Her name never made the cover, but Kay Emel-Powell was the creative power behind a number of popular Betty Crocker cookbooks that landed on supermarket shelves and other retail outlets in the 1980s.
As a 17-year veteran of General Mills, Emel-Powell was a key figure in the Betty Crocker Kitchens, where she wrote and tested hundreds of recipes that appeared in such publications as "Harvest Time Pies" and "Creative Holiday Recipes."
The booklets sold for as little as $1.98 and were routinely placed in magazine racks at supermarket checkout lines across the United States. Before retiring in 2003, Emel-Powell also helped launch Bettycrocker.com, which continues to provide kitchen tips to 12 million visitors each month.
"We personified Betty Crocker," said Mary Bartz, who worked with Emel-Powell and now coordinates the canning and baking competitions at the Minnesota State Fair. "The essence of Betty Crocker was to offer a warm, friendly approach ... We appealed to Middle America."
Emel-Powell of Bloomington died Aug. 9 after two decades of living with progressive multiple sclerosis. She was 76.
She grew up in rural Kansas, where she won her first cookbook by becoming the local 4-H baking champion at the age of 16. After graduating from Kansas State University with degrees in foods and nutrition and business, she was hired in 1969 as a home economist at Pillsbury.
"At the time, Pillsbury was looking for employees who came from different parts of the country to represent what those places were doing in the kitchen," said Karen Sorensen, who joined Emel-Powell at Pillsbury in 1969. "I was Illinois and Kay was Kansas."
One of their jobs brought them into people's kitchens, where they observed mothers baking brownies and biscuits to see if they had trouble opening the packages or following the directions. They also conducted so-called "tolerance tests," seeing how much they could mess up a recipe without ruining the end result.
"If a product was so sensitive that it failed if you were off by a teaspoon of water, we'd go back and say we may need to reformulate the mix so it is more forgiving to consumers," said Anne Klein, another former Pillsbury colleague.
Emel-Powell left Pillsbury in 1971 to sell housewares and establish her own consulting business. She was hired by General Mills in 1986 after working on the Pillsbury Bake-Off and developing several Betty Crocker cookbooks as a freelancer. General Mills, which acquired Pillsbury in 2001, established the Betty Crocker brand in 1921.
Colleagues said one of her passions was developing and testing recipes for the company, which required constant monitoring of food trends in restaurants, bakeries and competing cookbooks.
"Betty Crocker was aiming at the average cook, and it was a constant question of how far do you push into the gourmet world," Sorensen said.
To keep things simple, many dishes were limited to three or five ingredients. Another factor: recipes should promote the company's products, such as biscuits or rolls.
"It has always been the premise that if you get recipes in front of the consumer, they will buy your product," Sorensen said. "You just had to have the right recipe and the recipe had to be good."
Some of the books are now collectors' items that sell for many times their original price online. One fan of Betty Crocker's Smart Cook, which Emel-Powell edited in 1988, said she has given several copies of the cookbook to friends.
"This is a super great cookbook for the cook who wants to put something special on their table, but has time constraints," the buyer said in a 2009 review.
Emel-Powell is survived by her husband, Mark Moore Powell. A celebration of life will be held at a later date.