Follow the Bread Crumbs: How an 1800s Black Inventor Kickstarted the Industrial Kitchen

A recent Forbes article delved into the life of trailblazing 19th century Black inventor Joseph Lee, who was born enslaved in South Carolina and served as a Civil War blacksmith before finding entrepreneurial success in and around Boston as a baker, caterer, and hotelier around the turn of the century. After the war, Lee traveled north to work in the food industry, opening his first restaurant when he was only in his 20s.

Before long, Lee was the operating owner of Newton’s extravagant Woodland Park Hotel. It was there that he invented the first of his devices that made a lasting impact—a bread-kneading machine that improved and streamlined the baking processes such that it “could produce 60 pounds more bread from each barrel of flour than could kneading by hand,” according to Forbes, saving both ingredients and time. Suddenly, Lee had more bread than his staff could serve. The machine also helped lead to his next innovation: an automatic bread crumbing contraption that took day-old bread and wheat excess his machines made to invent the breadcrumbs we use today as fried food toppings and croutons.

Lee’s contributions made a substantial difference on the service industry, and Forbes sought noted food historian Dr. Megan Elias, director and associate professor of the practice of Gastronomy at MET, to explain the impact.

“In the colonial era, bread crumbs and milk were a fairly common breakfast, a precursor to cereals like Grape-Nuts,” Elias told Forbes. “There was probably an expanding market for bread crumbs in commercial kitchens. In your own home you use up the crumbs you have, but in a restaurant, you want a more reliable supply so that you know what you can put on your menu.”

Lee patented the bread kneader in 1894, despite the considerable obstacles facing Black industrialists of the time. Learn more about how Lee was able to parlay his invention to success through innovation and entrepreneurship in food by visiting Forbes.

The unique skill set of the gastronome equips them with the capacity to look at foods’ role in the world at a given time or place, and unspool meaningful threads of the human story. In the BU MET MLA in Gastronomy program, students develop and hone these strengths, and learn to follow their individual passions and perspectives in order to then bring to life new insights and evaluations of food throughout history, modern life, and the future.