David 'Mas' Masumoto

The birth of the artisan baker came by necessity, and what fun did he have

Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe cake mix
Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe cake mix Chicago Tribune/MCT

I don’t claim to be a cook. But I try. And I like cake mixes. Does that qualify me as a baker?

I owe my kitchen expertise to the psychology and creativity of the boxed cake mix invention. They allow me just enough work and inconvenience to call me a sort-of-a-cook/baker. Let me explain.

I grew up in a family that didn’t cook a whole lot. When you live on a family farm, the work never ends and given the choice between crafting a great dinner and dessert or tackling Johnson grass and hard-pan rocks in your orchard, the weeds and stones typically win. Besides, we grew up with summers filled with luscious peaches and nectarines and sweet raisins in the fall, so who needs an after meal treat?

forum masumoto mug
David Mas Masumoto

But winters were brutal when the canned or freezer peaches ran out. I turned to the boxed cake mix. The original invention began in the 1930s with a surplus of flour and molasses during the Great Depression and the worldwide economic collapse. Dehydrating this blend along with a few other ingredients, the inventors hoped home cooks could turn to this new way of baking and bring something simple to the dining table. But it didn’t sell.

Post-World War II signaled a shift. The domestic economy was booming. There was a continued migration of people from farms and rural America to the cities. The world shined with a modern look and life became filled with new activities and different jobs. Perhaps boxed cake mixes would appeal to the busy lifestyle with a new ingredient: convenience.

Yet sales were limited. One school of thought was anchored in psychology: the home baker may have felt guilty with such an easy “recipe” for cake when you simply added water to the dry ingredients. They launched an addition by subtraction strategy to win over consumers. They took out the dehydrated eggs from the box so now the home baker had to “do something” and add a few eggs. Now they were cooking.

This became the cooking world I adopted when I was young. Start with the box, dump the stuff into a bowl, beat in the eggs, water and oil and pour the concoction into a greased cake pan. Then pop it into the oven and wait for success. Mas the baker was born. What next would I conquer in the kitchen? Soufflé? Crepe suzette? Baked Alaskan?

But I, along with America, was not done. Market researchers claim the addition of eggs was not the only formula to boost sales. The psychology of augmented “labor” helped, but something else contributed to the explosion of boxed cake mixes: the icing.

Yes, the thick, gooey, sweet sugar gel will smother your perfect boxed cake with a sense of true accomplishment. Your baking expertise just needed this final glossy glaze to be complete. I fell for it, too. As my palate grew sophisticated — I could detect the obvious chemical flavor of a boxed cake mix — I needed something to mask that trait. Sugar has a way of overwhelming everything. Cakes are supposed to be sweet. Just sweet. More the better. Sweeter sells.

And it did. Icing helped the box cake mixes soar. At first, I actually made my own icing, a culinary adventure for a young man. Just get the damned butter soft (remember no microwaves back then to soften the yellow bricks). Add heaps of powdered sugar with a little milk and vanilla.

Pure calories plus layers of frosting and true baking skills came to life: cakes became my canvas for artistic expression. Sort of. Odd imaginative color combinations resulted with food coloring. I practiced the swills that Van Gogh may have been proud of — or at least my efforts. Then I added a touch of modernity with sprinkles and even the little silver balls of more sugar.

This was the icing on the cake. My reputation along with the boxed cake mix sales soared. This farm boy had discovered an outlet for creative expression. The home cook entered the new world of culinary arts with parlayed presentation.

But I had one more new age technological wonder to add to my cooking palate: canned frosting. I had to convince my mom that the extra expense could help me generate consistent and richer colors. True dark chocolate on chocolate cake, what could be better? Pure white fluffy layers on white cake — edible art. Stop worrying about flavor, it’s the colors that matter.

All this came to a halt as I grew up with a better diet. Then I married a great cook and our daughter followed in her mother’s true culinary skills in the kitchen. And finally, add to the mix, adult diabetes, which fatally spelled the end of thick gobs of rich, luscious frosting on Duncan Hines masterpieces. My heart still races with the image and so does my blood sugar levels. Life isn’t fair.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com