Go back in time with us 1971, the year that forever changed the way we eat.
In the late 1960s, bougie gourmet kitchen counters in America featured two devices: the blender and the blender. Together, they could adopt almost any recipe that the nation’s predominant cooking gurus – Francophiles like James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne – would ask the home cook: crepe batter, gazpacho, brioche, hollandaise. In 1971, a retired MIT-trained physicist and amateur gourmet named Carl Sontheimer, a man with the strange looks of a giant, mischievous elf, would radically change American cuisine for decades to come.
At 57, Sontheimer and his wife Shirley traveled to France after a career full of patented inventions and starting three electronics companies to ponder next steps. At a housewares exhibition in Paris, Sontheimer paused before demonstrating the Magimix, a home version of the Robot-Coupé, the clunky industrial mixer-slicer-grater-kneader-chopper introduced by French inventor Pierre Verdun in 1963. Sontheimer signed a contract to sell a version of the Robot Coupé in the USA, modified for the Americans.
Sontheimer tinkered the engineers of Robot-Coupé in France with endless questions and tinkered for a year and a half. He added a heavier top, refined the design of the blades and discs, and lengthened the feed tube to reduce the risk of finger breaks. (“This machine horrified me,” Sontheimer once recalled Verdun’s original French. “It was completely unsafe.”) In January 1973, Sontheimer unveiled his baby at the National Housewares Show in Chicago with a name he borrowed from one of them Had a line of fancy French pots and pans that he’d been selling around the country through newspaper ads: the Cuisinart. With its double aura of pursuit and vigor, it was the perfect name. (And apparently no copyright issue; by 1976, Sontheimer had obtained a trademark for the name from the U.S. Patent Office.)
At $ 175, the Cuisinart was shockingly expensive. In contrast, a premium fourteen-speed blender cost $ 35 in 1973. A decent stand mixer was $ 40. But maybe this was part of the appeal; Sontheimer hoped to end up one of his machines with funds in the kitchen of every American chef, some kind of well-heeled fan who subscribed to Gourmet and wouldn’t miss a Wednesday night episode of The French Chef for Juliet’s Weekly Consumption. “He knew he had a gem,” says Carl Jerome, Beard’s assistant in the 1970s, “and if he played his cards right he could make this the next blender.”
Sontheimer’s opening game was to win Beard, Child and Claiborne, who together had immense powers of persuasion towards America’s home cooks. So of course he gave them free machines, but was also really nice and of course charming. After growing up in France (Sontheimer’s father was an American manager stationed in Paris), he spoke their culinary and cultural language – and even sent Claiborne recipes from rare old French cookbooks to his collection, a gift from a gentleman-gourmet to one other. He also had an instinctive understanding of the power of exclusivity in luxury branding. By limiting the number of retailers to two – Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco and Bloomingdale in New York – Sontheimer made the Cuisinart a desirable device for many Americans. (So much so, in the early 1980s, the US Department of Justice hired von Sontheimer to fix prices after refusing to supply machines to retailers selling Cuisinarts below the recommended price. The company did not advocate competition and paid an agreement.)
In a 1973 column published in newspapers across the country, Beard described the Cuisinart as “necessary as a good oven”. Jerome says it was a big deal for him to get one of the first machines. “He liked being the one who introduced it to the food world – it pumped up his ego and public image.” In the meantime, Julia dragged her newly indispensable bone-white-oyster-gray model to cooking demonstrations across the country. In 1976, longtime friend and assistant Rosemary Manell became the first instructor to offer an entire cooking class devoted to the machine, a sign that some had bought a Cuisinart as a counter-top item without knowing what the hell was going on with it do it was. (“A lot of people who own the machine seem to be a little cautious,” Manell told the New York Times.)