Cover image is an edited version of the recipe book titled “Duncan Hines Favorite Recipes”.

The original image is provided courtesy of the Library of Special Collections, Western Kentucky University and can be found here.

While on a cross-country road trip or just driving to a neighboring state for a weekend getaway, if you’ve ever relied on a guide book that rates restaurants with stars or other symbols, then you have one man to thank for that — Duncan Hines.

Yes, THAT Duncan Hines, whose name graces cakes mixes and more than 60 other products at your local grocery store. He was, unlike Betty Crocker, a real person. However, before he became famous for his cakes, Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman who pioneered the restaurant-rating system for those traveling the blue highways of America back in the early part of the 20th century. Here’s his story:

Adventures in Good Eating

Born on March 26, 1880, Duncan Hines grew up in Bowling Green, KY. After graduating from Bowling Green Business University, Hines moved out West where he worked for Wells Fargo, among other companies. He eventually settled in Chicago where he worked as a traveling salesman for a direct-mail firm.

Duncan Hines
Image provided courtesy of the Library of Special Collections, Western Kentucky University.

Of course, part of being a traveling salesman involves eating in a lot of restaurants while you’re out on the road. However, when Hines was traveling the country in the early 1900s, there were no interstate highways or fast-food chains to stop in for a bite to eat. And though there were some state and federal food safety regulations, they weren’t really enforced at the time. As a result, you took your chances when stopping at a roadside eatery. Duncan Hines set out to change that.

Around 1935, Hines started carrying a journal on the road with him. Whenever he stopped in a restaurant during his travels, he would jot down notes about taste and quality of the food he ate. By the end of the year, he had a list of 167 restaurants, which he turned into a pamphlet that he sent out with his Christmas cards. The pamphlet became so popular that other people started asking for copies of it —  so many people, in fact, that he self-published a book called Adventures in Good Eating in 1936 that contained the names and locations of 475 restaurants nationwide; he sold the book for a dollar each. The first nationwide restaurant guide ever produced, Adventures in Good Eating would sell 5,000 copies in its first year, and Hines would continue releasing updated annual versions until 1962.

Fun Fact: In 1939, Hines would stop in a little café in Corbin, KY for a bite to eat. In his review of the restaurant, Hines said it was “A very good place to stop […]. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.” The place was called The Sanders Café and its proprietor was a man named Harland Sanders. However, you likely know him as “Colonel” Sanders, the man who would later go on to create a fried-chicken franchise known today as KFC.

Adventures in Good Lodging

In 1946, Hines decided to branch out into the hospitality business with a new book of reviews for lodging as a companion to his restaurant guide. Titled Lodging for a Night, Hines took into account five factors when reviewing roadside accommodations: cleanliness, quietness, courtesy, comfort, and hospitality. Additionally, Hines stressed to innkeepers his own code of ethics, which included no drinking and turning away guests without luggage.

Napkin illustration touting the fact that the Ox Yoke Inn was recommended by Duncan Hines.
Image provided courtesy of the Library of Special Collections, Western Kentucky University.

Awarding eating establishments and roadside accommodations the “Duncan Hines Seal of Approval” was an honor, but it also came with its own caveats. (Hines was, after all, a businessman.) For example, in order to display signs advertising that their business was Duncan-Hines approved, and thus become part of the “Duncan Hines family,” they had to pay to use his name and the seal of approval that came along with it. They also had to sell his books. It seems that most didn’t mind, however, as the Duncan Hines family of restaurateurs got together one year and gifted Hines a brand new Cadillac convertible for his birthday.

A Rising Career

Though he certainly knew how to eat, Hines never really learned how to cook. That didn’t stop him from using his name to profit off of baked goods. His first venture in that culinary arena came in 1952 when he introduced Duncan Hines bread by way of Homer, NY’s Durkee’s Bakery Company. The next year, he sold the rights to his name to Hines-Park Foods, which licensed the Duncan Hines name to several food-related businesses.

The first company to sell his now famous cake mixes was Nebraska Consolidated Mills out of Omaha. In 1957, they would sell the cake-mix business to Proctor & Gamble, which took the cake mixes nationwide.

But this well-known success came late in Hines’ life. Two years later, just 11 days shy of his 79th birthday, Duncan Hines would die of lung cancer.

The Duncan Hines Legacy

As a tribute to the man who added so much to the American roadside experience, the State of Kentucky named the Duncan Hines Scenic Byway in his honor. The 80-mile scenic tour begins and ends at what was once the home/office that Hines built for himself in 1940. On the drive, you’ll pass many scenic lookouts and stately homes as you wind your way through Kentucky’s Warren and Edmonson Counties. The tour also includes a ferry ride into Mammoth Cave State Park. 

The Bowling Green Junior Woman’s Club also celebrates its sweetest son and original Kentucky foodie each summer. Activities for the whole family include Uncle Duncan’s Duck Derby, a Celebrity Brownie Eating Contest, and an “Adventures in Good Baking” Recipe Contest. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, you can visit the festival’s Facebook page here for more information.

Additionally, The Kentucky Museum, Western Kentucky University offers an ongoing exhibit featuring a collection of artifacts from the life and work of the Bowling Green native. There you can learn about Duncan Hines’ work as a travel writer as well as a food, lodging, and entertainment critic, and you can watch how the name Duncan Hines transformed into a “brand” that remains iconic in the world of packaged food today. The museum is free to the public and open Wednesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Be sure to call the museum ahead at (270) 745-2592 to plan your road trip accordingly.

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