CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
The post-war years saw a revolution in the kitchen, both in terms of what we ate and how our food was prepared.
With growing affluence and improving technology, out went the icebox and in came the modern electric refrigerator. Electric stoves became commonplace. In 1955, early adopters bought their first microwave ovens. Processed foods were rapidly filling up the new suburban supermarkets. Swanson’s TV dinners, the first successful frozen meal, hit groceries’ freezer shelves in 1954, allowing the entire family to enjoy the dinner of their choice in front of that new household necessity, the television. For 98 cents, one could choose among Salisbury steak, meatloaf, fried chicken, or turkey, accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas. Later, a dessert was added. Technological improvements also made canned and frozen foods more palatable. Processed foods were a hit with harried women who did the grocery shopping and prepared the meals along with raising a family and, in increasing numbers, entering the paid workforce.
One of the earliest convenience foods was dehydrated potatoes. In 1905, Ernest W. Cooke applied for a US patent for “Dehydrated Potatoes and Process of Preparing the Same.” It was granted in 1912 (No. 1,025,373). Under Cooke’s process, potatoes were cut up into small pieces, shredded, cooked slightly, then dried. They could be reconstituted by simply adding water. Cooke claimed that his process preserved the majority of the cell walls of the potato, making a palatable product. Previously, the hydration of dried potatoes whose cell walls had been crushed resulted in a “mucilaginous starchy mess, which is entirely inedible,” he said.
The demand for dehydrated potatoes was not strong, however. After rising somewhat during World War I, demand for the product cratered during the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t until the United States entered World War II that the product found a major buyer in the US military looking for ways of feeding its troops. Military demand for other types of dehydrated vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots also rose though potatoes was by far the number one dehydrated vegetable.
Following the war, demand for dehydrated potatoes remained strong with the US government purchasing large amounts to support potato prices and to send overseas as foreign aid. The product, while nourishing, wasn’t very good. American GIs who were forced to eat the potato mush during the war hated it.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that RT French Company, then a subsidiary of the British firm Reckitt & Colman, successfully launched instant mashed potatoes onto the retail market. Its process for making the instant spuds was based on a British patent for the product developed during the war by Theodore Rendle. The patent was for “improvements in and relating to the preparation of cooked starchy vegetables in powdered form,” such as mashed potatoes. This product was available on Ottawa’s supermarket shelves by the late 1950s.
At this point, enter Dr. Edward A.M. Asselbergs, a senior researcher at the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Research Centre at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. On Feb. 7 1961, he and two colleagues, Hugh Hamilton and Patricia Saidak, filed a Canadian patent application for a new process for preparing dehydrated cooked mashed potatoes. The patent (CA 620541) was granted the following May. A US patent was granted in 1966 (No. 3,260,607). Asselbergs had immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1950. He held a BSc from the University of Wageningen, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Cornell University.
Asselbergs’ team had invented a new form of instant mashed potato, one that was neither in the form of granules nor flakes, which were already available, but rather took the form of “crystal-like particles” with an average thickness of three to four potato cells. The new production process consisted of cooking cut-up potatoes for roughly six minutes in boiling water, “fluffing” them to facilitate the removal of moisture, then mashing them between two rollers to form a continuous, perforated layer. This potato layer was then dried on a heated surface to produce the crystal-like particles. The physical structure of the new instant mashed potatoes was different from both granular and flaked instant mashed potatoes. Experiments were carried out on Idaho Russet potatoes as well as potatoes grown in Canada, including the Sebago potato grown in Prince Edward Island.
The impetus for the invention came from the Canadian potato industry. They hoped that a new product would revive demand for potatoes that had been weakening for some years. As well, it was hoped that the establishment of instant mashed potato factories close to potato fields would allow for the economical use of fresh potatoes that could not be profitably transported long distance. Instant mashed potatoes could also be stored indefinitely.
The new recipe for instant mashed potatoes was big news in Canada. Alvin Hamilton, the federal minister of agriculture personally congratulated Asselbergs for his invention.
Asselbergs and his research team didn’t rest on their laurels. Success with instant mashed potatoes led them to experiment with other vegetables and mixtures. Less than a year later, they came up with a number of dehydrated products including, fish and potatoes, lamb and potatoes, beef and potatoes, pork and potatoes, chicken and potatoes, cheese and potatoes, as well as dehydrated turnips and pumpkins. For the fish and meat dishes, the bones were first removed, the meat was then cut up and mixed with various amounts of mashed potatoes with the mixtures subsequently fed into a drum dryer at a pressure of 90 pounds per square inch and at a temperature of 280°F. The product was then rolled out into a tissue thin layer that crumbled into flacks.
Asselbergs said that these meals could be stockpiled for emergency use and would keep indefinitely in the kitchen. He added that both the instant and reconstituted mixtures had excellent flavour and colour. Spices were already added. As well, the loss in nutritional value was no greater than that involved in an ordinary cooking process.
The dehydrated mixtures could be converted into hot meals within minutes, or even eaten dry without any preparation. The fish and potato mixture was produced at an experimental fish processing plant in Valleyfield, Newfoundland. An Ottawa women’s auxiliary church group tested the new product on their families and reported back to the Asselbergs team and the Test Kitchen at the Experimental Farm on its reception. The Ottawa Journal reported that “By merely adding water or milk to the fine crystalline mixture, and warming it up, the housewife can prepare tasty fillings for fish cakes, meat pies, casseroles, croquettes and even pumpkin pies in a matter of minutes.” The newspaper offensively added “If she is too lazy to do even this, the basic mixture can be eaten in its instant form.”
The inventions earned Asselbergs more congratulations from Alvin Hamilton, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture.
Not everybody was enthusiastic. The Kingston Whig Standard, in another journalistic “Leave it to Beaver-June Cleaver” moment, wrote that the “only reward or thanks [for the new instant foods] came from the bride with no cooking talents at all.” Instant food might be “a boon to the camper or the all-thumbs bachelor-for-a-weekend, but there is something in this note of progress which makes for some dismal contemplation of the future.”
What was the upshot of these culinary innovations? Well, the food industry didn’t rush to license Asselbergs’ patents. His instant mashed potatoes patent was, however, assigned to Salada-Shirriff-Horsey which had a potato processing plant in Alliston, Ontario, and produced instant mashed potatoes, possibly using Asselbergs’ patented process in Canada. The other patents for meat and potato flakes didn’t catch on. Apparently, they were a little too “instant” for most people.
Dr. Edward Asselbergs did not profit from his inventions. Being a public servant, his inventions belonged to the Crown. In 1962, Asselbergs was elected president of the Canadian Institute of Food Technology, which had roughly 700 members from the Canadian food industry. He subsequently left the Department of Agriculture to take up a senior position at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy.
He retired and returned to Canada in 1985. He died in 1996 in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Instant mashed potatoes continue to be sold in North American grocery stores as a quick and easy replacement for fresh spuds. Major producers include Idahoan Foods and Betty Crocker.