Tastemaker With a Sweet Tooth

William A. Mitchell (1911-2004)

William A. Mitchell never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it—Cool Whip, quick-set Jell-O, powdered egg whites for cake mix. He gave American astronauts the first space-age beverage (Tang), and impressionable adolescents one of the great urban legends (Pop Rocks). Bill Mitchell's inventions are not to everyone's taste. Once, for a BBC show about Thanksgiving, I served Martha Stewart a pumpkin pie with Cool Whip, and she wasn't happy about it. As it happens, Martha and Bill Mitchell have Nutley, New Jersey, in common. In the year of Martha's birth, 1941, Bill Mitchell started work as a chemist at General Foods and briefly lived in Nutley. As he was developing Cool Whip, Martha's parents were developing the anti-Cool Whip.

Business-wise, the former beats the latter. Originally conceived as time-saving substitutes for various elementary kitchen needs, the Kraft/General Foods repertory has multiplied and mutated, and the products that Mitchell and his colleagues developed live happily within a self-contained universe. To make Kraft's Classic Angel Flake Coconut Cake you need a seven-ounce bag of Baker's Angel Flake Coconut, a package of yellow cake mix, a package of Jell-O White Chocolate Instant Pudding, and a tub of Cool Whip. It's like modular furniture: sometimes you put Cool Whip in the Jell-O, sometimes you put Jell-O in the Cool Whip. But it's an all-or-nothing world. It would be unsettling and intrusive to replace the Cool Whip with Martha's recipe for crème anglaise.

And yet, if you're at a county fair or a church bazaar and you buy the local fundraising cookbook, you notice how in a relatively short period (Cool Whip, the world's first nondairy whipped topping, dates back only to 1966) Bill Mitchell's products have become the great staples of "down-home cooking" and traditional "family recipes." For example, in the Tunbridge Volunteer Fire Department Cookbook, from Tunbridge, Vermont, Mary Vermette's excellent "Pudding Dessert" requires for the first layer two sticks of oleo, two cups of flour, one cup of chopped nuts (mix and bake); for the second layer one cup of confectioner's sugar, eight ounces of cream cheese, one cup of Cool Whip (combine and spread on the first layer); for the third layer two small packages of instant pudding and two and a half cups of milk (mix and spread on the second layer); and for the fourth layer more Cool Whip sprinkled with chopped nuts. I made it and ate it in the interests of research, and had such a good time I clean forgot what it was I was meant to be researching.

Still, you don't have to eschew Mitchell's products as ostentatiously as Martha Stewart does to feel that they might not be the best for one's health. They were certainly good for Mitchell's: he was ninety-two when he died, and long after his retirement from General Foods continued to chip in ideas for his daughter Cheryl's company, Creative Research Management. To a chemist, the line between "natural products" and "processed foods" is somewhat fuzzy. Starch technology, which is indispensable to the convenience-food industry, goes back to ancient times. Bill Mitchell's contributions to the science stand at an innocent midpoint between the separation of starch from grain first noted by Cato in 170 B.C. and the brave new world of genetically modified food that so terrifies the Europeans and the anti-globalists. Some of Mitchell's inventions were specifically for children (Increda Bubble carbonated gum), and the grown-up ones are designed not just to shorten cooking time but to extend the sweet tooth of grade-school birthday-party goers through adult life. Cool Whip is a little too sweet, a little too sugary ever to be mistaken for "natural." By "sugary," of course, I don't mean sugar: looking through the ingredients, one finds nothing labeled as such, but plenty of palm kernel oils and sorbitan monostearate and "less than two percent of sodium caseinate." Who, other than Bill Mitchell and a few other specialists, understands the precise combination that makes Cool Whip just slightly too sweet enough? If you put in 2.4 percent of sodium caseinate, would it all go to hell?

Mitchell was born in 1911, in Raymond, Minnesota, spent his early years on a farm, and then, after the death of his father, moved into the town of Rocky Ford. By eight he was picking peas and beans for local farmers; by thirteen he was subbing for the older melon-packing boys; by eighteen he'd rented land from the American Beet Sugar Company and was growing corn and tomatoes. He went to school during the day, helped with the harvest for American Beet Sugar all night, and slept from 4:30 to 6:30 A.M. After working his way through college, Bill got a research job at an Agricultural Experiment Station in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose lab promptly blew up, leaving him with second- and third-degree burns over most of his body.

His first big success came with a tapioca substitute developed during World War II, when "tapioca supplies were running low," as the Associated Press put it. War is hell. In fact, tapioca, a substance made from the starch grains in cassava, came mainly from the Far East, and with supply lines disrupted, that presented problems for packaged food. You can be sniffy about preservatives in peacetime, but in war an army marches on its stomach, and food is a national-security issue. Mitchell, in developing an alternative to tapioca, helped facilitate the huge expansion of the processed-food business in the 1940s and 1950s.

Some innovations were happy accidents. Pop Rocks began in the fifties, as an attempt that went awry to create an instant carbonated drink. They were a huge hit with kids: when you put the fruit-flavored candy in your mouth, it triggered the carbonation, creating a mini-explosion complete with sound effects. Almost immediately rumors started about their potentially lethal effects. It was said that if you ate Pop Rocks while sipping a Coke, the candy would react with the beverage and the carbonation combination would cause a tremendous gas explosion, blasting apart your stomach. That was what had happened to Little Mikey, the cute boy in the Life cereal commercials. He'd popped a couple of Pop Rocks while chugging a soda and had exploded in a horrible death. That's how come you didn't see him on TV anymore.

Bill Mitchell and General Foods took out advertisements in forty-five newspapers and set up a special hotline, but the explosion stories persisted. It's apparently true that a shipment of Pop Rocks managed to blow the doors off an overheated delivery truck. But turning your stomach into Bikini Atoll was strictly an urban myth. If there had been anything to it, Islamic Jihad would be bulk ordering.

There's something rather appealing about dangerous food. Instantly dangerous, that is, not cumulatively. America has the most-regulated food in the developed world, yet it also has the fattest people in the world—with the exception of the hearty trenchermen of Nauru and a few other dots in the Pacific. There surely is a cautionary tale in the limitations of big government, at least with respect to its ability to constrain big citizens. Not all of this is due to Bill Mitchell's contributions to the American diet, but in his last years, serving as éminence grise to his daughter's company, he seemed more health-conscious than at General Foods.

When Cheryl Mitchell persuaded her then husband to grow some dahlias on their land, it was her dad who suggested roasting their inulin-rich tubers. This produced a brown substance with a coffeelike taste, which the Mitchells began marketing as Dacopa, a coffee substitute with health benefits. It never caught on in a big way. Mitchell didn't foresee that in an age of convenience foods, coffee would head in the other direction and become the ultimate inconvenience food. In the old days you'd say, "Gimme a cup o' java," and the waitress would slide it over the counter. Now you stand around for twenty minutes as the guy juices up the espresso, lovingly spoons on the froth, gives it a shot of hazelnut flavoring, sprinkles it with cinnamon, adds a slice of pepperoni and a couple of zebra mussels, and instead of a quarter charges you $5.95. In its sheer simplicity, Dacopa seems to belong to a lost world. A decaf Pop Rocks latte would have had a better chance.

But in his heyday Mitchell always understood that a successful "convenience food" is a blend of convenience and delight. He never made the mistake of Princess Ozma's scientific adviser, H. M. Wogglebug T.E., in L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

He took a bottle from his pocket and shook from it a tablet about the size of one of Ojo's finger-nails.
"That," announced the Shaggy Man, "is a square meal, in condensed form. Invention of the great Professor Wogglebug of the Royal College of Athletics. It contains soup, fish, roast meat, salad, apple-dumplings, ice cream and chocolate-drops, all boiled down to this small size, so it can be conveniently carried and swallowed when you are hungry and need a square meal."
"I'm square," said the Woozy. "Give me one, please."
"You have now had a six course dinner," declared the Shaggy Man ...
"Pshaw!," said the Woozy, ungratefully. "I want to taste something. There's no fun in that sort of eating."

Even devising crystal mixes for space-shot beverages, Bill Mitchell subscribed to the fun of eating. Unlike Professor Wogglebug, when creating food for the rhythm of modern life, he wasn't defeated by it. He's part of the taste of America, the stuff that gets under your skin—from the not entirely "homemade" pies rotating at the diner to the red, white, and blue Jell-O salad at the Fourth of July fireworks. That's how he deserves to be celebrated: take one package of Jell-O, throw in one package of Cool Whip, add Tang, mix, lob in a couple of Pop Rocks, and stand well back.