As we celebrate Black History Month in February, we look back at many of the individuals who shaped our country and world for the better. African Americans have left their mark on society in countless ways, including the food industry.
Today, we’d like to highlight one person in particular who greatly affected the baking world. That man, Joseph Lee, is influential in how modern bakers operate.
Joseph Lee was born in Boston in 1849. He would grow up during a time of unrest, especially for African Americans. The Civil War would not begin for over a decade. It was extremely difficult situation for a young man of color, but Lee would not be deterred.
As a boy, he worked at a bakery, prepping, cooking, and serving food. This would eventually lead to his love of the industry, and he would later open two restaurants in the Boston area. He would then own and manage a hotel for 17 years. Hotel management would not be his calling, though, and in 1902 Lee began his own catering business called the Lee Catering Company.
Joseph Lee’s involvement in the food industry would lead to a very important revelation. He became interested in the development of a way to eliminate throwing out day-old bread, a needless waste in his opinion. He believed that bread crumbs were better than cracker crumbs, so went to work on a way to turn wasted bread into something more.
He set out to invent a device that would mechanize tearing, crumbling, and grinding bread into crumbs. In 1895, Lee patented this device. He would soon sell the machine to the Royal Worcester Bread Crumb Company of Boston, where it would later make its way to restaurants around the world. This bread-crumbing technique would be the catalyst for such things as cake batter, very important for bakeries.
After that, Joseph Lee continued to work on food preparation innovation. He invented a bread-making machine that could mix ingredients and knead dough with the efficiency of six men. It was more cost-efficient and hygienic than anything that came before it. This machine is considered the basis for many machines still used today.
While Joseph Lee may have died well over a century ago, his work still lives on in the baking industry as well as the path he helped forge for African Americans. We thank him for his contributions to society, and we look forward to how his legacy will continue to be carried on by current and future generations.
Joseph Lee was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) alongside 18 other honorees on May 1-2, 2019.