Important events in the exciting history of food have interesting, divergent, and often accidental beginnings.
In 1856 a boy in Pittsburgh grew some extra horseradish in his mother’s garden. He borrowed a wheelbarrow, which he filled with bottles of ground horseradish and sold to local grocers. The boy was Henry Heinz; and from this first bottle of horseradish sauce grew the intricate world-wide business of the H. J. Heinz Company. Before 1900 that one variety had grown to 57, which today numbers close to 570 in this far-flung food empire.
In 1904 Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant, sent samples of his various blends of tea to a few of his customers packed in little, hand-sewn silk bags. To his amazement, orders began pouring in by the hundreds for his tea put up in bags. His customers had discovered that tea could be made quickly without muss or fuss by pouring boiling water over tea bags in cups. Thus, quite by accident, was the start of a million-dollar innovation in the sale of tea.
In 1890 a salesman living in Johnstown, New York, while watching the time it took his wife to make some calf’s-foot jelly, decided that powdering gelatin would save a lot of time in the kitchen. Charles B. Knox put his idea into operation, hired salesmen to go into peoples’ homes to show how easily his gelatin could be dissolved in water and used. His wife worked out recipes for aspics and desserts to be given away with each package. This was the beginning of Knox Gelatine known today by every American housewife.
Peter Cooper, the inventor of the ‘‘Tom Thumb” locomotives, also invented a process for mixing powdered gelatin, sugar, and fruit flavors. This was fifty years before it began to appear on grocers’ shelves as Jell-O. He was too early; merchandising methods had not been developed to convince housewives of the need for ready prepared foods. Just before the beginning of this century spectacular advertising for its day pointed out how many desserts could be prepared from this inexpensive, neat, clean package of Jell-O. Recipe booklets were distributed by the millions, as many as 15 million in one year, unheard of in that day. Another billion-dollar food business was launched.
Count Rumford, born in Massachusetts, who later migrated to England, was a leading physicist of the nineteenth century. He built the first kitchen range designed for use in a prison in Munich. This proved so efficient and workable that many wealthy people commissioned Count Rumford to replace their open hearth type of cooking apparatus with these new contraptions in their manor kitchens. By 1850 many American manufacturers had adapted Rum-ford’s invention and were producing cast iron ranges in many sizes and shapes, lavishly decorated. From an experimental prison range, the modem stove industry was born.
In 1914 a young scientist from Brooklyn, New York, named Clarence Birdseye joined a scientific expedition to Labrador. He was also an avid sportsman, so he lost no time. He cut a hole in the thick arctic ice to try his hand at fishing. The fish froze as soon as they Were exposed to the subfreezing air, often before he had them off the hook. To his surprise, the fish could be kept frozen for weeks and then defrosted and cooked like a fresh fish without any loss of texture or flavor. After returning to the United States, Birdseye made the same discovery while hunting caribou. The steaks from the quick-frozen caribou could later be broiled to a juicy, flavorsome rareness. Because of World War
I, he had to drop many additional experiments in quick-freezing all kinds of food. After the war he went into the fishery business in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and experimented with fast freezing on the side. With a tremendous amount of good salesmanship, he raised money for the first quick-frozen food company. The first Birdseye package went on sale to the public in 1930. It would have been difficult to believe, at that time, that within a relatively few years almost every segment of our giant American food industry would be in quick freezing.
In Boston in 1894 a boardinghouse keeper was criticized by a sailor in her rooming house because her puddings were lumpy. Insulted at first, she became interested when he explained that the South Sea island natives pounded tapioca to a smooth consistency and suggested that she experiment by running some through her coffee grinder. Sure enough from there on her puddings were as smooth as silk. Soon she was putting up her finely ground tapioca in bags and selling them to her neighbors. She chose a very magic name—“Minute Tapioca”—and soon found a big business on her hands. Many quickly prepared foods have since copied the word “minute,” but today a minute does not seem fast enough and has been replaced by “instant.”
Many people believe Aunt Jemima to be a fictional name representing an old-fashioned Negro mammy. On the contrary, the name of this ever-popu-lar pancake mix was inspired by a real, live person. A widow who lost all her money and could no longer pay wages to the faithful old family cook worked out a formula with her real-life Aunt Jemima and managed to borrow enough money so they could jointly put their product on the market. The mix brought fame and fortune to the real Aunt Jemima and her former penniless mistress.
Chiffon cake was billed in huge cake mix ads in the 1940’s as the “first really new cake in a hundred years.” Harry Baker was a professional baker and owned a pastry shop in Hollywood, California. For years celebrities had flocked to his store and raved about his cakes. Many cooks feel that their personal recipes should be very valuable to some big food manufacturer but are shocked to find that variations of nearly every recipe have already been tried in the research kitchens. Harry Baker was one of the lucky ones; he sold his recipes for many thousands of dollars to General Mills. The valuable secret of his chiffon cake was that instead of shortening he used salad oil.
Going back many years to 1520, Cortez, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, observed native Mayan Indians treating tough meat with the juice of the papaya, a common fruit in most tropical lands. He noted this in his writings about his conquest. Strangely enough, this find lay dormant until recent years, when the tenderizing element in papayas was turned into a powder, put up in jars ready to sprinkle on the surface of meat to make chuck and round steaks as tender as sirloin and porterhouse. From this long-forgotten idea came Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer, a necessity in many homes.
In 1824 a German doctor living in Venezuela had a Spanish wife who had been sickly for years. Determined to cure her, he worked for over a year on a formula of herbs and spices until he invented a tonic that he claimed brought her back to health. Sailors stopping at the little port of Angostura found that this blend of herbs, spices, and the blossoms of the blue Gentian plant would cure seasickness. They spread the fame of Angostura bitters around the world, the process being speeded when they learned to add it to their ration of rum. When it became an essential part of a Manhattan cocktail, its place in our lives was further assured. Later, it was found to be an excellent addition in many food recipes, and today Angostura Bitters is found on almost everyone’s food shelf.
Early traveling merchants from the city of Hamburg, Germany, learned from the Tartars in the Baltic Sea area how to scrape raw meat, season it with salt, pepper, and onion juice to make what is still called tartar steak. The people of Hamburg soon adopted the tartar steak. After many years some unknown Hamburg cook made patties out of the raw meat and broiled them brown on the outside and still pretty raw on the inside—a true hamburger. Today in the butcher shops of America, ground hamburger meat accounts for 30 per cent of all the beef sold to consumers.
The Toll House was a country inn in Massachusetts noted for good food. In the early 1940’s Ruth Wakefield, who was then mistress of the inn, started serving a crisp little cookie studded with bits of chocolate. Miss Wakefield readily gave her customers the recipe, and all of a sudden, bars of semi-sweet chocolate began vanishing from the shelves of the stores in the area. It didn’t take long for the Nestle Company, and later Hershey, to smoke out the fact that everyone was making the cookie recipe from the Toll House; and soon they were selling millions of packages of chocolate bits specifically so people could make these wonderful cookies. Today it is America’s most popular cookie, available frozen, in ready-to-use cookie mixes, and already made in packages.
The early Chinese found that seaweed dried and ground into a powder and added like salt to food had a magical effect on meats and vegetables—all their natural flavor was enhanced. That’s why Chinese food became so popular all over the world. Eventually our chemists discovered the flavor-enhancing element and called it glutamate. Today this product, monosodium glutamate, made from beet sugar waste, soy beans, or wheat, is a staple item in every market. It is known to American shoppers as Ac’cent.
Gail Borden, the son of a frontiersman, went to London in 1852 to sell a dehydrated meat biscuit at the International Exposition being held in England. He used all his money trying to put over his idea and had to travel steerage to get home. He was appalled at the crowded, miserable conditions imposed on the immigrant families coming to America. During the trip several infants died in their mothers’ arms from milk from infected cows, which were carried on board most passenger vessels to furnish milk, cream, and butter for the passengers. Borden was sure there was a way to preserve milk for long voyages; but many before him had tried and failed, including Pasteur. After four years of intensive research, Borden perfected a process of condensing milk. In 1856 his patent was approved in Washington. After much work selling the idea to skeptics, the first canned milk was introduced to the American market and formed the cornerstone of the vast and diversified Borden Company.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, Ellen Gould White had a dream one night in which she was told by the
Lord that man should eat no meat, use no tobacco, tea, coffee, or alcoholic beverages. As a Seventh Day Adventist she established the “Health Reform Institute,” a sort of sanitarium, where her guests ate nuts disguised as meat and drank a cereal beverage. This beverage was the creation of one of her guests named Charles William Post, who was suffering from ulcers. He named his beverage Postum. Post also invented the first dry breakfast cereal, which he called “Elijah’s Manna.” He decided to go into business producing his inventions; but the name Elijah’s Manna ran into consumer resistance, so he changed it to “Grape Nuts.”
In this same sanitarium was a surgeon named Dr. Harvey Kellogg, whose name along with Post’s was destined to be on millions of cereal packages every year. One of Dr. Kellogg’s patients had broken her false teeth on a piece of zwiebach, so he invented a paper-thin flake cereal from com. Breakfast cereals immediately became a rage, and at one time there were as many as forty different companies in Battle Creek competing for this new health food business. So began the vast cereal business of today.
Margaret Rudkin was the wife of a stock broker and her son suffered from allergies. She made an old-fashioned loaf of bread from stone-milled whole wheat flour, hoping to build up her son’s health. The bread helped her son; so her doctor persuaded her to bake the bread for some of his patients, and soon she was in business. When this bread was introduced in the thirties, it competed at 25¢ against the spongy white variety selling at 10¢. Within 10 years, Maggie Rudkin’s Pepperidge Farm Bread was in demand all over the East Coast and other bakers were making similar loaves— another small beginning for a nationally-known company, Pepperidge Farms.
One night Teddy Roosevelt, who had been visiting the home of President Andrew Jackson, stopped for dinner at the Maxwell House, a famous eating place nearby. Roosevelt, a great extrovert, was so delighted with the coffee that when he finished he replaced the cup in the saucer with a formal gesture and cried out heartily, “that was good to the last drop,” a phrase destined to make quite famous the coffee named after the Maxwell House.
St. Louis, Missouri, was the site of two important developments in the realm of food. In 1904 an Englishman was tending a booth at the St. Louis International Exposition demonstrating the virtues of a hot cup of tea. This was an insurmountable task during the hot July days in the Mid-West. Our Englishman, Richard Blechynden, disparagingly wiped the perspiration from his face as he watched the crowds pass him by. Finally, in desperation, he threw some ice into the hot tea urn and the crowds began to swarm around his booth. The drink was a sensation, and iced tea quickly became one of America’s most popular thirst quenchers.
Still in St. Louis, but back in 1890, a physician ground and pounded peanuts to provide an easily-digested form of protein for his patients. The result was peanut butter, which was quickly and rightly adopted by food faddists all over the country. Today it is a staple found in almost every American kitchen. It’s a rare mother who isn’t thankful for healthful peanut butter when nothing else seems to tempt her children’s appetites.
So, with these ancedotes, one can see that almost every great food company or food idea had a small but fascinating beginning. Some came quite by accident, others from diligent perseverance, reflecting the drive and ingenuity of the human race—free enterprise among free men.
Of all aspects of the free market economic system, the role of profit-making by individuals is the one most subject to controversy. An air of apology seems to permeate any discussion of profit-making, even among those who generally commend the market society.