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Respect the Food Mill

I inherited from my mother a thoroughgoing cluelessness about matters domestic (except for cooking) and a smattering of kitchen utensils that had been wedding or other household presents from her beloved godmother, Martha Lehmann. Miss Lehmann didn’t have far to look for eggbeaters, spatulas, and so forth, because her family ran a housewares-hardware store in Cedarburg, Wis.

Those simple gadgets from Lehmann Bros. felt more at home in my hands than anything has since. Not being able to find close replacements when some of them inevitably succumbed to age has been a dismaying reminder of my own obsolescence. Those that have continued to be manufactured are real morale-boosters. And none more so than my Foley food mill, the third that I’ve purchased since setting up house on my own.

A time before food processors

I guess the phrase “food mill” doesn’t convey much to most cooks under age 50 (or older). But when I was a kid, it was the pureéing implement of choice. Blenders existed, but our kitchen boasted no such refinements. Food processors weren’t a gleam in even the most futuristic eye. If you wanted to turn cooked apples or tomatoes into applesauce or tomato sauce, you hauled out this bowl-shaped, tinned-steel device, plopped it over a slightly larger mixing bowl or pan, and cranked a handle that rotated an attached metal paddle against a perforated screen while also turning a sturdy spring-loaded wire scraper against the other side of the screen. The paddle forced the food through the bowl side of the screen, leaving skins and other refuse behind; the scraper cleaned the puree off the bottom into whatever receptacle you were using.

It’s still one of my all-time favorite implements. The thing that sets food mills apart from nearly all other pureéing or grinding devices is the finished texture of the food. Mealy vegetables like potatoes or turnips end up satisfyingly smooth. Juicier fruits and vegetables keep just enough texture to avoid dullness.

An American invention?

For decades I assumed that this nifty resource was an all-American invention, an idea judiciously reinforced by the Foley Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis. The real history is more complicated. In 1932, the young Frenchman Jean Mantelet, then director of a metal stamping company, filed for a patent on a vegetable pureéing device to replace the older alternatives of forcing the food through a sieve with a pusher (fatiguing to wrists and elbows) or beating it with a wooden spoon (almost guaranteed to leave lumps). Despite lawsuits by a rival Belgian firm that had patented a similar gizmo several years earlier, Mantelet’s “moulin-legumes” eventually took French kitchens by storm. Foley’s only contribution was licensing the rights for U.S. manufacture.

Over several decades, Mantelet built on his initial success to found an empire of kindred devices — handheld graters, electric meat grinders, and much more — that rang different changes on the name “moulin” or “mouli.” He also altered the straight-sided shape of the first moulin-legumes to make it taper sharply from top to bottom, replaced the original fixed screen with three removable ones (fine, medium, and coarse), and eventually substituted lightweight plastic housing for the original tinned steel.

These changes passed me by because I stuck with my treasured American version, not knowing that it has in fact remained almost identical to Mantelet’s 1932 original. When the tinning wore off my Lehmann Bros. heirloom, I bade it a sentimental farewell and found a replacement. But after about a year I wandered into a housewares shop on Nantucket and was amazed to spot a 3.5-quart model — much better for my needs than the 2-quart mill I’d thought to be the largest size. I unloaded the smaller one on a friend, with a sales talk that didn’t stop her from swiftly transferring allegiance to a new Cuisinart.

Stainless steel to the rescue

That was several decades ago, and for the last five years I’ve known that my Nantucket find was in turn losing its tinning. There does come a point when putting any reactive metal in contact with acid foods like apples or tomatoes is bound to stain things a dingy gray color and distort flavors. Finally I cudgeled myself into an Internet search, sure that the beloved machine had gone the way of the dodo. Instead, it proved not only to still be available, but to have undergone a change for the better: It’s now manufactured in stainless steel.

Exceptions to the general rule that any “update,” “reimagining,” or “makeover” of a classic kitchen gadget will amount to a cynical bait-and-switch ploy are rare enough to seem positively unnatural. But here I sit with a new and truly improved food mill that bids fair to outlive me. What bizarre phenomenon may arrive next — rational discourse on the Senate floor?

Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was  a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.

Photo: Anne Mendelson’s old and new food mill. Credit: Jorj Bauer

Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.

  • Phil 9·19·13

    Betraying my midwestern farm roots (my father grew up on one; I, though born in Oklahoma, was frequently in Minnesota during childhood summers), I grew up thinking this wierd, bottomless bowl thingy was actually called a ‘foley’. As in ‘Grab the foley for me’ after we had spent an afternoon after school up a cherry tree picking buckets of them, which we pitted with paperclips, and my mom wanted them smoothed out for jams (and getting rid of the skins). I only recently found out it was the original manufacturer in the US who was called “Foley”…

    I guess this is like ‘Fridgidare’ for refrigerator, ‘Kleenex’ for tissue, and, in England, ‘Hoover’ for vacuum cleaner. Although, come to think of it, J. Edgar used to suck up all sorts of facts as well.

    My wife, of Egyptian origin, recently wanted a specific, new, kitchen device which, upon hearing the description of it, made me think of my childhood days, and the ‘foley’. It turned out that was exactly what she wanted, despite having a food processor. Since we’re now in Romania, it wasn’t that easy to find, but we found a German ‘Food Mill’ which I now have to teach my wife to call a ‘foley’ …

    Maybe now I’ll get mashed potatoes without lumps…

  • Fabien Denry 12·28·16

    I am French and, growing up, this was the only tool people used for preparing baby food, purreing vegetables and passing soups. These days, I am using a food processor or a blender but for starchy soups I am using the food mill. Mashing cooked potatoes gently by hand or with a food mill leaves most of the starch molecules intact. The butter and dairy you add to the mashed potatoes are able to coat each individual particle, making the potatoes creamy. Using the quick-moving blades of a food processor will actually tear the starch molecules, resulting into the released starch mixing with the liquid in the cooked potatoes, and the mash transforms into a gummy paste before your eyes and within minutes. It doesn’t look or taste good. I make a lot of potage parmentier base (leeks and potatoes) to which I occasionally add whatever is in season like sorrel, watercress or other greens. In other soups, I am using rice as a thickener and always use the food mill. Indeed, it is more laborious but the result is so much more satisfying that I don’t regret my effort.
    Thank you for this article and Happy New Year.