Natural History of the Kitchen: Food Processor


Photograph: Indiana Public Media

Welcome to Natural History of the Kitchen, by EMD's Stephanie Butler. Each week, Stephanie explores the background of an appliance, gadget or product that helped to make cooking what it is today. This week: the Food Processor.

Making salsa for a crowd? Need a pie crust in a jiffy? If you've had to do either of these things by hand, chances are you've longed for a food processor. A kitchen tool that genuinely changed how home-cooks prepare food, it chops, slices, dices, and blends in half the time. But this reliable instrument wasn't always a busy home-cook's best friend — food processors started life as restaurant-only appliances in the 60s. This week's Natural History of the Kitchen looks at the food processor and its journey from Parisian restaurant kitchens to the American home.

The Wonderful F.P. Machine

Before the Slap Chop, before immersion blenders, before the storied Cuisinart, there was the Robot Coupe. French catering company salesman Pierre Verdon spent his life traveling over the country, watching his clients dice onions, blend dressings, and grind spices by hand. Realizing the sheer number of man hours that went into these routine tasks, he invented the Robot Coupe. Unlike a traditional blender with a deep bowl that requires liquid to incorporate ingredients, the Robot Coupe had a shallow, wide bowl that didn't need extra liquid.

robotcoupeIt took until 1972 for Verdon to create a home version of the machine. Le Magi-Mix did everything the Robot Coupe did, but in a scaled-down, counter-top appliance. French cooks rejoiced once more, but Americans were still making coleslaw and cookie dough the hard way. Carl Sontheimer, an American engineer raised in France, spotted the Magi-Mix at a French trade show in 1971. He knew the machine had real potential in the American market, so he and his wife Shirley founded the Cuisinart company to bring European cookware to the US. [Photograph: David Blaine]

Sontheimer redesigned the machine, adding safety mechanisms and improving the chopping disks and blades. He debuted the Cuisinart in Chicago in 1973, but it was surprisingly slow to catch on. Poorly marketed, home cooks thought the machine was just an overpriced blender. Sontheimer had to call in the big guns, and sent machines to food world luminaries like James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne.

Suddenly, Sontheimer's machine was hailed as a miracle. Claiborne called it "perhaps the best food invention since toothpicks." James Beard wrote an entire cookbook around it, with recipes from such famous friends as Simone Beck and Jacques Pepin. Julia Child rewrote recipes around "the wonderful F.P. machine" that enabled "every one of us to make perfect pastry dough every time." The food processor was finally a hit in American homes, and pie crusts haven't been the same since.

Julia Child's Perfect Pastry Dough

Recipe from The Way to Cook (buy it).

  • 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • ½ cup bleached cake flour
  • 1 tsp salt (for desserts, ¼ tsp salt and 2 Tbls sugar)
  • 1 ½ sticks chilled unsalted butter, diced
  • ¼ cup chilled vegetable shortening
  • ½ cup ice water

Put the flour, salt/sugar, and cied butter in the container of the processor and pulse 5 or 6 times to break up the butter roughly. Add the shortening, turn on the machine, and immediately pour in the ½ cup of ice water, then pulse 2 or 3 times. Remove the cover and feel the dough – it should look like a bunch of small lumps, and will just hold together in a mass when you press a handful together. If too dry, pulse in more droplets of water.

Turn the dough out on your work surface and roughly and rapidly push egg-sized clumps of dough out in front of you in 6-inch smears across the counter. Form the clumped dough into a cake, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 2 hours. Makes two 9-inch tart shells.

Stephanie Butler

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