Does Gail Borden Jr.’s name ring a bell?
You’ve probably seen the Borden brand of milk in stores, but Borden’s legacy goes even deeper than that. Borden was a New Yorker who found his way to Texas in the years before the Alamo. He and his brother ran a newspaper outside what is now the Houston area during the Texas Revolution. He got involved in politics during the Republic of Texas era, serving several roles under Sam Houston, but by the middle of the century, he’d started developing food products, including a dried meat biscuit that never took off.
However, after a journey across the Atlantic in which the cows on the ship got sick and died — and sickened children who drank the milk — Borden set out to find a new way to preserve milk. In 1856, he was awarded a patent for condensing milk through a vacuum process, and by the late 1850s, he had left Texas and was back in the Northeast, where he started the New York Condensed Milk Company, which provided millions of pounds of condensed milk to troops during the Civil War.
According to Key lime pie historian David Sloan, Borden’s shelf-stable and calorie-dense creation was a humanitarian effort to ease malnutrition and increase food safety, but it was also a boon to the Florida Keys, where refrigeration, ice and just about anything made with milk were hard if not impossible to come by until the Overseas Highway connected the islands to mainland Florida in 1930.
Canned milk allowed people living in the Keys to make ice cream and cream sauces. Key limes were abundant on the islands, so it was only a matter of time before cooks combined the two to create a pie that had silky smooth filling without a drop of quick-to-spoil milk or cream.
Nowadays, every corner store in the country carries fresh milk, and some of our refrigerators are the size of small cars. But I think there’s still something charming about taking the road well-traveled and starting dessert by whipping out your can opener.
The company eventually became Eagle Brand, and though the milk distribution company that now bears his name is not affiliated with any of Borden’s original companies, his name and legacy continue in surprising ways. For example, Borden County in West Texas, and its county seat of Gail, were posthumously named after him, even though he never set foot in that part of the state.