenience. Betty Crocker’s mission was to help folks at home make things quickly and easily, so you see a lot of boxed mixes, canned and frozen ingredients, etc. This is because, after all, Betty Crocker was a marketing gimmick to sell General Mills products.
There’s a trend now back towards cooking real food with real ingredients, shopping locally and seasonally, the so-called slow food movement — that’s the opposite of these recipes.