What do homemade meatballs and crab cakes, crispy-topped casseroles, and crunchy fried shrimp all have in common?
They all benefitted from one man’s interest in creating a perfect breadcrumb.
Joseph Lee (born in 1849), an African-American son of slaves, was a pioneer in the automation of bread and bread crumb making, overcoming the poor odds he was dealt as a young boy. Held in bondage in the South for much of his youth, Lee eventually became a servant in Beaufort, South Carolina, then served for 11 years as a steward in the U.S. Coast Survey, where he picked up an affinity for bread making.
By the early 1880’s the self-taught chef and baker owned two successful restaurants in the Boston area. By the late 1890s, Lee owned and managed the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, MA, and opened a catering business called the Lee Catering Company, serving wealthy Boston clientele. He also operated the Squantum Inn, a summer resort specializing in seafood.
It was during his years catering that Lee became interested in minimizing food waste — particularly that of bread. Instead of tossing day old loaves of bread, Lee decided to use the stale bread to make breadcrumbs, believe a breadcrumb from bread would be better than cracker crumbs for coating — the typical method of the day.
Thus, he set out to invent a machine that could tear, crumble, and grind the stale bread into crumbs. On June 4, 1895, he finally received his patent.
The breadcrumbs were used in everything from cake batter to fried fish — much like that still are today.
But he didn’t stop there.
Lee then looked to improve food preparation and invented the automative bread-making machine. The machine could mix ingredients and knead dough so efficiently, that it could replace the efforts of five or six men. It made a high-quality product for a lower cost. Most importantly, it was more hygienic.
In 1902, Lee also received a patent for his bread machine — the basis for how bread machines are still made today.
Lee eventually assigned rights to his bread-kneading machine to The National Bread Co. and continued to own stock and receive royalties. He sold his bread-crumbing machine to The Goodell Co., a manufacturing firm located in New Hampshire.
Joseph Lee died in 1905, but his contributions to food preparations are still invaluable today. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2019.
Also see, The man who invented sliced bread.
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