Today is the birthday (1801) of Gail Borden II, a native New Yorker who settled in Texas in 1829, where he worked as a land surveyor, newspaper publisher, and inventor. He is best known as the developer of a method for condensing milk which he patented in 1853. This gives me the opportunity to talk about both Borden and condensed milk. For starters, condensed milk is somewhat similar to, but not the same as, evaporated milk – as any cook knows. Go here for the history of evaporated milk: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/evaporated-milk/ Condensed milk was developed before evaporated milk because it was easier to manufacture. Its high sugar content is a natural antibacterial and preservative, but it changes the character of the milk.
Borden was born in Norwich, New York to Gail Borden Jr. (1777–1863), a pioneer and landowner, and his wife Philadelphia Wheeler (1780–1828), who died at age 48 from yellow fever in Nashville, Tennessee. The details of Borden’s childhood are unclear, but he moved twice with his family while growing up, first to Kennedy’s Ferry, Kentucky (renamed as Covington in 1814), and in 1816 to New London, Indiana. Borden received his only formal schooling in Indiana, attending school during 1816 and 1817 to learn the art of surveying.
In 1822, Borden set out with his brother, Thomas. They intended to move to New Orleans, but settled in Amite County, Mississippi. Borden stayed in Liberty for seven years. He worked as the county surveyor and as a schoolteacher in Bates and Zion Hill. He was well known around town for running rather than walking to school every morning. While living in Mississippi, Borden met Penelope Mercer, whom he married in 1828. The couple had six children during their 16-year marriage. Borden and his family left Mississippi in 1829 and moved to Texas, following his brother John Borden. Thomas also settled in Texas. As a surveyor, Borden plotted the towns of Houston and Galveston. He collaborated on drawing the first topographical map of Texas in 1835.
In February 1835, Borden and his brother John entered into partnership with Joseph Baker to publish a newspaper. They based their newspaper in San Felipe de Austin, which was centrally located among the colonies in eastern Texas. The first issue of the Telegraph and Texas Register appeared on October 10, 1835, days after the Texas Revolution began. Soon after the newspaper began publishing, John Borden left to join the Texian Army, and his brother Thomas took his place as Borden’s partner. As the Mexican army moved east into the colonies, the Telegraph was soon the only newspaper in Texas still in operation. Their 21st issue was published on March 24. This contained the first list of names of Texans who died at the Battle of the Alamo. On March 27, the Texas Army reached San Felipe, carrying word that the Mexican advance guard was approaching. According to a later editorial in the Telegraph, the publishers were “the last to consent to move.” The Bordens dismantled the printing press and brought it with them as they evacuated with the rear guard on March 30. The Bordens retreated to Harrisburg. On April 14, as they were in the process of printing a new issue, Mexican soldiers arrived and seized the press. The soldiers threw the type and press into Buffalo Bayou and arrested the Bordens. The Texas Revolution ended days later.
Lacking funds to replace his equipment, Borden mortgaged his land to buy a new printing press in Cincinnati. The 23rd issue of the Telegraph was published in Columbia on August 2, 1836. Although many had expected Columbia to be the new capital, the First Texas Congress instead chose the new city of Houston. Borden relocated to Houston, and published the first Houston issue of his paper on May 2, 1837. The newspaper was in financial difficulty, as the Bordens rarely paid their bills. In March 1837, Thomas Borden sold his interest in the enterprise to Francis W. Moore Jr., who took over as chief editor. Three months later, Gail Borden transferred his shares to Jacob W. Cruger.
In Texas, Borden shifted into politics. He was a delegate at the Convention of 1833, where he assisted in writing early drafts of a Republic of Texas constitution. He also shared administrative duties with Samuel M. Williams during 1833 and 1834 when Stephen F. Austin was away in Mexico. President Sam Houston appointed Borden as the Republic of Texas Collector of Customs at Galveston in June 1837. Houston’s successor to the presidency, Mirabeau B. Lamar, removed Borden from office in December 1838, replacing him in the patronage position with a lifelong friend from Mobile, Alabama, Dr. Willis Roberts, newly arrived in Texas. Roberts’ son later was appointed Secretary of State of the Republic. However, Borden had been so well liked, the newcomer was resented. The Galveston News frequently criticized the new regime concerning malfeasance. When a shortfall in government funds came to light, Roberts offered to put up several personal houses and nine slaves as collateral until the matter could be settled. Two resentful desk clerks were later determined to have been embezzling funds, but this came too late for the doctor, who lasted in the job only until December 1839. Lamar appointed another man of his choice. After Houston was re-elected to the presidency, he reappointed Borden to the post, and he served from December 1841 to April 1843. He finally resigned after a dispute with Houston.
Borden then turned his attention to real estate matters. He found a position at the Galveston City Company, where he served for 12 years as a secretary and agent. During that period, he helped sell 2,500 lots of land, for a total of $1,500,000. During these years, he began to experiment with disease cures. His wife Penelope died of yellow fever on September 5, 1844. It caused frequent epidemics and had a high rate of fatalities during the 19th century. Borden began experimenting with finding a cure for the disease via refrigeration. He also developed an unsuccessful prototype for a terraqueous machine. This was a sail-powered wagon designed to travel over land and sea, which he completed in 1848.
By around 1849, Borden was experimenting with the creation of a dehydrated beef product known as the “meat biscuit”, which was loosely based upon the traditional Native American food, pemmican. Pioneers seeking gold in California needed a readily transportable food source that could endure harsh conditions and Borden marketed the meat biscuit as a suitable solution. Borden was operating a factory in Galveston to produce meat biscuits by 1851, and the product won him the Great Council Medal at the 1851 London World’s Fair. Notably, explorer Elisha Kane even carried a supply of meat biscuits on the Second Grinnell Expedition into the Arctic. However, Borden had been relying heavily upon the United States Army to issue him a lucrative contract to supply meat biscuits for use by American soldiers. When the military declined to buy into the product, Borden’s meat biscuit proved to be a failure.
During Borden’s return voyage from the Exhibition in London, a disease infected both cows aboard the ship. The cows eventually died, along with several children who drank the contaminated milk. Contamination threatened other supplies of milk across the country. In part, the event inspired Borden’s interest in preserving milk. In 1856, after three years of refining his model, Borden received the patent for his process of condensing milk by vacuum. At that time, he abandoned the meat biscuit, to focus on his new product. Having lost so much money in his beef biscuit endeavors, Borden was forced to recruit partners to begin production and marketing of this new product. He offered Thomas Green three-eighths of his patent rights and gave James Bridge a quarter interest on his investment; together, the three men built a condensery in Wolcottville, Connecticut (within modern-day Torrington), which opened in 1856. Green and Bridge were eager for profits, and when the factory was not immediately successful, they withdrew their support; it closed within a year.
Borden persuaded them and a third investor, Reuel Williams, to build a new factory, this time in Burrville, Connecticut (also within modern-day Torrington), which opened in 1857. This second factory was hurt by the Panic of 1857 and had trouble turning a profit. The following year, Borden’s fortunes began to change when he met Jeremiah Milbank, a financier from New York, on a train. Milbank was impressed by Borden’s enthusiasm for and confidence in condensed milk, and the two became equal partners. Together, they founded the New York Condensed Milk Company. As a railroad magnate and banker, Milbank understood large-scale finance, which was critical to development of the business and Borden’s success. Milbank invested around $100,000 into Borden’s business. When Milbank died in 1884, the market value of his holdings was estimated at around $8,000,000.
With the founding of the New York Condensed Milk Company, sales of Borden’s condensed milk began to improve. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 soon after created a large demand for condensed milk from the Union Army. In 1861, Borden closed the factory in Burrville, opening the first of what would be many condensed milk factories in upstate New York and Illinois.
As the Civil War continued, he expanded his New York Condensed Milk Company quickly to meet the growing demand. Many new factories were built and licenses were granted to individuals to begin producing condensed milk in their own factories using Borden’s patent. Despite the quick growth of the company, Borden put a high value on sanitation. He developed cleanliness practices that continue to be used in the production of condensed milk to this day. While all of this rapid growth was occurring, Borden continued to experiment with the condensing of meat, tea, coffee, and cocoa, and in 1862 while operating a factory in Amenia, New York, he patented the condensing of juice from fruits, such as apples and grapes.] Borden tried to incorporate these other products into the line of the New York Condensed Milk Company, but the greatest demand was always for milk. It continued as the company’s major product.
Condensed milk can be used in 100s of recipes. My mother, when she missed Argentina and wanted some dulce de leche used to place a can in simmering water and cook it for 3 hours or so. Works perfectly. Nowadays in Britain the contents of a boiled can are used as the layer between biscuit base and the banana and cream level in banoffee. During the communist era in Poland, it was common to boil a can of condensed milk in water for about three hours also, making what they called kajmak (although the original kaymak is a product similar to clotted cream). Homemade kajmak is less common nowadays, but recently some manufacturers of condensed milk introduced canned, ready-made kajmak which now is widely commercially produced, and is a national favorite for dessert fillings. In Russia, the same product is called варёная сгущёнка (varionaya sguschyonka, “boiled condensed milk”). One of Russia’s most famous cakes, “bird’s milk cake”, is often made with condensed milk.
Condensed milk is used in recipes for the popular Brazilian sweet brigadeiro, key lime pie, caramel candies, and other desserts. Condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk is also sometimes used in combination with clotted cream to make fudge in the UK and the US.
In many parts of SE Asia (notably Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar) as well as Europe, sweetened condensed milk is the preferred milk to be used to make coffee or tea. In Malaysia, teh tarik is made from tea mixed with condensed milk, and condensed milk is an integral element in Hong Kong tea culture. In the Canary Islands, it is served as the bottom stripe in a glass of the local café con leche and in Valencia it is served as a café bombón.
A popular treat in Asia is to put condensed milk on toast and eat it in a similar way as jam and toast. In West Yorkshire, in the years after World War II, condensed milk was an alternative to jam. Nestlé has even produced a squeeze bottle for this very purpose. Condensed milk is a major ingredient in many Indian desserts and sweets. While most Indians start with normal whole milk and reduce it, condensed milk has also become popular because it saves time.
In New Orleans, sweetened condensed milk is commonly used as a topping on chocolate or similarly cream-flavored snowballs. In Scotland, it is mixed with sugar and butter then boiled to form a popular sweet candy called tablet or Swiss-milk-tablet, very similar to a version of Brazilian brigadeiro called branquinho. In some parts of the Southern United States, condensed milk is a key ingredient in lemon ice box pie, a sort of cream pie. In the Philippines, condensed milk is mixed with some evaporated milk and eggs, spooned into shallow metal containers over liquid caramelized sugar, and then steamed to make a stiffer and more filling version of crème caramel known as leche flan, also common in Brazil under the name pudim de leite.
In Mexico, sweetened condensed milk is one of the main ingredients of a cold cake dessert combined with evaporated milk, Marie biscuits, lemon juice, and tropical fruit. In Brazil, this recipe is also done exchanging pudding for the fruit, most commonly vanilla and chocolate, known as torta de bolacha.
In Jamaica, Guinness Punch is prepared using condensed milk mixed with bottled stout. This is often flavored with nutmeg and cocoa.
In Latin American countries as well as many parts of the Caribbean, Canary Islands, Albania, the Republic of Macedonia and some other parts of Europe condensed milk (along with evaporated milk and whole milk or canned cream) is used as a key ingredient in the popular tres leches cake dessert. It probably originates in Nicaragua but quickly spread. There are numerous variants depending on whether you make a sponge cake or a butter cake, and whether you add a whipped cream topping (possibly with fruit) or not. Here’s one recipe:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ cup unsalted butter
2 cups white sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
2 cups whole milk
1 (14 fl oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 fl oz) can evaporated milk
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup white sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C. Grease and flour a 9×13” baking pan.
Sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside.
Cream the butter and 1 cup of sugar together until fluffy. Add the eggs and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla extract and beat well. Add the flour mixture 2 tablespoons at a time mixing well until thoroughly blended. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 30 minutes, pierce the cake several times with a fork. Cool in the pan on a rack when it is cooked.
Combine the whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk together. Pour over the top of the cooled cake.
Whip the whipping cream, the remaining 1 cup of the sugar, and the remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla together until thick. Spread over the top of cake. Refrigerate. Serve in squares.