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Published: Monday, 11/10/2008

Refrigerated biscuits part of food history

A little cookbook called 101 Things To do With Canned Biscuits by Toni Patrick (Gibbs Smith, $9.99) has given me great new ideas for using this convenience food. It s also brought back memories of a story I wrote for another newspaper 20 years ago.

Canned biscuits are an amazing ingredient, and thanks to this cookbook, you can find easy recipes for Turkey Empanadas, Chicken and Dumplings, Shrimp and Pork Potstickers, Jalapeno Puffers, and Focaccia Bread. For breakfast you can make a Cheddar Biscuit Quiche or Bear Claws. Use them for lunch for Calzones or Tex-Mex Sandwiches. For dinner, Taco Casserole or Shrimp Newburg sound quick and delicious. There also are dessert recipes.

The versatility of this processed ingredient is often overlooked and consumers take it for granted. But the product is only possible because of the food technology that was developed years ago.

It s a story I wrote about when I knew Lowell Armstrong 20 years ago. Mr. Armstrong had retired as director of manufacturing for the refrigerated division of Pillsbury in Louisville in 1973.

Back in the 1930s, when Mr. Armstrong was a chemist with Ballard & Ballard Co. of Louisville, he met and worked with Lively B. Willoughby, the originator of the concept of refrigerated biscuit dough and the holder of the patent for the process. Mr. Willoughby, who was about 50, conceived the idea for a dough which would remain packaged and refrigerated to be edible at a later date.

To do this, he combined four things: a baking powder with good keeping qualities that had been developed by Fleischman in 1930; an epsom salts can that would provide a closed, but not airtight, container; aluminum foil, and refrigeration at 40 degrees.

The inventor made up the dough, cut it into biscuits, packaged them in foil, put them in the epsom salts can, then glued lids on both ends, according to Mr. Armstrong. The biscuits were still fresh one week later. The biscuits were marketed as Ye Old Kentuckie Buttermilk Biscuits for about six months. This was in the middle of the Depression. He patented his product in 1931 and held the patent until 1948.

When Mr. Willoughby joined forces with Ballard & Ballard Co. for financial reasons, Mr. Armstrong was 23 and the first chemist for the Oven Ready Division of Ballard & Ballard. The company developed its own line of products. After 1948, when the patent expired, any company could make refrigerated biscuits, said Mr. Armstrong.

In 1951, Pillsbury bought Ballard & Ballard. Pillsbury expanded the product line but continued to use the same Willoughby process, according to Mr. Armstrong.

In those years, there were no preservatives in the refrigerated product, although a shortening with a small quantity of inhibitors was used. Mr. Armstrong said that the shelf life of the product was constantly increased. It started with two weeks and then it was eight weeks. Today the shelf life of refrigerated biscuits is 2 to 3 months.

Back in 1988, Mr. Armstrong said, there were 50 products; today there are more than 80 products in the refrigerated baked goods category from Pillsbury alone, according to Peg Ilka of Pillsbury.

Mr. Armstrong s experience indicates that there is a story behind every convenience product, about how the food is prepared in mass quantities and then packaged and marketed. And we as consumers are the lucky ones who can buy ready-made foods that can be heated or baked quickly.

It s all a part of how food gets to the table.



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