William A. Mitchell's contributions to food are more famous than he is, and in that way perhaps he was as successful as any food chemist could ever hope to be.

His contributions don't sound too appealing: a radioactively bright-colored drink mix, very old eggs, a sickly sweet and wobbly bone based dessert, dessert toppings made from oil, and substitutes for cassava starch.

In spite of that, he left an undeniable impact on the food industry.

Mitchell had an inauspicious beginning in 1911 in Raymond, Minnesota, on a farm. It took him a while to transition from the farm to the laboratory. After his father's death, he made money picking legumes for one farm. By age 13 he picked melons, and by 18 he was renting land from the American Sugar Beet Company, growing corn and working on the company's sugar crystallization tanks.

Perhaps that's why Mitchell's future creations would ultimately be rooted in sugar.

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Mitchell got his chemistry experience at Cotner College in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he also worked at the Agricultural Experiment Station until a lab explosion nearly ended his career and his life.

He eventually received a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Nebraska. In 1941, he joined General Foods company, where his earliest breakthroughs began.

As with most of the country's greatest food discoveries, Mitchell's products came about as a result of World War II. The war interrupted shipping for many items - perhaps more so if the item was from the tropics, and especially if the item seemed extravagant or unnecessary.

Such was the case for cassava starch, which would have been the basis of tapioca pudding, popular among American families and soldiers alike. Mitchell created a substitute from domestic cereal grains and gelatin.

The result was shelf stable, stored dry, easily shippable, nutritious and even sweet for those who needed a treat. Soldiers called it "Mitchell's Mud." This invention is considered a launching point for the country's processed food industry.

Mitchell wasn't done because he had more sweet foods for the world. Some say his attempt to make "just-add-water" instant soda, later known as Pop Rocks, was his most famous creation in 1961. Among "salad" makers in his birth state, that honor may go to either the quick-set gelatin (Jell-O precursor) he created in 1954 using what he had learned with "Mitchell's Mud" or the freezer stable non-dairy dessert topping (Cool Whip) he invented in 1966 using oils and sweeteners.

Then again it could have been the radioactive looking vibrant orange powdered drink that went to the moon. Tang was one more of Mitchell's creations. He made the powdered drink as a shelf stable, vitamin enhanced, tropical flavored way to overcome the metallic flavor of some waters.

Consumers didn't buy it immediately upon its release in 1957, but when John Glenn sipped it in space in 1962, that cemented Tang into American history and culture.

Nobody would be foolish enough to think Mitchell's creations are health foods by any stretch of the imagination, but most Americans have fond memories of one or more of his inventions.

Though these are his most well-known inventions, Mitchell is actually the owner of 70 patents, including a process for creating powdered eggs for today's boxed cake and brownie mixes, making him a legend in the industry until his retirement in 1976. Mitchell died in 2004 in Stockton, California, but his legacy is what you might call shelf stable, even if few of us really know his name.

Minnesota Mitchell Creamsicle Trifle/Parfait Potluck Salad

  • 1 package orange flavored quick set gelatin
  • 1 package vanilla cake mix (I'm using Betty Crocker)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons powdered Tang
  • 1 package orange Pop Rocks (very optional)
  • 1 tub Cool Whip
  • 1 can mandarin oranges (2 cups)
  • Tapioca pudding (optional, could use vanilla, prepared according to box instructions)

Following the box instructions, prepare the cake mix using the eggs and oil, but combine the Tang and water as a replacement for the water in the instructions. Bake in a cake pan and allow to cool. Prepare the gelatin as described on the box and refrigerate until set.

Once cool, slice the cake into 1 1/2-inch to 2-inch cubes. If you are using them, mix about 2/3 of the pop rocks into the Cool Whip. Drain the orange pieces.

This may either be prepared as a large trifle in a single, large serving bowl or in individual tall glasses as parfaits close to the time they will be served. I will describe the trifle, but the instructions will be the same for the parfait, but with smaller portions.

In a large serving bowl, create a single layer of the cubed cake pieces. On top of the cake layer, add a thin layer of the pudding (or Cool Whip if you chose not to use pudding) followed by a layer of orange slices. Make another thin layer of Cool Whip on top of the oranges, followed by a layer of cake, another layer of pudding, a layer of gelatin and Cool Whip.

If you still have space, you can continue to layer your ingredients. If you run out of space but still have ingredients, use them to make individual parfaits in tall glasses. Your last layer, however, should be Cool Whip.

Just before serving, add the remaining Pop Rocks like sprinkles. Serve with a large serving spoon.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.