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'Inventive Eats,' a patented success

The exhibit wall's loaded with little-known stories and videos. (Gretta Yao)

You don’t even have to like to cook in order to appreciate the gizmos, gadgets and gurus of food fixings in “Inventive Eats,” the first exhibit in the brand-spanking new installation space at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria. Spend a lunch hour there and you’re good for at least two cocktail parties’ worth of significant trivia.

The 1950s' model kitchen has a GE fridge, electric peeler and pertinent patent info on individual items. (Gretta Yao)

Designers Laurie Mobley and Mitch Scott were given the job of setting up a universally appealing show in a few months’ time, so they built it around 20 food-related inductees. (The team came from Invent Now Studio in Akron, Ohio, a subsidiary of the hall.)

They had access to patents and company archives; they also contacted private collectors across the country. The result is an organized yet delightful hodgepodge. Young folks can watch trademark characters such as an early Pillsbury Doughboy on banks of video screens, while baby boomers can experience flashbacks by walking into the model of a 1950s kitchen.

Peter Cooper, of Cooper-Union fame, had a patent for gelatin that led to . . . Jell-O. (Gretta Yao)

What the exhibit does best is create stop-and-think moments. There’s practical poetry in a chronological collection of 11 can openers, 1890 to 1959. Their mechanical advances are gradual yet unmistakable. A mannequin dressed in chef’s garb displays the contributions of patent holders Ruth Benerito (wrinkle-free cotton) and Patsy O. Sherman and Samuel Smith (Scotchguard). Those two bits of cloth magic may seem like tangential developments only to someone who has never had to suit up for the daily splash and dash of a professional kitchen.

And inspiration can come from the darnedest patents. The invention of barbed wire kept herds of cattle from roaming. Refrigerated transport had a profound effect on the flavor of food and gave it the farthest reach to date. Lloyd Hall, the inventor of flash-dried salt crystals, also developed new processes for sterilizing spices and cereals in the 1930s. (I know processed foods aren’t getting a lot of love from the media these days. But in context, one can understand how their contributions helped feed America early on, and economically.)

So take a spin: Jell-O, the Jolly Green Giant, the blight-resistant potato, ceramic and wooden prototypes of the mason jar, the guy who refined the process of refining sugar, the father of the modern American beehive (yep, in 1851) and a fully operational 1958 Ford Workmaster tractor. They’ve all got interesting stories, presented in appetizing portions.

It's free and on view for one year.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Campus, Madison Bldg.), 600 Dulany St., Alexandria; 571-272-0095, Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m.

By The Food Section  |  June 28, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
 | Tags: Bonnie S. Benwick  
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