17 Most influential African Americans in Food
February 11, 2019
Learn how these people made a big difference in the food industry
Alfred L. Cralle
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! Alfred L. Cralle solved a tricky problem that long-vexed ice cream lovers. He used his interest in mechanics to create the “ice cream molder and disher.” His single hand, non-stick ice cream dispenser was patented in 1897 and has affected the world of ice cream ever since. Now his scoop is used in the best ice cream stands in every state.
In 1884, Willis Johnson patented an improved egg beater. This mechanical mixer not only made beating eggs a breeze, but it also made combining other ingredients much faster and less labor intensive.
Alexander P. Ashbourne
Left: United States Patent and Trademark Office; Right: istockphoto.com
Alexander P. Ashbourne created a domestic utensil in 1875 he called a biscuit or cake cutter. It was a spring-loaded device in which dough is placed on a flat metal board, and a facing side with cut outs forms the biscuits in various shapes. Biscuits no longer had to be made individually.
That fridge in the kitchen wasn’t the refrigerator that we see today. In 1879, Thomas Elkins patented a device that used metal cooling coils enclosed in a container. These coils cool the temperature far below room temperature, enabling stored items to be chilled and preserved for longer.
John Standard made it easier to keep food hot or cold. His 1889 patent for an oil stove involved a novel compact design that he envisioned to use for buffet-style meals on trains. Two years later he also rearranged and combined parts for an advanced non-electric refrigerator with a manually filled ice chamber.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Hey, FreshDirect, you owe Frederick McKinley Jones one. An inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Jones designed a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food; still a vital innovation to the food industry, for which he received a patent in 1940.
Food preservation has been crucial to our modern survival. Lloyd Hall, a chemist, improved on curing salts and received many patents, including one to sterilize spices in 1938. Hall also invented new uses of antioxidants to prevent food spoilage.
We’ve all heard of Sally Hemings; Thomas Jefferson’s paramour but what about her brother, James Hemings? He also went to France with Jefferson while he was ambassador. Hemings learned all of Jefferson’s favorite French foods while living abroad and eventually helped to introduce America to French cuisine. Merci beaucoup!
Reginald F. Lewis
Not only was Reginald F. Lewis the richest African American man in the 1980s, he was also the first African American to build a billion dollar company. That company was Beatrice International Foods, which he bought in 1987 and renamed TLC Beatrice International. The snack food, beverage, and grocery store conglomerate became the largest African-American owned and managed business in the United States.
Need dough (get it)? Kneading dough was made much easier by a machine patented by Joseph Lee in 1894. It mixed the ingredients and kneaded the dough much faster than manual labor would. The following year he patented a machine for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.
Cookies, cakes, cupcakes — we go through tons of sugar every day. Inventor and engineer, Norbert Rillieux developed a method for refining sugar into crystallized granules, which was patented in 1843. This made processing sugar more efficient and safer, enabling the United States to dominate the world market.
George Washington Carver
Mention the name George Washington Carver and the first thing that comes to mind is peanuts. But the former slave and scientist also developed products from sweet potatoes, pecans, and soybeans. His discoveries improved agricultural output and the health of the country’s farmers.
Salty, crunchy, addictive— yup, talking about potato chips. George Crum invented the snack in the mid-1800s, after a customer at a Saratoga Springs resort supposedly complained about the thickness of the cook’s fries. To appease the customer, he cut the potatoes thinner and the result became known as “Saratoga Chips” or “Potato crunches.” Thank goodness.
Who hasn’t wanted to be an astronaut!? Emmett Chappelle discovered that lightweight and easily transported one-celled plants can convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, which helped to create a safe food supply for astronauts. In 1977, Chappelle also helped develop a technique to measure a plant’s stress, health, and productivity, which increased the quantity and quality of food production. Later, he developed techniques that are still widely used for the detection of bacteria in drinking water and foods.
Abby Fisher, born a slave in North Carolina, achieved success after she was granted her freedom. Her book, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” published in 1881, is the first known African American cookbook and includes her award-winning recipes. She is thought to be the first to present fried chicken and waffles.
Rufus Estes published another of the earliest African American cookbooks, “Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus,” which includes nearly 600 recipes, in 1911. After gaining his freedom, Estes worked for years as a chef in private railroad cars and went on to run a kitchen as a caterer for executives with the U.S. Steel Corporation.
After leaving her hometown, Freetown, Virginia, (which was founded by her emancipated grandfather), Edna Lewis set out for the Big City. Eventually she opened Café Nicholson in Manhattan, cooked for the stars and became a local legend. She is the author of three cookbooks, ensuring that traditional Southern foods and preparations will live on, especially in these classic Southern recipes that are better than grandma’s.
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