From the archives: Love Rice Krispies Treats? You have an Iowan to thank
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The next time you snack on Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats, thank Iowa’s Mildred Day for creating them.
Creating tasty recipes in the kitchen came naturally to Day, but her achievements were something she didn’t talk about often, says her daughter, Sandra Rippie of Bloomington, Minnesota.
Rippie called her mother “bright and independent — she was ahead of her time in the 1920s.”
“She truly was an outstanding professional woman years before women were given equal rights.”
Rippie says she learned only as an adult that her own mom had been instrumental in the marshmallow-and-cereal invention — and some early mass production of it — and asked Day why she had never made Rice Krispies Treats for her only child.
“If you’d made them for two weeks from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, you wouldn’t want to make them again either,” Day told her.
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From one-room school to Iowa State
The woman behind the confectionery delight was born Harriet Mildred Ghrist (a German name, rhymes with diced) on Sept. 24, 1903. The place, by most accounts, was Durham, a hamlet about eight miles east of Knoxville in Marion County. Her parents were Charles and Mina (pronounced mynah), who farmed. Harriet Mildred was the baby of the family, after siblings Mary Elizabeth, Lettie, James and Ethel.
Rippie says young Harriet Mildred wasn’t too fond of the aunt for whom she was named, so at a young age chose to go by Mildred H. and was called Millie.
At some point, the Ghrist family relocated to a farm at Quebec, a one-time village just east of Hubbard in Hardin County.
As a child, Millie attended the one-room Quebec school. As an adult, she recalled that she planned to ride her pony to class, then learned that the animal would go to a nearby bridge and no further, making Millie late to school. She vowed never to be late again, taking her lessons seriously. In school, Millie usually was the one to win spelling bees. She entered — and won — a boys’ four-minute speech debate, Rippie says.
By the time Millie was a young teen, the Ghrists had moved to Ames, where Charles Ghrist took a custodial job at Iowa State College. The Grists were living at 833 Hodge Ave. when, at age 16, Millie was approached by a local newspaper and asked if she could put her writing skills to use as a social editor. She took the job.
Millie later enrolled at Iowa State, majoring in home economics. To earn money, she worked part time doing research for a professor in the school’s genetics department, Rippie says. Millie received good grades, and once earned a 99.5 grade for a dress she made.
She wrote for a campus publication called the Green Gander and belonged to a professional home economics organization.
One spring day, while attending the Drake Relays in Des Moines, she met another Iowa State student, James Meredith Day of Vermont, who was running for his school. Romance blossomed and the two were “pinned” before graduation.
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Kellogg's career takes off
Even before receiving her diploma in 1928, Millie had lined up a job at the Kellogg’s cereal company in Battle Creek, Michigan. Rippie says the company sent a woman to Ames to interview Millie, and was impressed by her table manners and home life.
When Day asked Charles Ghrist for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he was told: “Well, Millie has worked very hard, and if it’s OK with her new bosses, it’s OK with me.”
The bosses at Kellogg’s said yes, that Millie could hold the job even if she was a married woman.
The two wed in Burlington, Vermont, and then settled into a walk-up apartment in Battle Creek. They lived frugally, and James Day told people that they usually ate at home: “Why should we eat out when Millie can cook better than anyone at a restaurant?”
At Kellogg’s, Day tested recipes in the company’s large kitchens, and later was sent across the country, via train, to conduct cooking schools for Kellogg’s customers in about 38 states.
Kellogg’s Rice Krispies was developed in 1927, came on the market in 1928, and were a hit with their “snap, crackle and pop” sounds.
Many sources say that in 1939 — although Rippie believes it was years earlier — Day and co-worker Malitta Jensen created the Rice Krispies Treat, possibly inspired by an earlier recipe that used puffed wheat and molasses. Day thought marshmallows would be less messy than molasses.
Rippie says that about six months after the invention, Kellogg’s received an inquiry from a Camp Fire girls organization in the Kansas City area, pleading for ideas for a fundraiser. Kellogg’s decided to test-try what it initially called “marshmallow squares,” and put Day on a train for Kansas City. She took with her huge, specially made baking trays and a giant mixer.
Day set up a temporary kitchen and and proceeded to make batch after batch of the treats, working long days. As soon a batch was completed, the mothers of the Camp Fire girls would wrap the treats and send them off with the youngsters to sell door to door.
Kellogg’s put the recipe for the new treat on its Rice Krispies cereal box for the first time in 1941, although the recipe had been published in newspapers earlier.
First to feed in flight?
Rippie says her mother took part in another “first” during her years with Kellogg’s: She served perhaps the very first airline meal. It was to a small group of magazine food editors invited to Battle Creek and taken on a short excursion flight aboard a Ford Tri-Star airplane, with Day on board to keep the prepared meals warm. Again, Day, who “didn’t like to toot her own horn,” according to Rippie, didn’t talk about the occasion later in life.
The Days later moved to Minneapolis, where Millie Day worked at the Pillsbury Co. and her husband was an entrepreneur in various business ventures. She eventually gave up her own career to work alongside him as he operated three Buster Brown shoe stores, ran a water-softener business or constructed swimming pools, Rippie says.
In later years, Day would return to Ames at Easter time to visit relatives, bringing her daughter along on the train.
At the end of her life, Day resided at the Friendship Village in Bloomington, Minnesota. She died on June 9, 1996. She was 92.
Iowa State honored Day’s memory during its Veishea celebration in April 2001 by creating a gigantic Rice Krispies Treat that weighed 2,480 pounds and was created from 818 pounds of Rice Krispies, 1,466 pounds of marshmallows and 217 pounds of butter.
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