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Hines, Duncanlocked

(26 March 1880–15 March 1959)
  • David M. Schwartz

Hines, Duncan (26 March 1880–15 March 1959), author, editor, and publisher of travel and restaurant guidebooks for motorists, was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the son of Edward L. Hines, a former Confederate army captain, schoolteacher, lawyer, and housebuilder, and Cornelia Duncan. Hines was raised by his grandmother after his mother died, and he attributed his appreciation of the art of dining to his grandmother’s southern cooking. Though he would achieve widespread name recognition as a restaurant critic, his career did not involve food until he reached his mid-fifties. In 1896 he enrolled in Bowling Green Business University but left after two years. For the next forty years he worked in a variety of jobs, mostly public relations; he designed, wrote, and produced corporate brochures, traveling widely from his home in Chicago to visit clients around the country. In 1905 he married Florence Chaffin; they had no children.

Hines, whose hobby was eating well, became expert at sniffing out good food while he was on the road. Because of the dearth of clean restaurants serving tasty food, Hines applied himself assiduously to the search; he sought recommendations and filled notebooks with his findings. Traveling with his wife on weekends, he took busman’s holidays, driving as much as 500 miles on gastronomic safaris. His reputation as a restaurant hunter began to spread, and a growing contingent of Chicago business travelers consulted him before daring to venture out of town.

Beleagured by queries, he came up with a scheme to silence his phone. In 1935 he printed a list of 167 favorite spots in thirty states and mailed off 1,000 copies as Christmas greetings. But the gesture failed to accomplish its goal; the barrage of requests for restaurant reconnaissance only escalated. In self-defense, Hines expanded the card into an inexpensive, pocket-sized guidebook called Adventures in Good Eating, adding more restaurants with short descriptions for each; the price is variously reported to have been $1.00 or $1.50. From this modest beginning would erupt a quarter-century publishing phenomenon that would make “Recommended by Duncan Hines” a household—or, rather, a car-seat—phrase.

Hines was an advocate of plain American cooking, which, in his view, could be “the best in the world” and also “the worst.” He liked simple, wholesome fare true to its geographic origins. The author grumbled publicly about restaurants that served “leathery eggs or vegetables in billboard paste or dishwater soup,” and he railed against inns that ignored regional specialties in favor of steak and chicken. Once, when asked how he made his menu selections, he snapped, “I steer clear of hashes and meat loaves with fancy names, and from dishes disguised with French names that don’t mean anything in a Midwest hotel.”

Even more demanding were his standards of cleanliness. Before entering a restaurant, Hines often surveyed the back door, using his nose to detect malodorous garbage and other sanitary lapses. He then asked to inspect the kitchen. If satisfied, he entered the dining room and ordered a half-dozen entrées. Restaurants that pleased his sensibilities and his palate were added to the annual (eventually semiannual) update of Adventures in Good Eating. Although Hines included some well-known big-city restaurants in the book, he focused on uncharted territory—the uncelebrated small-town establishments that his urban readers needed to know about in order to eat well when driving from one city to another. He reviewed these places without a trace of snobbery or literary affectation in a style that exuded humor and humility. Restaurants included in the book could hang his seal of approval: a sign that boasted “Recommended by Duncan Hines.” Hines retained ownership of the signs and would retrieve one when he judged that a restaurant’s quality had fallen. He snubbed all offers of advertising, fiercely guarding his independence and his anonymity. The only photograph he used was a twenty-year-old portrait.

Financially, Adventures in Good Eating was at first a disaster, netting the author-publisher a $1,500 loss on 5,000 copies sold. But in 1938 a feature article in the Saturday Evening Post helped put him in the black. After publishing Lodging for a Night (for travelers seeking a bed) and Duncan Hines’ Vacation Guide, he quit his job and moved back to Bowling Green. His books catered to motorists at a time when owning a car was coming to be regarded as an American birthright. By the end of 1939 Hines’s books were moving at a brisk 100,000 copies a year. Eventually, with the addition of Adventures in Good Cooking and The Art of Carving in the Home, combined annual sales would reach half a million. According to a chef cited in Scribner’s Commentator in 1941, Hines had done “more in four years to raise the level of the American cuisine than chefs had done in the previous forty.” As business soared and mail poured in (over 50,000 letters a year), Hines found it necessary to assemble a volunteer corps of several hundred “dinner detectives” who pioneered new ground and revisited the old. His army of culinary lieutenants included bank presidents, university professors, corporate chiefs, and many well-known personalities.

Hines’s first wife died in 1939, and his second marriage, to Emelie Elizabeth Daniels, that same year ended in divorce. In 1946 he married Clara Wright Nahm, a widow who embraced his hobby-turned-profession. He had no children with any of his wives. The two of them toured the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Western Europe for gastronomic pleasure. Hines claimed to have logged over two million miles for the love of food.

In 1948 Duncan Hines was approached by Roy H. Park, a businessman in upstate New York who was seeking a brand name for clients interested in marketing food products. Park broke down Hines’s resistance to endorsements, and the two men established Hines-Park Foods to license the Duncan Hines name. It soon appeared on 200 different items from bread and jam to canned fruit, ice cream, and cake mix. To administer publication of Hines’s books, the partners established the Duncan Hines Institute at Ithaca, New York, in 1953. Two years later the institute brought out the Duncan Hines Food Odyssey and the Duncan Hines Dessert Book, which included his thoughts on courtesy, safe driving, and cooking methods. After a vigorous promotional campaign complete with television appearances and the proclamation of “Duncan Hines Days” in dozens of cities, the food champion slowed down. In 1956 Procter & Gamble purchased all the Duncan Hines interests, and Hines went into semiretirement.

The guidebooks outlived their creator, who died of lung cancer in Bowling Green eleven days before his seventy-ninth birthday. Procter & Gamble discontinued the book series in 1962 and later dropped most products bearing the Duncan Hines name. The notable exception was cake mixes, and for these, rather than guidebooks or restaurant recommendations, the name Duncan Hines has lived on. Highway travelers, who now take for granted the availability of appetizing food prepared in sanitary kitchens, owe a debt of gratitude to Duncan Hines. He demanded a level of quality and cleanliness that was uncommon in his day. Gradually it became the norm, perhaps because, for more than two decades, the nation’s best-known advocate of fine dining would accept nothing less.

Bibliography

For more on Hines, see Milton MacKaye, “Where Shall We Stop for Dinner?” and Duncan Hines and Frank J. Taylor, “How to Find a Decent Meal,” Saturday Evening Post, 3 Dec. 1938 and 26 Apr. 1947; Marion Edwards, “They Live to Eat,” Better Homes & Gardens, Mar. 1945, pp. 30–31; and David M. Schwartz, “He Cultivated Our Culinary Consciousness,” Smithsonian, Nov. 1984, pp. 86–97. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Park City (Ky.) Daily News, both 16 Mar. 1959.