Sago Heroes and / or Heroines


The sago palm by Jean-Theodore Descourtilz.  Image from www.thefind.com.

The sago palm by Jean-Theodore Descourtilz. Image from http://www.thefind.com.

When I was a girl I lived in Singapore and one of my fondest food memories is of eating gula melaka, a pudding made of sago, palm sugar and coconut milk.

Until recently I was unaware of how much work went into producing the sago pearls that are the basic ingredient in this pudding.  The transformation from palm tree into edible starch is such an unlikely process that I am nominating the unknown (at least to me) food technologists who discovered it.  In some parts of the world people have been eating sago for hundreds of years so they certainly wouldn’t have called themselves food technologists but that is what they were.

Sago appears to have made its way to Britain during the 18th century, presumably via British ships trading in South East Asia. Cookery books from this time include recipes for sweet sago puddings made with milk, cream, eggs, lemons and spices.  The 19th century cookery icon Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for a savoury sago soup and she gives a great description of the sago making process,

“In order to procure it, the tree is felled and sawn into pieces.  The pith is then taken out, and put in receptacles of cold water, where it is stirred until the flour separates from the filaments, and sinks to the bottom, where it is suffered to remain until the water is poured off, when it is taken out and spread on wicker frames to dry.  To give it the round granular form in which we find it comes to this country, it is passed through a colander, then rubbed into little balls, and dried.”

Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861 p.79

During the 19th century Singapore was a centre for sago processing and the  National Archives of Singapore has more information including oral histories with people who worked in the sago processing industry.

N.B. Sago and tapioca are very similar and can be used interchangeably but they come from different plants.  Sago is made from palms (and palm like plants) while tapioca comes from the root of the cassava.

Advertisements

Marmalade and Dundee Cake


Towards the end of the 18th century Janet Keiller (1757-1825?) founded a marmalade dynasty which also pioneered the Dundee cake.

Keiller’s stoneware pots have become quite collectable. Later ones were made of white glass. Image from http://www.thevintagewall.com.

The story goes that Janet’s husband brought a quantity of Seville oranges from a Spanish ship that was sheltering in Dundee harbour and she invented marmalade.  Like a lot of good stories it is partly true but has been somewhat embroidered.  Recipes for marmalades existed before Janet’s “invention”.  It would be more accurate to say that Janet, who ran a shop selling sweets and jams, adapted an existing recipe.  Her innovation was to include pieces of peel rather than pound the oranges into a pulp.  The invention story lived on as marketing hype.

Janet and her son James set up a small factory to make this new type of marmalade. When James died, 1839, the enterprise was taken over by his widow, Margaret, and their eldest son Alex.  Alex turned out to be a hard-headed businessman and the firm expanded under his guidance.  Alex’s younger brother William was sent to run a Keiller’s outpost in Guernsey, which helped the firm to reach markets beyond Scotland and gave them a tax break since, at the time, the Channel Island had no sugar duty.  In 1880 the company opened a factory on the north bank of the Thames, London close to Henry Tate’s sugar refinery.  Keiller’s products were exported all over the world.

There is another story that the Keiller’s were the first firm to produce Dundee cake on a commercial scale and they did so to keep the factory workers busy when Seville oranges were unavailable.  Recipes for this fruit cake decorated with blanched almonds came be found here.

Electrical Trailblazer


Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Flash Freezing


This American food hero has had a significant impact on British shopping and eating habits but only since the 1950s when domestic freezers became more common.

Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) was born New York and studied biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  For this story what is important is that between 1912 and 1916 he was working in Labrador, Newfoundland, a place at the top Eastern edge of Canada which gets extremely cold.His field journals from this period are held in the archives of Amherst College and reveal how he learnt about freezing food.  In Newfoundland he saw how the Inuit used the freezing conditions to preserve fresh fish and meat.  The arctic cold meant that things froze extremely fast and he concluded that it was the rapid freezing that meant the food tasted good months later.   Clarence thought he could make money out of this knowledge.

In the early 1920s he began experimenting with frozen fish.  At this time there were plenty of other people working on freezing technology but two things made Clarence’s efforts stand out.  First he developed a machine that could freeze food quickly, which gave the ice-crystals less time to grow and meant that the food was in better condition when it was defrosted.  Second, he packaged the frozen food into small waxed boxes, which were attractive to buyers.  This boosted the commercial success of Clarence’s frozen foods.  In 1929 he sold his firm and his patents, to organisations which later became the General Foods Corporation.  He continued to be involved, as a corporate executive until the late 1930s and his name lives on in the company brand.