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Milton Malek

Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2002 at 8:15 PM CT

“Did you know that the inventor of converted rice that came to be known as Uncle Ben's Rice or Golden Pearl, was an Assyrian and his name was Milton Malek?”

Uncle Ben’s or uncle Malek

Did you know that the inventor of converted rice that came to be known as Uncle Ben's Rice or Golden Pearl, was an Assyrian and his name was Milton Malek?

Milton Malek is an Assyrian American. He now resides in Carmel, California with his wife Inge. He once proudly introduced himself as a Zeraya of the Jelu tribe. He was born in Persia. Milton grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and then moved to Oak Park, Illinois. He had watched his mother cook rice “each kernel separate like pearls.” He never knew that one day his name was going to be given to rice. “It was a revolution in rice,” says F. J. Taylor in his article “Revolution in Rice”, published in the Collier’s, Jan. 10, 1948. He describes Milton as a “… youthful good-looking … American still in his thirties”.

The story had begun in California one Sunday morning in 1938 when Milton and his friend Murray Brookman had gone horseback riding. Brookman had mentioned his concern about millions of pounds of rice going to waste in the upper Sacramento valley, because the United States could not send rice to Japan anymore, California’s main customer, for there was an embargo since Japan had attacked China. The rice merchants were having a bumper crop. Malek, as his friends called him and as he likes to be called, wondered why Americans did not use more rice themselves. The answer was that American housewives did not know how to cook it, especially the short grain. It became a sticky mess which nobody liked. Malek wondered if it was possible to can it. Brookman had answered, “If you can find a way of canning rice you’ll be doing something that the biggest canners in the country can’t do.” This was the challenge.

Malek knew a lot about rice. He could cook it just as well as his mother could, “al dente”. He also knew about canning for he had seen his mother canning fruits. He went right to her kitchen and started experimenting with rice canning. He soon realized it was not easy, but would not give up. He wrote to a canning factory and asked them to can some rice for him as an experiment. They did. The result was a failure. Malek was an educated man and took refuge in books. He went to a library and read anything he could find about rice. He found to his amazement that there were 2,000 varieties of rice. One day as he was looking through the shelves of a library, he came across an old diary of an English traveler, who described how the natives of Assam in India grew a type of rice called Patna and before milling it, while still in hulls, they semi-boiled it and then spread it to dry. The traveler also had made the comments that in those parts of India there was no beri-beri or pellagra. The boiling process and the non-existence of the disease of beri-beri, which is caused by Vitamin B deficiency, especially in a community where rice is the base food, sparked Malek’s imagination. He wrote to the State Agriculture College—Rice Experimental Station—at Biggs in the Sacramento valley in California, and asked them for some paddy rice with the husks still on. The director sent a small bag. Malek got some interns in a nearby hospital interested and persuaded them to let him use the hospital equipment to steam the rice in their sterilization vat. Then he spread it for some hours on the roof of his house to dry. It was then ready to be milled but there was no mill available to him. Luckily Malek found a scientist who had picked up a hand mill during his travels in Asia. Finally, he had some processed rice for canning. He took it to the canning company laboratory and they put it in cans. A few days later he opened the cans and the rice rolled out beautifully, “each kernel separate.”

Malek had found the secret of canning rice. He was overjoyed. He was advised by friends to go and see a patent attorney. He did. He found that that was not as easy as registering your name in a book. The patent attorneys wanted a chemical analysis of the canned rice. “This meant,” say Taylor in his article, “several hundred dollars and Malek had spent his final dollar.” He read an advertisement that a chemist needed someone to feed his animals, i.e., mice and rabbits, so Malek went to see him and made a deal with him. He would feed the animals if the chemist agreed to do a free analysis of the rice. The results satisfied the attorneys. The rice had retained its vitamins, but there was still the California Rice Growers Association who would have their say. The directors wanted a more official analysis. The rice was then handed to Dr. Agnes Fay Morgan of the University of California, one of the top authorities on vitamins. This meant nine months of testing and a large sum of cash. The Association financed the analysis and retained Malek on a small job sending him to southern California to oversee the canning of 10,000 cans of rice for a sale test in Los Angeles. It was now up to housewives to accept or reject the Malekized rice.

Meanwhile the war broke out. Malek hurried to Washington and offered his canned rice as well as some of the steamed and dried rice to the army. By now he had come to the conclusion that what the world needed was not canned rice but dried processed rice. He was now supported by Dr. Agnes Morgan’s laboratory findings, “which had revealed that Malekized rice retained up to 65% of the thiamine (Vitamin B1) of raw brown rice, and 80% of the pantothenic acid, or more than double the vitamin content of ordinary polished rice.” The process of cooking rice while in husks under steam pressure drove the vitamins out of the bran and into the kernel itself, but more significant is that the germs in the end of the kernel that made rice germinate were sterilized. It also disintegrated the bran oil and hardened the kernel surface so that rice weevils were unable to gnaw into it.

It was then that things began to take shape for malek. The quartermaster’s food research officers, who were trying to find ways of improving food in the pacific area, ordered 5,000 bags of processed rice to be shipped and tested in all areas of army operations. Malek at this time was in San Francisco and was summoned out to the Presidio. There he met the colonel in charge of the Cooks and Bakers School, who already had heard of him. The colonel was at that time actually testing some rice. He encouraged Malek to enlist in the school. Malek rose soon to the rank of sergeant and was then assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, as instructor in the School of Dehydrated Foods. His chances of working on his invention were slim. Thanks are due to Colonel Paul P. Logan, assistance to the Quartermaster General in Charge of improving the army’s diet, who secured Malek’s release so that as a civilian he could get some processing machinery made for the rice millers in the army. The army wanted processed rice badly. His release from the army in 10 minutes after a telephone call set a record and was written up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Malek went to a number of manufacturers but had no luck. Finally he was able to induce the General American Transportation Corporation of Chicago, builders of tank cars and food processing equipment, to design and construct the huge pressure steamers, rotary driers and coolers needed by the milers to process rice. By now the California Rice Growers Association had spent half a million dollars on a processing plant in Sacramento.

Just when the war ended the plant was finished and ready for milling California’s last two crops. The U.S.A. was equipped to grow great amounts of rice but there were not enough mills to cope with the rice production. Malek licensed General American Transportation Corporation with agencies around the world to manufacture processors and to license mills everywhere under his patent. Rice milers everywhere were asking for milling units and G.A.M. perfected a smaller unit for smaller mills. While the mills were rolling, Malek finally thought he had done what he had intended to do, i.e., to improve the rice for rice eaters by making it sterilized and more nutritious, and to help the rice growers to market their produce. He was ready to go back to his original job, i.e., popularizing art. But that was not to be, for he was asked to go on a campaign for popularizing the rice eating habit. He was sent all around the world. China no less took the processing idea to heart. His wife Inge says in her article, “We now know that his process is used throughout China, naturally without even having to honor the patent rights,” she goes on to say, “The patent ran out years ago.”

There remains to mention that the Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups (p. 160ff.) says of Malek, “Mr. Younan Malek … who invented a widely used process for converting rice and is now working to promote fortified adobe as an inexpensive replacement for cement in developing countries.”

The New York Times promoter M. Slade has this to say in 1980 about, “… the Akkadians and Assyrians”—“that ancient kingdoms may have fallen, but 150,000 of its descendants live on in the United States”—“then goes on to mention Milton Malek, the inventor of converted rice.”

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