By Ana Kinkaid
One of this season’s culinary sensations is Alinea’s Crystal Clear Pumpkin Pie. Created by Executive chef Mike Bagale and chef de cuisine Simon Davies, Alinea’s innovative dessert is crafted from a distillation of pumpkin pie blended into gelatin that’s slowly poured into the perfect holiday pie crust.
The result is amazing both in taste and appearance. Yet often missing in the dessert’s many stellar reviews is even a brief reference to Rose Knox, the enterprising woman who helped create the dessert’s key ingredient—gelatin.
Born Nov. 18, 1857, Rose Markward Knox rates as one of America’s great businesswomen, but she is sadly unrecognized today even by members of the culinary industry.
In 1883, she married Charles Knox and settled in Newark, New Jersey. By working hard he became one of the highest paid salesmen marketing a line of popular knitted goods.
Their marriage was a unique partnership of equals during Victorian times as Charles would discuss business with his wife each evening over dinner. He agreed to give Rose a flexible household allowance based on a percentage of his earnings. As his salary increased, her percentage increased.
Also, anything Rose saved from operating a frugal household was hers. If Charles borrowed from her saved reserve, it was treated as a business transaction, which had to be repaid with interest. With such a modern approach, Rose was able to accumulate $5,000, an amount that few middle-class women in the late 1880’s personally controlled.
Together, Rose and Charles decided to use Rose’s savings and purchase a failed gelatin business in Johnstown, New York. Prior to their purchase, chefs would make their own gelatin by cooking the shinbones of cows for long hours until they fell apart, then straining the liquid, recooking it and finally clarifying it with egg whites. In short, a very time-consuming procedure.
Side by side, they worked to create a granulated product that was quicker and easier to use. In the end they became the world’s leading manufacturer of unflavored gelatin.
But Rose didn’t stop there. She developed many countless gelatin recipes. By 1896, many of her recipes were published in booklets and became a staple take-away item in grocery stores, totaling over a million copies a year. Her recipes also appeared from coast to coast in newspapers and magazines under the heading “Mrs. Knox says….”
In 1908, after amassing a highly profitable business portfolio that included soap, ointments and tonic companies, a small hardware store and a power company, plus Knox Gelatin, Charles died suddenly of a heart attack. Rose, devastated by the loss of her beloved husband and business partner for over 25 years was advised by friends to “sell everything or find a man to manage” her affairs.
Despite the fact that few women in 1908 ran such a large business, Rose did not hesitate to step into full management of the Knox Gelatin Company. Later, in reflecting on her unorthodox move, Rose commented, “I either had to run the business myself or employ a manager. If I did the latter, I figured that by the time my boys came of age, the business would belong to the manager.”
Rose’s first action as president of Knox Gelatin was to direct that the plant’s back door be permanently nailed shut. She gathered her employees together and announced that everyone who worked for her was a lady or gentleman and so would now come through the front door. Before her first day was over, she also fired one of her husband’s top administrative executives who told her he absolutely would not work for a woman. She smiled and showed him the door.
As Knox’s chief executive, Rose made a number of further revolutionary changes involving her staff. In 1913, she established a five-day work week along with two weeks’ paid vacation a year and paid sick leave. This was something completely unheard of before her insight that a healthy employee is the best employee. Truly a woman changing the way we work!
She also successfully weathered the Great Depression. By streamlining and carefully cutting costs, she avoided laying off a single employee during those hard times. Her efforts resulted in Knox Gelatin growing at a rate of five percent each year during the economic slowdown of the Great Depression, something few other food companies were able to achieve.
Rose Knox also built a specialized kitchen to explore new uses for gelatin. She believed in the product and felt it had many uses. By the 1920s, Knox Gelatin produced the first
pharmaceutical gelatin, used to encapsulate medicines, a product we still know as “gel caps.”
Her scientists went on to develop a
“plasma extender,” which could be used as blood plasma substitute during World War II when there were plasma shortages. This product alone saved tens of thousands of lives.
The company also increased the use of gelatin in photography. By 1936, 60% of Knox sales was from food while the remaining 40% of sales were from other commercial uses of gelatin.
By 1949 Collier’s Magazine honored her as “America’s foremost woman industrialist.” She remained president of the Company until 1947 when her only still-living son, James, took over. Even then, Mrs. Knox continued to remain active as Chairman of the Board. She died at the age of 92 honored but sadly largely forgotten today.
True culinary ‘transparency’ involves an awareness of not only the present, but also of the past as well as a vision of the future. Hopefully as the creative use of gelatin increases in dishes both elegant and practical, this remarkable woman, a person truly ahead of her time in both employee relationships and innovative products, will be remembered and honored once again.