In the late 19th century, a Boston landlady named Susan Stavers served a sailor some tapioca pudding. He complained about it. South Seas tapioca was much better than the coarse, lumpy stuff Stavers served, he said.
Her tapioca wasn’t worse than most American pudding at the time. But she took the sailor’s complaint to heart. (Or so the story goes.)
Tapioca results from processing a plant called manioc (also known as cassava), found in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia
Susan Stavers decided to put cheap manioc roots through her coffee grinder. Her neighbors liked the pudding it made, and she started going door-to-door selling her tapioca in brown paper bags.
In 1894, she sold the rights to a publisher and grocer, John Whitman, from Orange, Mass. He renamed the product Minute Tapioca and bought the J.B. Reynolds Shoe Factory along the Millers River to produce it.
Signs on the building boasted of the product’s virtues. It read “Minute Tapioca Company,” “Minute Gelatine Requires No Soaking” and “Minute Tapioca Requires No Soaking.”
In 1904, Whitman was promoting pudding tapioca recipes in a 30-page paperback cookbook. The first 16 pages tell the story of the Minute Man. The rest is recipes using Minute products and advertisements for his grocery and tapioca business.
Postum Cereal bought the company in 1926, the same year it bought Jell-O. Its revenues jumped that year to $46.9 million from $27.4 million. After an acquisition spree, the company changed its name to General Foods three years later.
Then in 1949, General Foods appropriated the name ‘Minute’ for a new, quick-cooking rice: Minute Rice.
In 1967, the tapioca factory closed in Orange.
Susan Stavers belongs to the pantheon of New England women who started food businesses. They include Paul Revere’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Emma Curtis, who invented the fluffernutter sandwich, or Margaret Rudkin, who started Pepperidge Farm.
Images: Postcard courtesy Wheeler Memorial Library. Tapioca By Tamar Hayardeni תמר הירדני – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45920765. This story was updated in 2022.