Dr. Asselbergs

In 1961, Edward Asselbergs, a food technician at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa, developed instant mashed potato flakes. When Steve and I decided to make a video about this important Canadian invention, I set out to do the necessary research. I discovered Dr. Asselbergs retired and living in St. Catherines. He agreed to be interviewed. —Robert Chandler

Instant mashed potato flakes were developed by the military in the 1920's. A consumer version was patented in the late 1950's in America. This version — more of a granule than a flake—is rarely used today. Most of the instant mashed potato flake product found on supermarket shelves is manufactured using Dr. Asselberg's method.

Dr Asselberg: The American method was boiling the potato for 45 minutes in steps — very complicated, and that was the expensive part. But I developed the method that after you boiled the potatoes and made the mash then you cool it to zero degrees C — that straightens out the starch molecules so instead of amino pectin you get straight starch.

Dr. Asselberg continued to explore the possibilities of instant food flakes.

Dr Asselberg: With the potato flakes originally they could be combined with fish or with meat and you'd end up with an instant potato fish flake-half of it was fish, half of it was potato, or meat-I thought it would be more profitable for industry to use the combination patent but they never picked it up.

Intertitle: Dr. Asselberg suggests that another invention he worked on at the same time-an infared apple peeler — might be a more interesting subject for this video.

Dr Asselberg: Infared apple peel — 4000 degrees C — I have a movie of that. There is a tunnel and the apple goes in there and the steam underneath the skin evaporates and it cannot escape so it builds up pressure and the peel is loosened-it pops in ten seconds.

It was a mistake for me to collaborate with a researcher. I wanted only the bare facts to speculate around. Instead I have too many details from an unimpeachable source. Once again I have been cheated by history. My role as author has been usurped by our luck in tracking down the actual Dr. Asselbergs, who remembers things differently than I would have preferred. I thought potato flakes would be an ideal subject — although mundane, I saw the potential to make them glamorous. But Dr. Asselbergs was right in suggesting that we instead focus on the infared apple peeler. It is a beautiful lost machine, abandoned technology, an almost hypothetical invention. I invite you to think of the metaphoric possibilities, the apples marched through a triangle of infared, their skins rubbed off between enormous soft rotating pillows. Instead I'll be thinking about the potato, pulled from the ground and transformed into a box of snow which could in any appropriate season fall from this enormous fake sky.


[To see this video, click here.]