How Dump Cake cookbook author Cathy Mitchell became queen of infomercials
You may not know her name, but if you’ve ever stayed up all night watching infomercials, you know who she is.
“Hi, this is Cathy Mitchell, I’m the…I don’t know what I am!”
Cathy Mitchell is the queen of cookware infomercials. You’ve seen her. She looks like everyone’s Midwestern mom: short, a little round, with curly red hair and perfectly manicured fingernails, perfect for pointing to cookware in infomercials.
Mitchell’s hawked more than 20 products on television, including the Chef-O-Matic Pro, Sideshow Skillet, Fry Pro 2, Turbo Cooker and currently Red Copper Pans, and she’s written eight cookbooks, including Dump Cakes, Dump Dinners and Dump Soups. They’re little books often sold at the supermarket checkout. I asked her if she was aware that the titles of these books causes much snickering.
“Oh yes, I know that!” Mitchell laughed. “Don’t you think that’s probably part of the reason it’s successful? We tried a meatloaf pan and they called it The Dump Loaf and that was the end of it right there. You can go that far and no further. I just cringed when I heard the name! Sometimes when they want to name things I go, oh come on, really?!”
I asked Mitchell how she became an infomercial celebrity.
“I started in the fairs, demonstrating products — you know the people up on the box with the microphone that that gather a big crowd around them,” she said. “I believe it’s because I’m every woman. I shop at Walmart and Kmart — I shop at the ‘marts! I make real, simple, easy food. I’m not a chef, I’m just a cook. People seem to believe when I say something is good or something works. I just have a believability.”
Mitchell’s first infomercial was for the Snackmaster, the non-stick sandwich press that seals fillings between two slices of bread.
“In ’89, the FCC released the half-hour infomercial format where you could buy a half an hour of time. Everyone was kind of scrambling,” she said. “I think Ron Popeil probably did the first one, but I was one of the first three. The guy who owned the Snackmaster said, ‘Hey, these TV commercial things are kind of interesting, why don’t we try one?’ We went down to a little studio in San Diego, rented it for five hours. By today’s standards it was like, hey, let’s put on a show in the garage. No food stylist, no makeup lady. You know, I had to borrow a lipstick from the secretary in the outside office’s purse. But funny story, because afterward, the guy who owned the company said, ‘You know, we never talked about paying you. I’ll give you a thousand dollars for your time here today or I’ll give you fifty cents for every machine we sell. But bear in mind we might not sell any.’ So I took the 50 cents and we sold a million machines.”
Mitchell develops most of the recipes she cooks on the infomercials and they all have one thing in common: They’re quick and easy. All of the products are freakishly nonstick and the recipes involve boxed cake mix, cans of soup and pie filling, pre-made pizza dough and biscuits and, a Mitchell signature, lots of soda.
“I should live in Nebraska or something! But that’s the kind of food that people eat — that real people eat — and I feel like a real person,” she said. “They want meat, they want potatoes, they want a vegetable, they want to get it on the table quick and they just want to be done with it.”
Cathy Mitchell is featured on the latest episode of my podcast, Your Last Meal, where we explore the last meal of New York Times best-selling author Augusten Burroughs. Listen on iTunes, here or wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe today!