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UC Davis Centennial
100 years of service, solutions, impact
Photo: Cruess Hall. (UC Davis archival photo)

Cruess Hall, located on California Avenue, houses a large food-processing plant and a brewery, but half of the building is being renovated after its occupants moved to the Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. (UC Davis archival photo)

Looking Back

Namesakes: William Vere Cruess

Photo: William Veres Cruess

William Veres Cruess

Until the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science opens its state-of-the art plant in 2010, Cruess Hall reigns as the center of California food processing history — as it has for the past half century. Inside the academic building, a food pilot plant continues to attract outside companies and instructors as well as university researchers who use its canners, evaporators and other equipment to find the best way to process food. The building’s namesake, William Cruess was a star among the food science technologists of the 20th century.

You can thank Prohibition and William Vere Cruess, in part, for the abundance, quality and safety of dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, juices and olives in your local grocery store.

During the dry years from 1919 to 1933, the fermentation expert turned his research and teaching focus to preservation of unfermented fruit products.

Cruess maintained an interest in wine, but he would become known as a pioneer in food science and technology. He invented fruit cocktail and helped develop raisin breakfast cereal, bottled prune juice and fruit nectars, canned and frozen orange juice, commercially frozen and dried produce, processed olives and better rations for World War II troops, among numerous other accomplishments.

Cruess’ career and scientific accomplishments spanned a half-century of sweeping changes in the way Americans eat and shop for their food and how food is delivered from farm to table—with the advent of modern refrigerators, frozen foods, supermarkets and a vast array of consumer choices.

A former San Miguel farm boy who grew up on a diet of mostly beans, salt pork and homemade bread, Cruess hated to see food go to waste, some of his former students told UC Davis food science and technology professor emeritus John Whitaker. Whitaker is researching Cruess’ life for a chapter in a book about food-science pioneers.

Fruit cocktail, for instance, made use of blemished peaches and pears. In the early 1920s, Cruess and colleagues canned a mixture of cubed peaches and pears, crushed pineapple, maraschino-style cherries and chopped grapefruit and sold it at local markets. Commercial canners later substituted grapes for the grapefruit.

Retired food-industry scientist Clair Weast, 92, of Manteca, described his former professor as a quiet man and a hard-working scientist who took students under his wing. “I always felt from the first time I walked in the door, his arms were open,” said Weast. “He was like a father to everyone in that department.”

Cruess spent his entire career as a UC Berkeley faculty member, but he was closely connected with the Davis campus. After early rains in September 1918 damaged much of California’s prune, raisin grapes and other crops left out to sun dry, Cruess and colleagues came to Davis to do their pioneering work developing mechanical dehydrators.

The food science and technology department he led 1935—48 as founding chair moved to Davis in 1951. A campus yeast collection, used in wine and a wide array of other research, includes a number of strains collected and cataloged by Cruess. And one of his students and longtime colleagues, Emil Mrak, was UC Davis’ chancellor in 1959—69.

Kathleen Holder is interim editor for the UC Davis Magazine.

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