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March 23, 2016

LESSONS FROM A BISCUIT CUTTER

We have a guest editorial today:

The old box was unpropitious. When the auctioneer threw it in with something I had “won,” I saw the word “Cutter” and thought of the insect repellent. Instead it was a biscuit cutter in its original box. As I ponder it, this tool unexpectedly holds no end of interest, at least for now. The original box says:

Made  of  stainless  Dural,  weighing   only

5  ounces,  the  cutter may be used  for all

forms of canapés, biscuits, hors d’oeuvres,

tea sandwiches, potato patties,  ice  cream

moulds, etc.

A new and modern kitchen aid designed

for a lifetime. Easy to use, Easy to clean.

Manufactured with the Same Skill Which

Produced  Precision Parts for the Armed

Forces.                          Patent Pending.

I used these hints to search the web, finding nothing on the history of the company. That didn’t stop me from deducing a story. The heading on the box reads Lewis Precision Products, and the bottom reads Lewis Specialty Company, Montclair, NJ. It appears that the first company name reflected its reason-to-be, and the second reflected trying to stay alive in the 1940s with a brave wager that biscuits could be recast as modern. The first paragraph on the box does show awareness of the lifestyle after WWII, a time in which bridge-groups and patio and cocktail parties sprang up in new suburbs. The history of Bisquik brand biscuit mix echoes the Lewis company’s timing. As the box advertised, Bisquik was a dry mix to facilitate making biscuits, in particular. It was hugely popular in the 1930s. After WWII it switched from a focus on only biscuits to “a world of baking in a box.”

I find it poignant that the very beautiful, new-fangled biscuit cutter I’d brought home, not meant to be seen outside of the kitchen, is way over-engineered: too heavy, too fancy, too durable, and too hard to clean compared to the old tin ring and handle. Stainless Dural is Duralumin, an early aluminum alloy that included copper. It came on the market in 1909, and its first commercial use was for the Zeppelin. I don’t know to what the stainless refers. I assume that the beauty of this biscuit cutter is fragile in that any aluminum permanently discolors after only one washing in the dishwasher. It seems that the company didn’t anticipate how quickly dishwashers would be commonplace.

It interests me that there is no hint on the box about how to disassemble for cleaning. I think that’s a sign of the times. There’s a real difference, I think, in how can-do folks used to be. Back then would more cooks just expect to just figure it out? “Let’s see, there’s a seam below the turned portion.” “But that doesn’t turn.” “So I’ll hold that disk in the cylinder steady and unscrew the plunger.” Disassembling the thing is the only way to spot the company name. At least in this case, it was on the plunger disk-surface facing inward.

I notice several Lewis biscuit cutters on ebay and other such places at less than thirty dollars. It is surprising that some seem unused, and most have their original boxes. I imagine that the kitchen wares experiment was short-lived for the Lewis Company. Perhaps some undistributed factory stock showed up at some point. One other product from Lewis was a “Featherweight Pastry Roller,” listed on Worthpoint. A Bakelite handle on one end unscrewed so that the tube could be filled with ice water. I picture the Dural tube sweating and sticking to any dough it touched. I can’t imagine more star-crossed efforts.

Old biscuit cutters were simple tin rings with a tin handle made comfortable with rolled edges. They do require some experience and dexterity to use one-handedly as the baker helps the biscuit dough fall onto the baking sheet, usually by maneuvering the fingertips past the handle arcing over the top of the floured ring while the opposite hand steadies the ring.

Just for fun I took a picture of the three biscuit cutters we now have. Lined up, they represent 1900, 1950, and 2000: a blackened tin one marked FRIES from either Great Aunt Kit or Great Grandma Catherine Forbes, the Lewis fancy-turned Dural example, and our modern shiny tin cutter designed exactly like the first one!

I talked about this to the author of monetarypost.com, who said, as a matter of fact, it is a pattern that when an old company fails and then tries to innovate, it almost always will fail at the new product. I took this to mean that economists see that it’s the upstarts that have their fingers on the pulse of the times, who know what the needs are, and who can tool up efficiently to produce an innovation.                            2014

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