Minnesota’s front-and-center role in food history might have been a mere footnote if it weren’t for St. Anthony Falls. This 16-foot precipice, the only falls along the Mississippi River’s 2,340 miles, provided the energy in the pre-electricity era to run the mills that spawned General Mills, Pillsbury and a host of other food giants.

The falls were named in 1680 by Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest who christened them for his patron saint, Anthony of Padua.

The falls’ power was first harnessed in 1823 by soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling, who built a crude grist mill on the river’s West Bank.

The first flour mill appeared on the East Bank in 1854, and as technological improvements revolutionized the milling process over the next few decades, the area around the falls — sacred to Native Americans — became crowded with several dozen mills, all using the river’s  water power via an intricate network of dams and canals to churn out flour on a monumental scale.

The falls were also the site of the nation’s first urban hydroelectric power plant.

At their peak in 1916, the city’s mills were producing 3.6 billion pounds of flour a year, enough to fill the Metrodome 1 ¼ times.

By 1930, the city lost its “Flour Milling Capital of the World” title to Buffalo, N.Y., and the falls’ last water-powered mill was shut down in 1960.

Remnants of the district’s powerful industrial past remain. The Pillsbury A Mill, the world’s largest and most advanced flour-making operation when it opened in 1881, still stands at 301 SE. Main St. At its peak, it produced 3.5 million pounds of flour a day.

The last sack of flour left the building in 2003; plans call for the elegant limestone structure to be converted to condominiums.

Across the water sit the remnants of the 128-year-old Washburn A Mill. It was retired in 1965, heavily damaged by fire in 1991 and is now part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s fascinating Mill City Museum, which tells the story of the city’s flour-milling past.

Unfortunately, today’s falls have none of the natural beauty that inspired 18th-century explorer Jonathan Carver to write, “A more pleasing and picturesque view cannot, I believe, be found throughout the universe.”

Still, the most captivating views of the now-tamed water works are from railroad magnate James J. Hill’s stunning Stone Arch Bridge, the thrilling new Water Power Park, which takes East Bank sightseers right up to the river’s mists, and the open-air platform on the Guthrie Theater’s breathtaking Endless Bridge.

MARQUEE NAMES

The state is home to some of the biggest players in agribusiness as well as some of the supermarket’s most familiar names. Minnetonka-based Cargill, one of the world’s largest companies, has roots that go back to Albert Lea, in 1869.

Cadwallader Washburn’s first flour mill, precursor to what is now Golden Valley-based General Mills, opened at St. Anthony Falls in 1866 (at right, the Washburn flour mills).

Three years later, Charles Pillsbury bought minority interest in a nearby mill, signaling the start of the Pillsbury empire (General Mills acquired the company in 2001 for $10 billion).

Land O’Lakes began as the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association in 1921; today it processes 30 million pounds of milk a day. Daniels Linseed Co. opened in Minneapolis in 1902 and 21 years later evolved into Archer Daniels Midland.

Watkins Inc. has been selling its famous vanilla extract and other specialty foods from Winona since 1885.

M.A. Gedney Co. has been making pickles since it opened its first plant in north Minneapolis in 1881; today, the company produces more than 20 million jars of pickle products a year. American Beet Sugar Co., predecessor to American Crystal Sugar Co., was founded in East Grand Forks in 1926.

Today the cooperative, based in Moorhead, produces about 20 percent of the nation’s sugar. Geo. A. Hormel & Co., maker of SPAM and Jennie-O (the nation’s second-largest turkey producer), has churned out meat products in Austin since 1892.

Green Giant started canning sweet peas in Le Sueur as the Minnesota Canning Co. in 1907.

Ry-Krisp crackers got their start in Minneapolis in 1899 and were baked in the city for more than a century. Malt-O-Meal was born in Owatonna as the Campbell Cereal Co. in 1919; today the Minneapolis-based company is one of the nation’s largest producers of hot and cold breakfast cereals.

Marvin Schwan’s started delivering ice cream in a yellow truck in Marshall in 1952; today his Schwan’s Sales Enterprises is the world’s largest producer of frozen pizzas.

GOD BLESS BETTY

Minnesota’s most famous resident doesn’t actually live here, and not because she’s a Florida snowbird. She doesn’t exist.

Still, Betty Crocker has been a trusted spokeswoman for what is now General Mills since 1921, when a forward-thinking executive conjured up a female authority figure for answering customer inquiries. Her last name was chosen to honor a retiring company director, and Betty was selected for its friendly demeanor.

The first of Ms. Crocker’s eight official portraits — Betty as a purse-lipped librarian — was painted in 1936 by magazine illustrator Neysa Moran McMein.

Betty first graced the radio airwaves in 1924, and by the 1940s, the domestic goddess was hauling in 4,000 advice-seeking letters a day.

She was No. 2 in a 1945 Fortune magazine survey of the nation’s most well-known women, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Wall Street Journal once called her “the queen of corporate trade characters.” No wonder General Mills billed her as “America’s First Lady of Food.”

(“There are some similarities between Betty and Martha Stewart, but the big difference is that there’s probably not a jury that would convict Betty of anything,” said Susan Marks, author of “Finding Betty Crocker.”)

By the 1950s, actress Adelaide Hawley was portraying her on TV. Today the famous Betty Crocker signature and image — last updated in 1996 — adorns nearly 350 General Mills products.

As far as ficticious Gopher State food ambassadors go, Betty’s in good company. The Jolly Green Giant, named for an unusually large European sweet pea produced by the Minnesota Valley Canning Co. in Le Sueur, dates to 1921.

The Pillsbury Doughboy first appeared in a 1965 television ad for refrigerated Crescent Rolls. On Cream of Wheat boxes, the same waiter’s image has appeared since 1900, and an Native American maiden has resided on Land O’Lakes packages for more than 80 years.

WE’RE NOS. 1, 2 AND 3

Minnesota farms are the nation’s largest source of green peas, sugar beets and turkeys, according to 2007 data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The state is no slouch in other agribusiness ranks, either.

It holds second place in terms of spring wheat, oats and sweet corn and is third in soybeans, dry edible beans, flaxseed and hog production.

Sunflowers? The state is No. 4. Minnesota is fifth for cheese and sixth in barley, potatoes, honey and milk production.

FLYING OFF THE SHELVES

Geo. A. Hormel & Co. introduced SPAM (short for “spiced ham”) in 1937. The mix of ground pork shoulder, ham, water, sugar and sodium quickly became the world’s bestselling canned meat.

More than 122 million cans are sold annually, approximately 3 cans per second.

CREAM OF THE CROP

Mornings were never the same after 1893, when Tom Amidon, a miller in Grand Forks, N.D., invented a hot wheat porridge made from a previously discarded milling byproduct.

Business was so brisk that the company moved to Minneapolis in 1897, where a series of landmark factories were built; the last, in northeast Minneapolis, closed in 2002 after 75 years of production.

It has been converted to condominiums, where a faint scent of Cream of Wheat lingers in the corridors.

ON CAMPUS

The University of Minnesota has long played an influential role in the way we eat. Prof. Ansel Keys’ studies pointed to high cholesterol and fatty diets as chief culprits in heart disease.

His starvation experiments led to the creation of military K-rations (the K stands for Keys), survival packs intended for stranded paratroopers, and had implications for rebuilding postwar Europe. “Starved people can’t be taught democracy,” said Keys.

The university’s horticulturalists have developed dozens of cold weather-hardy fruits and vegetables, most notably the Honeycrisp, the 1991 boon to apple growers and eaters that the New York Times hailed as the iPod of the orchard and the Association of University Technology Managers christened as one of the 25 innovations that changed the world.

Then there’s Norman Borlaug, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at the university.

This son of Iowa farmers developed a high-yield, disease-resistant wheat that is credited with sparing millions around the planet from starvation, work that led to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now 94 years old, he has also been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honors bestowed by the federal government, and the university’s plant pathology department is housed in Borlaug Hall.

“When the Nobel Peace Prize Committee designated me the recipient of the 1970 award for my contribution to the 'green revolution’, they were, in effect I believe, selecting an individual to symbolize the vital role of agriculture and food production in a world that is hungry, both for bread and for peace,” he said when he received the Nobel honor.

SALES SMARTS

Minnesota’s food companies have long been leaders in brand-loyalty advancements, but none has topped the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

Promoting Pillsbury flour was the reason behind the first contest, held in 1949 at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Six Minnesotans have won the top prize over the years (worth $1 million since 1996), the first being Alice Reese of Minneapolis in 1961 for her Candy Bar Cookies.

Other marketing milestones include the 1950 launch of the “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” which became one of the bestselling books in publishing history, with subsequent sales in the 30-million neighborhood.

And savvy Pillsbury sponsored “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, when the Beatles made their first appearance on U.S. television. An estimated 70 million viewers tuned in, more than 40 percent of the homes with TV sets.

SWEET TOOTH

Log Cabin Syrup, a blend of maple syrup and cane sugar, was introduced by St. Paul grocer Patrick J. Towle in 1887. Towle sold it in a tin container resembling the boyhood home of his hero, Abraham Lincoln.

pPearson Candy Co. launched the Nut Goodie candy bar in 1912 and the Salted Nut Roll in 1933; both are still produced at the firm’s St. Paul plant.

The Milky Way candy bar made its debut in 1923 by Minneapolis confectioner Frank C. Mars, who later moved his business to Chicago (he’s buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis). Two 1930s treats were the PayDay bar, a product of the Hollywood Candy Co. of Minneapolis, and the Seven-Up bar from St. Paul’s Trudeau Candy Co.

BUZZ KILLER

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the sale, transportation, importation and exportation of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

The law under that amendment, the National Prohibition Act of 1919 – more commonly known as the Volstead Act – was sponsored by Rep. Andrew John Volstead, a Republican from Granite Falls, Minn. He served 10 terms in Congress and was defeated for reelection in 1922.

SMART FOLKS

Where would the American consumer be without Walter H. Deubener? In 1919, the grocer with a store on W. 7th St. in St. Paul invented, patented and became wealthy from the two-handled paper shopping bag, which allowed customers to buy and carry more goods at one time.

Minneapolitan James T. Williams invented a quick-cooking elbow macaroni in 1912 that he called Creamettes. Carpenter Electric Heating Manufacturing Co. in St. Paul introduced the first electric oven in 1891.

And in 1926, breakfast got a whole lot more convenient after Charles Strite of Stillwater invented the Toastmaster, the first automatic electric toaster. It was marketed by Waters-Genter Co. of Minneapolis.

LOVING FROM THE OVEN

Nordic Ware started manufacturing its first bakeware products in St. Louis Park in 1946.

Four years later, owner H. David Dalquist introduced the Bundt pan, a fluted and scalloped aluminum tube pan.

Lucky for him, a recipe from the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off — the Tunnel of Fudge Cake — ignited a Bundt-baking sensation.

The rest, as they say, is history; to date, the company has sold more than 50 million Bundt cake pans. Dalquist, who died in 2005, also invented the Micro-Go-Round, a bestselling portable microwave oven turntable.

ON THE AIR

Minnesota is home to a pair of very different food media superstars.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper rules the public-radio airwaves as the passionately inquisitive host of “The Splendid Table,” the recipe-averse show heard on nearly 200 stations nationwide and recorded in the downtown St. Paul studios of Minnesota Public Radio.

Andrew Zimmern, the globetrotting, man-who-will-eat-anything host of the Travel Channel’s über-popular “Bizarre Foods,” logs his frequent-flier miles through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

BREAKFAST BREAKTHROUGHS

Minnesotan Alexander P. Anderson invented the “shot from guns” process in 1902. He sold his invention to Quaker Oats, which used the process to develop Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice cereals.

General Mills became a major player in the breakfast cereal business when its predecessor, the Washburn-Crosby Co., launched Wheaties in 1924.

A brilliant 1933 ad campaign rebranded the cereal as the “Breakfast of Champions.” The company introduced Kix in 1937.

Cheerioats followed in 1941 and were renamed Cheerios five years later; today it’s the nation’s top-selling cereal, and its Honey Nut version, introduced in 1979, sits at No. 3.

Trix came along in 1954, chased by Cocoa Puffs in 1958, Total in 1961, Lucky Charms in 1963 and Cinnamon Toast Crunch in 1984.

MIXING IT UP

Ever the innovator, General Mills solved the problem of a shelf-stable biscuit mix when it introduced Bisquick, a blend of flour, baking powder, salt and sesame seed oil (later replaced with soybean oil) in 1931.

Advertisements hailed it as “a world of baking in a box” and the verstatile product led to the development of additional time-saving baking products, including Hungry Jack pancake mix (1936) and the company’s first cake mix (a ginger formula) in 1947, widely considered to be the first commercial success of its kind; Pillsbury jumped in with a chocolate version the following year.

Consumer Reports was cautiously favorable toward the growing trend. “It is apparent that there are good reasons for the growing popularity of the mixes,” reported the magazine in 1951. “However, if you have the skill to bake a really fine cake, and your taste or the occasion demands the best, you should follow your own prized recipe.”