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While a good biscuit is often associated with memories of a grandma, mother, or auntie, it was a Black man named Alexander P. Ashbourne who in 1875 patented (no. 170.460) the biscuit cutter.

He was born into slavery in Philadelphia around 1820 and while there are very few documented facts about his personal life, it is known that he grew up cutting wheat alongside his family members.

Since Ashbourne was born after the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act was passed in 1780, he was not subject to a lifetime of enslavement. Although the exact date of his emancipation is unknown, by 1847 all enslaved people in Pennsylvania had been freed.

Alexander P. Ashbourne’s experience shaped how he shaped biscuits

Ashbourne disappeared from the public record until 1863, when he reemerged working as a caterer. By this time, he was well known and respected in the city.

Mr. Ashbourne catered weddings and buffets for the wealthy elite in Philadelphia. They selected him as one of a handful of local caterers for the 1863 Emancipation Celebration held in the city.

While attending this event, Ashbourne realized that the process of shaping biscuits by hand was tedious and produced strangely shaped biscuits.

Determined to solve for why, he began a decade-long process to create a device, a spring-loaded biscuit cutter, that would guarantee uniform shape, size, and many biscuits produced at one time.

Alexander Ashbourne Patent No. 170,460, November 30, 1875 Image Public Domain.

Ashbourne applied for a patent for his invention on May 11, 1875, and on November 20, 1876 it was granted for the cutter, which also contained metal plates with various shapes. The cook could push down on the plate to cut the dough into specialized shapes, a method that is still used for numerous baked goods today.

Ashbourne’s biscuit cutter would revolutionize kitchens and restaurants worldwide. Whether Bojangles, Popeye’s, Biscuitville, Flying Biscuit Cafe, Charcoal Venice, or Biskit Junkie, they all owe a debt of gratitude to the brilliant yet barely known Ashbourne.

Ashbourne refined coconut oil for what we still use today

Mr. Ashbourne’s culinary expertise led him to consider simplifying other cooking processes. In 1880, he received a patent for his process of refining coconut oil.

The Ashbourne process included filtration, bleaching, high-temperature heating, and finally hydrogenation to ensure that no unsaturated fatty acids were left in the oil.

Thanks to Ashbourne’s past work, coconut oil is now a popular ingredient in hair products, foods, and scented products.

Alexander Ashbourne Patent No. 170,460, November 30, 1875 Image Public Domain.

After the Civil War, many African-Americans entrepreneurs entered the food industry. By the late 1880s, Alexander P. Ashbourne left Philadelphia and moved to Oakland, California, once there he owned and operated a small grocery store.

He passed in Oakland at 95 years old.

Hailing from Charlotte North Carolina, born litterateur Ezekiel J. Walker earned a B.A. in Psychology at Winston Salem State University. Walker later published his first creative nonfiction book and has...

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