Why a "boring" line of baking mixes tastes like home
Southerners claim cornbread, but the most popular recipe in the country comes from Michigan. Every six-and-a-half-by-three-inch box of Jiffy mix rolls out of the Chelsea Milling Company—a fourth-generation family business in small-town Chelsea. The product isn’t just made in the Midwest, but fundamentally Midwestern. The company gets most of its flour and some of its sugar from the Wolverine State.
America’s first all-purpose baking mixes started with Mabel White Holmes, daughter of mill owner E.K. White and wife of mill operator Howard Holmes. According to corporate lore, one of her son’s friends inspired her when he brought over a flat biscuit, made by his widowed father. Holmes’s pioneering biscuit mix, promoted as so easy to use that “even a man could do it,” debuted in 1930.
Jiffy’s iconic corn muffin mix came later, as did twenty-some other mixes, all still packaged in retro boxes and sold at low prices. The company is proud to be “boring,” President and CEO Howdy Holmes told NPR in 2017. “We are clearly so far from trendy, with our products, with our packaging, with the way we do business. I mean, we’re so boring, it’s attractive!” Maybe that’s how you know they’re Midwestern.
Every six-and-a-half-by-three-inch box of Jiffy mix rolls out of the Chelsea Milling Company—a fourth-generation family business in small-town Chelsea. The product isn’t just made in the Midwest, but fundamentally Midwestern.
Nostalgia hit me hard this winter. I wanted comfort, reminders of a life that felt warmer, cozier, and more predictable—not just pre-pandemic, but pre-adulthood. I know I wasn’t alone. People all over the country (and probably the world) have spent the past year discovering and rediscovering the joys of home cooking, though unfortunately, many have also suffered through food shortages.
Unsurprisingly, Jiffy reported record sales in 2020. The company launched its baking mixes came at the height of the Great Depression, and they still represent affordable, accessible comfort in the time of COVID-19. They’re still looking out for us. The Chelsea Milling Company will send you a free cookbook if you ask for it, with tried-and-true recipes for Corny Dogs and Banana Split Pie. If you can’t get to Chelsea for a tour anytime soon, they’ll send you a “tour case” of twenty-four mixes for $12.
I grew up in Ann Arbor, just fifteen miles or so from Chelsea. Jiffy was everywhere when I was a kid. I still remember the sting of missing out on a class trip to the factory when I was in the fourth grade. I got to school after lunch to find my classmates gleefully enjoying the last of their corn muffins. Jiffy mixes weren’t common in my household growing up, because we didn’t eat a lot of white flour or white sugar, but I was a hard-headed kid obsessed with cooking and intrigued by the food cultures around us. With one dollar of babysitting money, I could buy four boxes of Jiffy.
I grew up, became a cook, left home, and ditched the baking mixes. Then, last year, as I thought about a home I couldn’t visit and people who are no longer there, those little blue-and-white boxes resurfaced in my memory. I ordered the complementary cookbook. I’ve been paging through it at night like a bedtime story. I brought home the vegetarian cornbread mix (my husband doesn’t eat pork, and the original recipe contains lard, which I somehow missed for years), added fresh blueberries, baked it in one of those brownie pans that’s all corners, and glazed it with honey butter. The flavor hadn’t changed in any discernible way. It felt like a warm blanket.
Jiffy is a taste of home for many people. It’s also a taste of Michigan.