The old-fashioned food grinder just grinds slowly on

When James Meshes heard the news two years ago that the Universal grinder - that hand-operated forerunner of today's motorized food processor - would soon be pulled from the market, his reaction was one of dismay. As he saw it, an American original was threatened with extinction. So he made up his mind: He would buy up the rights to its manufacture.

While there was a good deal of nostalgia behind the decision, Mr. Meshes was convinced he wouldn't lose by buying the rights to this nearly 150-year old invention. Twenty-five years of sales experience convinced him that even in this age of push-button convenience there should be a steady demand for the hand-operated grinder. Indeed there is. Although the demand is hardly overwhelming (sales hover around 50,000 units a year, according to his figures), ``it's consistent.''

The trend towards gourmet, make-it-from-scratch cooking - which food editors, among them Jean Hewitt of Family Circle magazine, say started some eight to 10 years ago - has sparked what Meshes describes as a mild resurgence in the use of the hand grinder.

Jean Hewitt acknowledges that there are some ground-food textures that only a hand grinder will produce, and that in some rare instances using a hand grinder might even be quicker than using an electric one. But not, she says, if the electric one ``is on the kitchen counter and you have to fetch the hand grinder from a storage cupboard.''

She herself has two hand grinders stored away which she hasn't used ``in years.''

Anita Hirsch of the Rodale (Organic Gardening Magazine) test kitchens says that their hand grinder is rarely used, ``except for making chopped liver.'' That is a comment that has been frequently made to Meches, even by poeple who say they are major users of electric food processors.

Back in 1842 the first meat grinder, called the Universal as it still is today, was patented in the United States, though Meshes isn't certain that similar machines were not developed independently in other parts of the world.

The original design was so simple and so effective that barely more than three design changes have been made in the machine in the intervening years, ``and those were largely cosmetic,'' Meshes says. The introduction of nylon brushes to reduce the wear of metal on metal is the only recent improvement, ``and that is a materials rather than a design change,'' Meshes points out.

A standard feature of any cast-iron product of simple design, like the hand grinder, is its durability. Many people write or stop by to tell Meshes that the machine they now use was first clamped to a table ``in grandma's kitchen.'' A recent letter contained a cutter blade that needed replacing. ``I happen to know,'' Meshes says, ``that the mold for that particular cutter was last used a hundred years ago.'' The modern blade, however, fit the antique.

Apart from visiting trade shows, Meshes relies on word-of-mouth advertising to promote sales. What Meshes describes as ``the new-old love affair'' in the kitchen prompts between 20 and 25 letters a day from users.

``A man wrote from New York City to say that his family bought their first Universal grinder in 1912 for just 87 cents.'' The writer felt that current prices, from $23 to $35 depending on size, were too high. But even to keep the grinders at current prices the metal parts have to be ``cast in Taiwan,'' Meshes explains.

In searching though old company records, Meshes recently uncovered a stack of old sausage recipes from around the world (39 in all), along with 25 general food recipes. They date back to the 1840s. He has had these printed up in a small booklet which is now included with each new machine sold.

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