It was the very first World’s Fair, officially titled The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, but it was better known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition.
All the wonders of the Victorian age were on display. Inventors demonstrated their works, which were subjected to the scrutiny of the greatest scientific and commercial minds of Her Majesty’s empire.
Only fourteen gold medals were awarded for manufacturing.
One of them went to a Texan.
And that Texan was Mr. Gail Borden of Galveston.
Aha, you’re thinking. Mr. Borden invented condensed milk and was known as the “dairyman to the nation,” surely it was this achievement the exhibition council was recognizing.
Nope. That came later. The London gold was for his celebrated meat biscuit.
Yes, meat biscuit…but “biscuit” is used in the English sense. We would call it a meat cookie. It could be eaten in its dry state, but was meant to be reconstituted with hot water into a soup.
I’ll let Mr. Borden himself describe how his plant at Galveston turned Texas longhorns into meat biscuit:
“I take out all the kidney fat, and then, by a powerful machine, cut an ox into small pieces in twelve minutes, bones and all; put these into a cauldron, in plenty of water, boil it about sixteen hours, skim off all the fat, marrow and scum. When this soup is well settled, evaporate it until it resembles sugar-house syrup; then mix wheat flour with it till it resembles dough, and bake it. I do not put in any salt, or any seasoning whatever. If kept dry, it will keep in any climate. No insect yet has touched it.”
The Chairman of the Jurors at the Crystal Palace Exhibition declared it was:
“One of the most important discoveries of the age. Its value as a compact, portable, preserved food is of great importance to our country. One pound of it contains as much nutriment as eight pounds of beef. It can be carried in canisters from pole to pole without fear of spoiling. It is exceedingly useful for seamen and travelers.”
Within a year it was being served on Her Majesty’s convict ships bound for Australia. The medical superintendent of one such ship reported:
“The meat biscuit, used according to the directions of the patentee, forms a nutritive and pleasant article of diet that is easily prepared for use…the canister of meat biscuit in my charge has been opened more than six months, and yet the article seems unaltered.”
Scientific American declared:
“Not a ship should sail or a voyager leave our ports without being provided with Borden’s incomparable meat biscuit.”
And it wasn’t just on sea voyages that meat biscuit proved its worth.
Texas Ranger Rip Ford knew the meat biscuit firsthand, and wrote in The Texas State Times:
“The meat biscuit makes a very good soup. It requires seasoning with salt and pepper. It may be sweetened – many prefer it thus prepared. Mixed with sugar and fried it makes a passable desert. The addition of flour, sugar, etc., and then baking converts it into a very edible custard…but a few minutes is required to cook the meat biscuit. A scout leaving the settlements would always do well to have this article on hand in addition to other supplies. Its portability, easiness of preservation and lightness will always recommend it to use.”
Alas, building a better mouse trap is no guarantee of success.
Borden was relying on army contracts to finance the expansion of his company, which led to trampling on the sensitive toes of Uncle Sam’s meat suppliers. They slapped enough backs and greased enough palms to see that Gail Borden was no longer a threat.
By 1854 his meat biscuit enterprise was defunct and Borden was left penniless.
But failure is just a temporary condition to those who keep trying, and Gail Borden was not about to sit there and cry over spilled meat biscuit.
He was already experimenting with ways to preserve milk, and by 1858 he had founded the company that today bears his name.
Categories: Texas Biographies, Texas Culture, Texas Exceptionalism, Texas Food