Bread Science and Black History: The Innovations of Joseph Lee

Bread is the proverbial stuff of life—a staple food in many households throughout ancient and modern history. Today, we encounter bread when we make a sandwich, eat a salad with croutons, or enjoy it as an accent on a delicious charcuterie board (we love a good baguette!). With the variety of breads that are now widely available in supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and bakeries, we can enjoy a plethora of tastes and textures to suit our day-to-day preferences. But if you’ve ever considered the bread-baking techniques that yield your desired loaf, you likely haven’t connected them with Black history. Let’s shed some light on a segment of rich history of Black food production innovators in the U.S.—in particular, the story of Joseph Lee, a bread-production pioneer and recently inducted member into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It all started with a recipe—and kneading

There are hundreds of different types of bread today, but most recipes have evolved to require four basic ingredients: flour (of which there are many different types), water, yeast, and salt. Joseph Lee, born in 1849 in Charleston, South Carolina, knew these ingredients well due to the many years he spent cooking and baking in restaurants and the hospitality industry in the late 1800s—which culminated in the opening of his own catering company and restaurant (a major feat for the son of former slaves).

Over his many years of bread-baking, Lee observed the importance of kneading the dough to deliver consistent loaves at a large scale. Today’s researchers have observed that kneading dough promotes the “homogeneous mixing of all the ingredients, the hydration of the flour constituents, the phase transitions that involve proteins and amorphous starch, the development of the gluten network, and the inclusion of air bubbles, giving a viscoelastic dough as a result.” That may sound a bit complicated, but what it boils down to is a series of chemical reactions that occur when ingredients are mixed evenly—including water coming into contact with all parts of the flour (to ensure no dry clumps in the dough), water-insoluble proteins within the flour forming gluten (to give traditional bread much of its structure), and the transformation of other basic compounds as the dough is kneaded.

Working in the late 19th century, Joseph Lee likely did not know the intricacies of the remarkable chemical processes at work during kneading—but he did know there was room for improvement. In 1894, Lee conceived a remarkable invention: the automatic bread-making machine, which could do the work of up to six people by kneading and preparing loaves for baking. Lee eventually signed the production rights for his kneading machine to the National Bread Company; the contract gave him shares in the company and a portion of its sales royalties.

The way the bread crumbles

Joseph Lee’s prowess for inventing bread machines did not stop bread making. He also created a bread-crumbing machine that was capable of reducing manpower by 75% and also introduced a method for safely reusing old bread that was destined for the bin. Lee’s bread-crumbing machine (patented in 1895) took stale bread and made it into bread crumbs that were used to coat foods and make batters. This second invention proved very useful in restaurants and hotels, which often would throw away day-old bread that had hardened. To maximize its function, Lee enabled his crumbing machine to crumb softer bread as well; soft crumbs were known to be an optimal batter choice for frying foods such as fish and oysters.

Lee’s crumbing invention was revolutionary not only for combating food waste, but also in the way it led to the invention of new recipes for various breaded foods. Lee eventually sold his bread-crumbing machine to another manufacturing firm, the Goodell Company. Soon after that contract was settled, the Royal Worcester Bread Crumb Company began using the crumbing devices in major restaurants worldwide.

Breaking bread and breaking barriers

Joseph Lee died more than 100 years ago (in 1908), but his contributions to the food and restaurant industries were monumental. As you enjoy your favorite varieties of bread during this year’s Black History Month, we encourage you to appreciate and celebrate the life of this extraordinary Black baker, inventor, entrepreneur and business mogul.