Black Food Technologists: A Family Tree of Kin in the Kitchen
By Robin Caldwell
If your granny ever quipped, “Child, ain’t nothin’ new but you,” then she was trying to tell you that today’s big idea has a heritage in yesterday. Inventions have their own family trees that include innovations and improvements on one original idea or multiple original ideas. Black food technologists have a long history of innovating and improving patented ideas with far-reaching impact. We probably take some of the old inventions for granted, but there is no denying the impact they have had on the food industry — past and present — for centuries.
Kin in the Kitchen
Alexander P. Ashbourne (1820–1915) was also born enslaved and emancipated sometime before 1847 in the state of Pennsylvania. A successful caterer, Ashbourne invented a spring-loaded biscuit cutter and plates in varying shapes to make a uniformed biscuit. He was granted a patent on November 20, 1876. Ashbourne also received a patent for processing coconut oil on August 21, 1877, his technology hydrogenated coconut oil to be used as a cooking oil.
Judy W. Reed (c. 1826–1905) is the first known African American woman to receive a patent in the United States. Reed was granted a patent for an improved “Dough Kneader and Roller” on September 23, 1884. She signed the patent with an “X” signaling an inability to read or write though her patent was evidence that she indeed cooked. In 1864, John W. Reed (no relation) secured a patent for adding handles to the rolling pin.
John Stanard (1868–1900) received a patent for an improved refrigerator design (on an existing patent) on June 14, 1891. On Oct. 29, 1889, he received a patent for improvements on a space-saving oil stovetop that could be used for catering and buffets. On May 22, 1894, S. Newson was granted a patent for his improved oil heater and cooker.
On June 24, 1873, Mary Jones DeLeon (1838–1914) was granted a patent for an improved steam table that also used dry heat to warm food. George Kelley received a patent on October 26, 1897 for his improvements on the steam table used in restaurants and by caterers.
Lloyd Augustus Hall (1894–1971) devoted much of his career as a chemist to food preservation, which revolutionized the meat-packing industry. He held 59 U.S. patents and a few foreign patents. He created a method of spice sterilization that did not impair the smell and taste of those spices as meat preservatives.
Alfred L. Cralle (1866–1920) is the one Black inventor to provide generations of Americans with joy and the joy of convenience. Cralle is the inventor of the ice cream scoop. He received a patent on February 2, 1897. For a man to have made many of us happy, Cralle’s success was followed by sorrow. During the 1918 pandemic, he lost his wife and child, and another child in 1920. His life would come to a tragic end in an automobile accident in 1920.
These incredible men and women were innovators that met the needs of people during challenging times. They helped restaurants, caterers and home cooks in substantial ways. These thoughtful and brave technologists fill a family tree with its many branches, each generation or iteration is as important as the first. The African American forerunners in food technology paved a way for today’s innovations and improvements like the eatOkra mobile app.