For the Al: Mildred Day

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Food is one of the most basic human experiences, so improving food has huge leverage for serving humanity. Even the act of eating, while it can be done alone, is better when done together – expressing the same basic harmony of human flourishing reflected in The Al’s commitment to the idea that one can benefit oneself and others at the same time.

The very first person ever nominated for The Al after Copeland himself was Steve Henson, inventor of ranch dressing. In the ten years since then, we’ve nominated people who invented ways to make wine more efficiently, invented ways to experience the magic of great food and great movies together, and invented ways to protect kids who sell lemonade. Yet somehow, we have never again nominated another person who invented a food item – which would seem to be a pretty basic prerequisite for all the other stuff.

Why not give The Al to the woman who invented the single greatest food of all time?

Rice Krispies were introduced in 1928. But the apotheosis of the Rice Krispie – the apotheosis of food itself – did not emerge for over ten years. Then in 1939, Mildred Day (with an assist from Kellogg’s coworker Malitta Jensen) cooked up the enchanted confection now known as Rice Krispie Treats.

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Day first worked at Pillsbury under noted chef Mary Ellis Ames (in the picture of Ames’ kitchen above, Day is the woman standing on the left). Day was then employed by Kellogg’s as a recipe tester (doesn’t that sound like a nice gig?) and a traveling cooking instructor who trained chefs in Kellogg’s kitchens as well as giving demonstrations to customers. She and Jensen cooked up the idea in the mad science lab of the Kellogg’s mothership (I’m picturing lots of oddly colored liquids bubbling in cauldrons and test tubes).

Curiously, the invention of Rice Krispies was not the main contributing factor in the invention of Rice Krispies Treats. Earlier recipes for similar kinds of treat squares had used puffed rice or puffed wheat. But they had never used marshmallow, relying instead on other sticky confections such as molasses. Day’s main contribution was to realize that marshmallow would work much better.

Six months after the first treats were baked (“Live! Live, my creation!” I envision Day crying out, as a bolt of lightning activates the oven), Day got a request from a Camp Fire Girls chapter in Kansas City looking for a baking idea for a fundraiser. Day headed to Kansas City, and thus the greatest food ever known to humanity became . . . known to humanity.

 

Newspaper ad, 1941; newspaper recipe, 1940

Kellogg’s did not sell premade treats until the 1990s, but that doesn’t mean Kellogg’s didn’t profit hugely from Day’s invention. They hawked the dickens out of the recipe from the beginning, offering the irresistible Krispie Treats as a primary selling point for the cereal. The recipe first appeared on boxes of Rice Krispies in 1941. Back in those days, cooking the magic confections at home was part of the charm.

Well, it was for most people. Day herself never made them for her daughter Sandra; Sandra didn’t even find out about Rice Krispie Treats until she was an adult. She asked her mother why (I mean, wouldn’t you?) and Day replied: “If you’d made them for two weeks from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, you wouldn’t want to make them again, either!”

Okay, that’s fair enough. Day’s contribution can’t be contested.

 

Newspaper ads, 1942 & 1941

For contributing the greatest treat, and therefore the greatest food, ever invented by human ingenuity, while making untold millions for Kellogg’s, I nominate Mildred Day for Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year.

Image HTs: Mildred Day images, Des Moines Register; Krispie Treat image, Kellogg’s; newspaper images, Cook’s Info.

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