Nixon, Khrushchev and Betty Crocker at the 1959 ‘Kitchen Debate’
Editor’s note: In July 1959, General Mills played a central role in the six-week long American National Exhibition in Moscow, a showcase for U.S. culture that highlighted lifestyle, manufacturing, agriculture, fashion and the arts.
It was the time of the Cold War when the United States and the U.S.S.R. eyed each other with suspicion and distrust, and the exhibition was a chance to debunk myths.
Four General Mills representatives attended this historic event that has become famous for the“Kitchen Debate” between then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Boy, does Betty Crocker really know how to stir up things.
At the height of the Cold War in 1959, General Mills’ iconic homemaker played an instrumental, yet unintended role in the famous “Kitchen Debate” between then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.
That heated discussion on the merits of capitalism versus communism occurred 54 years ago today – July 24 – at Betty Crocker’s temporary model American kitchen, which General Mills would use for baking demonstrations in front of thousands of Muscovites wanting a peek at convenient foods and the lifestyle of an American homemaker.
It was opening day of the six-week long exhibition. The fireworks between the superpowers’ Nixon and Khrushchev were about to begin, but more on that later.
Seven tons of food shipped to Moscow
The American National Exhibition in Moscow represented the country’s first major showcase in the former Soviet Union. The U.S. government, which sponsored the event, wanted Soviet citizens to learn more about America, as well as show off its successes.
The U.S. State Department reached out to several companies to participate, including Disney, General Motors, IBM, Pepsi-Cola, Polaroid, RCA-Whirlpool and General Mills.
General Mills and rival General Foods – now part of Kraft Foods – were two of the largest and best-known food companies when both were asked to collaborate in providing Soviet Russia with a better picture of modern American life.
The Russians would learn about modern convenience foods: cake, cookie and other baking mixes from General Mills and frozen foods from General Foods, all prepared in a model kitchen designed and equipped by RCA-Whirlpool.
Between them, General Mills and General Foods shipped to Moscow more than seven tons of food, including cases of cake mixes, frosting, brownie mixes, Betty Crocker cookbooks and cereal (including Cocoa Puffs and Trix).
For 10 hours every day, the late Marylee Duehring, General Mills’ supervisor of product counselors in the Betty Crocker Kitchens, and Barbara Sampson of General Foods, led a nine-person team that put on demonstrations at the kitchen booth, as well as two daily closed-circuit color television demonstrations with live audiences.
One of 300 Americans who participated, Duehring had enough mixes to make 40 cakes per day to provide samples for the exhibition’s visitors.
Soviet officials, however, prohibited people from tasting the American meals. Instead, they insisted the prepared American food be given to the exhibition’s eating establishments and sold to visitors.
Duehring noted: “The real tragedy is we can’t give them a taste. Once in a while a package or a plate of brownies disappears, much to our delight.”
Still, the food preparers got around this frustrating order. The late Helen Hallbert, General Mills director of Home Service, visited the exhibit for a week and helped with food preparation. After cutting freshly baked cakes, she often turned her back. When Hallbert faced the crowd, the samples were gone.
Said Hallbert: “About 200 Russians would crowd around three sides of the kitchen counter and on the catwalk above the kitchen. A look around at their faces revealed a mixture of disbelief, amazement, curiosity and pleasure. There were many smiling faces,” according to General Mills Archives.
‘Felt like prima donnas’
Many Russians would stand for hours to watch the kitchen team whip up beautiful cakes and pastries. During the fun-filled “pizza pie” demonstrations, some people walked away with tomato sauce-stained faces because they got too close to the product.
The Russians had other weaknesses, too.
They craved anything with chocolate as well as pastel-tinted macaroons, colored icings, cake sprinkles, birthday candles and the colored paper baking cups for muffins. Many of these items occasionally disappeared from the kitchen. The crowds even took the empty packages.
Duehring said that some Russians were so thrilled with the demonstrations that they would stand on the overlooking catwalk and throw flowers to the women in the kitchen. “One day, we got three bouquets and many single roses. We felt just like prima donnas,” she said.
More than 64,000 people flocked each day to the exhibition in Sokolniki Park, a 15-minute subway ride from downtown Moscow. And the six-week attendance tally was 2.7 million. While the overall experience went well for General Mills, there were some glitches.
The Soviets had promised five local women would help in the kitchen and serve as translators. When no one showed up, General Mills had to scramble and enlisted six Russian-speaking women from the British, Pakistani and American embassies in Moscow.
And at times, the test kitchen had no water or electricity and the cement floor crumbled.
The Kitchen Debate
All of that cooking and baking, though, took place after the Kitchen Debate.
What many people don’t realize is that Kitchen Debate was only the climax of earlier discussions between Nixon and Khrushchev. Their frank talk began in the Soviet premier’s office, and continued at the exhibition’s television studios in front of color cameras (see excerpts in this video).
Nixon and Khrushchev eventually made a swift tour of the exhibition.
As they walked through the model American home, Nixon stopped Khrushchev and drew his attention to the kitchen. Here’s where the hour-long exchange occurred, touching on subjects that included washing machines, housing prices, the free exchange of ideas, summit meetings and rockets.
The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Khrushchev and Mr. Nixon debated with strong words and forceful arguments. But their talk was straightforward and there was no hint of ill feeling in their fast and furious exchange.”
Then General Mills Chairman Gerald “Spike” Kennedy was among the many to witness the Kitchen Debate.
Upon his return to Minneapolis, the executive told the local media: “I never was more proud of anything in my life than when Nixon verbally caught Khrushchev between the eyes.”
Editor’s note: The photo at the top of this post is from the Library of Congress. The General Mills Archives also provided information and images. You can learn more about our past on GeneralMills.com. Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.