A few nights ago, my friend Corinne was making dinner and realized she didn’t have a steamer basket large enough to accommodate the head of cauliflower she was preparing. After a few minutes rummaging around in cabinets and drawers, she rigged up this:
And it worked! Brilliantly, I’m sure she’d want me to add. “Hey, you should probably put this in the Smithsonian,” she said. (I tend to get that a lot from friends and family.)
It got me thinking. The kitchen is definitely a place of invention. We’ve discussed food-related inventions before here on Bright Ideas—innovations in coffee, the invention of cup holders, a gadget that might just let me finally recreate my mom’s famed mashed potatoes, and the stories behind three frozen treats. But what other food innovations reside in the collections at the National Museum of American History? Here are five invention stories from our food exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000. (There are so many more!)
1. Food Television Programming
Julia Child’s The French Chef debuted on public television in 1963. Its successful ten-year run inspired a model for a flood of new cooking shows and culinary stars throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, a new cable channel, Television Food Network, turned cooking and food shows into twenty-four-hour entertainment—a round-the-clock affirmation of Julia’s instinct that demonstrating omelette-making would appeal to viewers.
2. The Ring King
Krispy Kreme of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had been making doughnuts since 1937. In the 1950s as the company expanded to a small chain of stores, it sought ways to ensure a consistent and profitable product. They created a dry doughnut mix and developed a machine that automated the doughnut-making process. The Ring King Junior formed, fried, turned, and cooled about sixty dozen doughnuts per hour, reducing labor costs.
3. Ready to Eat Carrots
Engineer and inventor, Joseph T. Listner was early to recognize the appeal and convenience of bagged, ready-to-eat vegetables. In 1959, he designed and built a one-of-a-kind machine that sliced raw carrots into sticks. The machine enabled a small-scale producer like Listner, Inc., in Wallington, New Jersey, to slice an estimated one million pounds of carrots in sixteen years of operation. Listner sold his bagged carrot sticks and cole slaw to stores, including the Grand Union supermarket chain.
Listner made his slicer with components from other machines. Although the carrots still had to be peeled by hand, the machine automatically trimmed them to uniform sticks.
4. New Materials, New Tools
Using materials developed before and during World War II, manufacturers created a variety of new equipment and appliances for postwar cooks. New plastics, non-stick-coatings, and pyroceramic glass were among the most successful. Tupperware, Teflon, and Corning Ware housewares took their place in many American kitchens next to old reliable glass jars, and cast iron and aluminum skillets. Brand-new electrical gadgets consumed ever greater amounts of counter space.
5. White Zinfandel
Zinfandel was one of the grapes associated with cheap jug wines widely produced after the repeal of Prohibition. During the replanting of California’s vineyards in the 1960s and 1970s, acres of Zinfandel were ripped out to make way for the new darlings of the vineyards, Cabernet and Chardonnay.
One vintner who kept his Zinfandel grapes was Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery, who used them to produce a dry, rosé-style wine. In 1975, while his grapes were fermenting, the yeast died before the wine’s sugar was converted to alcohol. He decided to try selling the resulting slightly sweet pink wine. Many Americans still had a “sweet tooth” for wine, and his “blush,” called White Zinfandel, was a runaway hit.
Note: Photos were taken in the exhibition and text is pulled from exhibit labels.