How the Modern Frozen Food Industry Took Inspiration from Inuits

How the Modern Frozen Food Industry Took Inspiration from Inuits


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From packages of waffles to bags of peas, the myriad items found in the frozen-food section of grocery stores today owe their existence, in part, to Clarence Birdseye, who in the 1920s developed a quick-freezing process that launched the modern frozen-food industry.

Between 1912 and 1917, Birdseye, a Brooklyn native, lived in chilly Labrador, Canada, where he worked briefly on a hospital ship before started a fox-breeding venture. It was during this period that he learned about the customs of the indigenous Inuit, who would go ice fishing and then let their catch immediately freeze in the frigid air. When this frozen fish, which was left out in the cold, eventually was cooked, it tasted fresh.

After returning to America, Birdseye took a job in 1920 with a lobbying group for commercial fisherman. In this role, he discovered that large amounts of freshly caught fish spoiled before making it to stores. Recalling the flash freezing he’d done in Labrador, Birdseye believed he could apply this concept to commercially frozen food and in 1923 founded a frozen-fish company in New York.

At the time, commercially frozen food had been available for half a century; however, it was unpopular with consumers because it lost its flavor and texture when thawed (it was being frozen too slowly, causing large ice crystals to form, which adversely affected the food’s cellular structure).

Birdseye’s company quickly ran out of money, but in the mid-1920s he relocated to Gloucester, Massachusetts, a center of the fishing industry, and established a new business, General Seafoods. He developed equipment and packaging and patented his freezing process; however, he continued to face a number of hurdles, including a lack of insulated vehicles to transport his products to stores and the fact that many retailers didn’t have sufficiently refrigerated display cases.

Frozen food still took time to catch on. Large numbers of Americans first tasted frozen food in the 1940s, during World War II, when a shortage of tin resulted in a dearth of canned goods, according to Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky. Even more significant, notes Kurlansky, was the fact that while men were off fighting, women took jobs outside the home, prompting them to seek faster ways to fix meals.

Along with the growth of supermarkets and advancements in freezing and refrigeration, frozen foods—including newly-created TV dinners—had become by the 1950s a staple of the American diet. Today the global frozen food industry is valued in the neighborhood of a quarter-trillion dollars.

READ MORE: Snow in Summer: The History of Ice Cream


Clarence Birdseye

For people who thank the heavens every day for the convenience that is frozen foods, you may also want to thank the man behind the invention. His name is Clarence Frank Birdseye II and he happens to be the founder of the modern frozen food industry. So every time you take that bag of frozen veggies or other frozen food from the icebox, you should give a little thanks to Birdseye. Without him, you would not be enjoying the convenience of frozen foods.

Who is Clarence Birdseye?

Clarence Birdseye was an American inventor, naturalist, and entrepreneur. He made one of the biggest innovations and contributions to the food industry when he found a way to flash-freeze food. He did this all on his own and he is responsible for the flash-freezing method that is still used up to this day. His useful invention is enjoyed by millions of people every day.

His Early Years

Clarence Birdseye was born on December 9, 1886 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Ada Jane Underwood and Clarence Frank Birdseye I. He was the sixth of nine children. He attended Montclair High School in New Jersey and was briefly a student at Amherst College but dropped out after two years. It wasn’t because he was unable to cope with his studies but he and his family did not have the funds for college. He moved out West to work for the United States Agriculture Department.

He began his career working as a taxidermist. He then obtained a position in Arizona and New Mexico as an assistant naturalist. This job required him to kill coyotes. He also worked with entomologist Willard Von Orsdel King in 1910 and 1911. Birdseye’s work involved trapping several hundred small mammals and King would remove ticks from them for research purposes. This research established that ticks were the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

In 1912 Birdseye moved to Labrador (now in Canada) as a fur trapper and to carry out a fish and wildlife survey. He stayed until 1915. It was there that he developed an interest in preserving and freezing food (most especially fast freezing). He had some contact with the Inuit and they taught him how to ice fish underneath very thick ice layers. Given the -40 o C temperature, he found that the fish was iced rapidly and tasted fresh when thawed. He thought of the frozen seafood available in New York and knew that they were of poorer quality compared to the frozen fish enjoyed in Labrador. He decided to apply his new found knowledge to starting a business.

His Flash-freezing Method

Back in the early nineteenth century, the freezing method used was commonly performed at higher temperatures than the -40 o C Birdseye had witnessed in Labrador. This caused freezing at a slower rate which meant that ice crystals were given time to grow in the food. It is now common knowledge that using the fast freezing method results in smaller ice crystals and so less damage is done to food tissues. When using the slow freezing methods on food, fluids leak from the cells and this causes tissues to be damaged by the ice crystals. This is why food that is frozen using the slow freezing method often has a mushy or dry feel to it.

In 1922, Birdseye began a series of fish-freezing studies at the Clothel Refrigerating Company. He established his own company soon after and called it Birdseye Seafoods Incorporated. Initially they froze fish fillets using chilled air that was as cold as -43 o C. Two years later, in 1924, his company filed for bankruptcy as there was a lack of consumer interest in their product but Birdseye was undeterred. In that same year, he formulated a brand new process that was commercially viable a quick-freezing process which involved packing fish inside cartons then putting them between two refrigerated surfaces under pressure to freeze the food. With this new process he also started a new company called General Seafood Corporation.

Development of His Invention

In 1925, his new company moved to Gloucester in Massachusetts where he made use of another new invention. He called it the double belt freezer. Cold brine was used to chill two stainless steel belts that carried packaged fish which froze very quickly. He applied for a patent for his invention and it was given the US Patent #1,773,079. This marked the beginning of the flourishing frozen foods industry.

Birdseye was a man of vision and he created more machines and took out patents on them. These new machines cooled foods even more quickly so that only the smallest ice crystals formed in the food and thus cell membranes did not endure any damage. In 1927, he decided to extend the process beyond fish and started flash-freezing other food items as well. That year, they also froze vegetables, chicken, meat, and fruits.

Birdseye didn’t keep his company but sold it to Goldman Sachs and Postum Company in 1929. Together with his patents, he received around $22 million which was a massive amount of money at that time. His company became part of General Foods Corporation. The Birdseye name was kept as a trademark but split into two words “Birds Eye”. Clarence Birdseye still worked for the company as a consultant and continued to invent newer and better frozen food technology.

In addition to freezing food, Birdseye also investigated food dehydration. He called his product “waterless foods”.

The name “Birds Eye” still remains a leading frozen-food brand today.

Personal and Death

Birdseye married Eleanor Garrett in 1915 while in Labrador. They had one son, Kellogg.

Birdseye died on 7 October 1956 at the Gramercy Park Hotel aged 69. His cause of death was a heart attack. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea just off the area in Gloucester in Massachusetts.


Ice Cream for America

The first official account of ice cream in the New World comes from a letter written in 1744 by a guest of Maryland Governor William Bladen. The first advertisement for ice cream in this country appeared in the New York Gazette on May 12, 1777, when confectioner Philip Lenzi announced that ice cream was available "almost every day." Records kept by a Chatham Street, New York, merchant show that President George Washington spent approximately $200 for ice cream during the summer of 1790. Inventory records of Mount Vernon taken after Washington's death revealed "two pewter ice cream pots." President Thomas Jefferson was said to have a favorite 18-step recipe for an ice cream delicacy that resembled a modern-day Baked Alaska. Check out President Jefferson's vanilla ice cream recipe here. In 1813, Dolley Madison served a magnificent strawberry ice cream creation at President Madison's second inaugural banquet at the White House.

Until 1800, ice cream remained a rare and exotic dessert enjoyed mostly by the elite. Around 1800, insulated ice houses were invented. Manufacturing ice cream soon became an industry in America, pioneered in 1851 by a Baltimore milk dealer named Jacob Fussell. Like other American industries, ice cream production increased because of technological innovations, including steam power, mechanical refrigeration, the homogenizer, electric power and motors, packing machines, and new freezing processes and equipment. In addition, motorized delivery vehicles dramatically changed the industry. Due to ongoing technological advances, today's total frozen dairy annual production in the United States is more than 1.6 billion gallons.

Wide availability of ice cream in the late 19th century led to new creations. In 1874, the American soda fountain shop and the profession of the "soda jerk" emerged with the invention of the ice cream soda. In response to religious criticism for eating "sinfully" rich ice cream sodas on Sundays, ice cream merchants left out the carbonated water and invented the ice cream "Sunday" in the late 1890's. The name was eventually changed to "sundae" to remove any connection with the Sabbath.

Ice cream became an edible morale symbol during World War II. Each branch of the military tried to outdo the others in serving ice cream to its troops. In 1945, the first "floating ice cream parlor" was built for sailors in the western Pacific. When the war ended, and dairy product rationing was lifted, America celebrated its victory with ice cream. Americans consumed over 20 quarts of ice cream per person in 1946.

In the 1940s through the ‘70s, ice cream production was relatively constant in the United States. As more prepackaged ice cream was sold through supermarkets, traditional ice cream parlors and soda fountains started to disappear. Now, specialty ice cream stores and unique restaurants that feature ice cream dishes have surged in popularity. These stores and restaurants are popular with those who remember the ice cream shops and soda fountains of days past, as well as with new generations of ice cream fans.


Gerry Thomas

Gerry Thomas was a Canadian salesman who came south to work for the Swanson Company. One of the things he was pretty good at selling was himself. Good enough to get himself inducted into something called the Frozen Food Hall of Fame as the inventor of the TV dinner.

Here’s the Thomas story, as told by Thomas. In 1953 Swanson, which was a producer of canned and frozen turkey, had a slow Thanksgiving sales season and ended up with a 520,000 pound surplus of frozen turkey. While they were deciding what to do with it, it was kept criss-crossing the country on refrigerated rail cars to keep it from spoiling. Thomas had seen the trays used by Pan Am for pre-prepared meals and came up with the solution. The surplus turkey would be packaged as pre-cooked frozen meals. He claimed to have come up with the name TV dinner, the packaging that looked like a TV set and even contributed his grandmother’s recipe for the cornbread stuffing.

A 2005 Washington Post story offered this assessment of Thomas’ influence: “Gerald E. Thomas had one little idea that changed the sociology of the American family, encouraged the feminist movement, ignited the obesity epidemic and introduced countless Americans to something called Salisbury steak.”

But on further inspection, other Swanson employees and the principals of the firm would later question Thomas’s role, suggesting instead that the idea came from members of the Swanson family, the marketing department or other employees.

Thomas did eventually walk back some of his story, suggesting that the country crossing rail car tale was a “metaphor” for an annual problem faced by the company. He later acknowledged that he didn’t contribute the cornbread stuffing recipe but just the idea to use cornbread. And by the way, Thomas’ wife says he never ate TV dinners.

We will probably never know who to believe here but it’s a good story. Good enough that the current owners of what was once Swanson, Pinnacle Foods, continue to offer it up.


How the Modern Frozen Food Industry Took Inspiration from Inuits - HISTORY

Frozen Foods Explode (so to speak)

In the 1950s, a food technology that had been around for centuries was finally successfully mechanized, and that changed the way the world eats and the way farmers farm. Frozen foods exploded – in a good sense.

At some point before history was recorded, human beings discovered that ice preserved food for later consumption. There is evidence that the Chinese were storing winter ice for summer consumption as long ago as 10,000 years. As late as the 1920s and 30s, rural residents were still using a form of icehouse technology to preserve their food.

Two thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Inca in the Andean mountains figured out how to freeze dry potatoes. They would freeze them overnight, then trample them to squeeze out left over moisture, then dry them in the sun. Over several days, the potatoes would be in a form that would preserve the nutritional value – if not the aesthetic appeal – of the original tuber.

Natural ice remained the main form of refrigeration until late in the 19th century. In the early 1800s, Boston ship owners towed enormous blocks of Arctic ice all over the Atlantic. In 1851, railroads first began putting blocks of ice in insulated rail cars to transport butter from Ogdensburg, New York, to Boston.

Finally, in 1870, the Australians figured out a way to make "mechanical ice." Inventers exploited the laws of thermodynamics. They used a compressor to force one of several gases – ammonia at first and later Freon that's safer – through a heat exchanger coil. The hot, compressed gas gives up some of its heat as it moves through the condenser. Then the gas is released quickly into a low-pressure evaporator coil. In this low-pressure environment, the gas becomes liquid and becomes cold. Air is blown over the evaporator coils and then into the now refrigerated compartment.

Initially the mechanical refrigerator was invented to make Australian beer even in hot weather. But Australian cattlemen were quick to realize that, if they could put this new invention on a ship, they could ship beef to England. In 1880, Australian beef and mutton was shipped, frozen, to England.

While the meat was still palatable, there was some deterioration. The problem was that in the process of slowly freezing the meat, ice crystals formed within the cells of the meat. The ice expanded and the cells burst, and that made the meat a little less flavorful. The Americans realized that they could chill beef – not quite freeze it – and it would taste better after the shorter trip to England across the Atlantic than from Australia.

Gradually, refrigeration technology filtered down through commercial applications, like refrigerated trucks, to the home and the farm. Home freezers created a new branch of the food industry and changed farming.

The modern frozen food industry actually began with the Inuit indigenous tribes in Canada. In 1912, a biology student from Amherst College named Clarence Birdseye ran out of money and came to Labrador to trap and trade furs. He became fascinated with how the Inuit would quickly freeze fish or caribou meat. The meat looked and tasted fresh even months later. Quick freezing did not allow the ice crystals to form and destroy the food. By this time, Birdseye had married and started a family. He experimented with quick-freezing other foods, including fruits and vegetables to feed his growing family.

He returned to the states in 1917 and began inventing mechanical freezers capable of quick freezing food. Birdseye methodically kept inventing better freezers and gradually built a business selling frozen fish from Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1929, his business was sold and became General Foods. Clarence Birdseye remained with the company as director of research, and his division continued to invent. Birdseye was responsible for several key innovations that made the frozen food industry possible –

  • Quick freezing techniques that reduced the damage that freezing water crystals caused.
  • Blanching was a technique developed by General Foods to boil the food for a few minutes before quick freezing.
  • Cellophane, the first transparent material for food packaging that allowed the consumer to see the quality of the product.
  • The technique of freezing the product in the package it was to be sold in.
  • Convenient size packages that could be prepared with a minimum of effort.

But, it took decades – and development of freezer technology – for Birdseye to convince his frozen foods were better than the older brands.

During the Depression, few grocery stores could afford buying freezers for a market that wasn't established, yet, so Birdseye leased inexpensive freezer cases to them. In 1944, he leased the first insulated railroad cars so that he could ship his products nationwide. But, few consumers had the freezers large enough of efficient enough to take advantage of the products.

World War II gave a boost to the frozen food industry because tin was being rationed and used for munitions. Canned foods were rationed to free tin for war, and frozen foods were abundant and cheap.

Finally, after World War II, refrigerator technology had come far enough to be affordable for the average family, and families were finally able to afford the appliances. By 1953, 33 million families owned a refrigerator, and the manufacturers were gradually increasing the size of the freezer compartments in them. In addition, families were looking for convenience at dinnertime.

Swanson Foods was a large, nationally recognized producer of canned and frozen poultry. In 1954, the company adapted some of Birdseye's freezing techniques, a segmented aluminum tray -- that was being used for airline food -- turkey, potatoes, vegetables, a clever name and a huge advertising budget to create the first "TV Dinner." It was a product whose time had come.

Swanson's at first ordered the production of 5,000 turkey dinners and started advertising and selling. Within a year, they had sold 13 million. American consumers couldn't resist the combination of a trusted brand name, a single-serving package and the convenience -- the TV dinner could ready after "only" 25 minutes in a 425° oven, plus it fit neatly on the new "TV trays."

Competitors were quick to borrow the ideas of both Birdseye and Swanson.

By 1959, Americans were spending $2.7 billion annually on frozen foods. Half-a-billion of that was spent on ready-prepared meals like the TV Dinner.

For Don Freeman (left), the TV Dinner was a great innovation. "It was something that was just wonderful to be able to come home and pop them in [the oven] and sit down and have dinner."

Paul Underwood (right) says that his family's busy lifestyle made TV dinners attractive – even if it still took 30 minutes to heat them in the oven. "My Mom was a schoolteacher. Dad, when he wasn't farming, drove truck," Paul says. "And as a kid we couldn't wait for the TV dinners. We thought that was the neatest thing."

Today, the frozen food industry is over $67 billion annually, with $26.6 billion of that sold to consumers for home consumption. The remaining $40 billion in frozen food sales come through restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals and schools, and that represents a third of the total foodservice sales.

The size of the frozen food market has forced changes on farms. For instance, much of the vegetable industry is now highly integrated. Peas are grown in Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Farmers there contract with the food processors who control the entire production cycle -- from the varieties of peas grown (those that stand up to the freezing process), to the cultivation practices, down to the timing of the harvest so that the processing plant is not overwhelmed. Similar vertical integration contracts are in place for other major commodities.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.


Where do good ideas come from?

Learn about the remarkable ideas that made modern life possible. More More

How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson is a six part documentary series that reveals the story behind the remarkable ideas that made modern life possible the unsung heroes that brought them into the world, and the unexpected and bizarre consequences each of these innovations has triggered.

How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson is a six part documentary series that reveals the story behind the remarkable ideas that made modern life possible the unsung heroes that brought them into the world, and the unexpected and bizarre consequences each of these innovations has triggered.

Rather than a series of 'lightbulb moments', ideas can sometimes take a little longer!


Call of the Wild

Born in Brooklyn in 1886, Birdseye was fascinated by the outdoors. As a child, he loved reading about adventurous hunters and trappers, and taught himself taxidermy. After graduating from high school in Montclair, New Jersey, he briefly worked as an inspector for the New York City Sanitation Department and as an office boy on Wall Street. He then started college at Amherst, where he studied biology, and where his fellow students teased him for his passionate curiosity about frogs, rats, and bugs.

After he was forced to drop out of Amherst due to limited finances, he bounced from job to job: Birdseye traveled to Arizona and New Mexico to study animal populations as an assistant naturalist for the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Biological Survey worked at an insurance company recorded the amount of snow that New York City removed from the streets after snowstorms and, in the summer of 1910, collected ticks to research Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a potentially fatal tick-borne disease.

Then, in 1912, Birdseye traveled to Labrador, where he became involved in the fur trade. It was an experience that would change his life—and the world.

He noticed that the fish frozen by the Inuit tasted better once thawed and had a more appealing texture than any frozen food he had eaten before. After observing their techniques and conducting his own experiments, he eventually realized that the cold temperatures in Labrador—often -30° F or colder—froze food instantly, preserving its taste, texture, appearance, and nutrients. With that, Birdseye had the insight necessary for turning tasty frozen food into a business. He would later say, "Quick freezing was conceived, born, and nourished on a strange combination of ingenuity, stick-to-itiveness, sweat, and good luck."


'How We Got to Now,' by Steven Johnson: review

I&rsquom old enough to not quite take it for granted that as I type this on a laptop, eventually to hit &ldquosend,&rdquo I am thus speeding written words to what could be a nearly limitless distribution. I once used &ldquocarbon paper&rdquo to make a single copy of work that was smudged with corrected typos. But until now I haven&rsquot sufficiently grasped that the definitive innovation behind the computer is glass &mdash the same stuff through which I look out my window.

It is the cerebral fun of Steven Johnson&rsquos new book, &ldquoHow We Got to Now&rdquo (companion to a PBS series starting this week) that he peels back layer after layer of subsequent applications of original breakthroughs to reveal surprising invention trails. In addition to glass, he traces the wonders of today&rsquos myriad magics to the development of technologies around cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light.

Glass might reach farthest back in human history (the use of fire goes back earlier, but we didn&rsquot invent it). Roman empire glassmakers produced ornaments and windows. Fleeing the 1204 siege of Constantinople, a small group of Turkish glassmakers settled in Venice. The super hot fires they used to make beautiful glass &mdash which soon became a luxury item and important to trade &mdash also tended to combust the mostly wooden structures of the city, so they were convened on the island of Murano.

Johnson points out that this concentration of people working on the same essential project caused &ldquoinformation spillover,&rdquo something economists identify as happening today in places like Silicon Valley (which owes its existence to glass). The resulting cognitive surplus, to use another techno-utopian term, produced super-clear glass called crystal. &ldquoThis,&rdquo Johnson says, &ldquowas the birth of modern glass.&rdquo

Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space. The innovation that allowed us to &ldquosee things that transcended the natural limits of human vision&rdquo also made glass mirrors possible. In these we saw not only our likenesses, but were nudged into reflection on our inner selves. In the words of historian Lewis Mumford, &ldquoSelf-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.&rdquo

And glass was just getting started. Glass has allowed us to look into the small as well as out at the large. Science focusing on cells, viruses, bacteria and genes all depend on glass. And from the development of fiber optics unfolds the world of phones and computers we now conduct so much of our lives through. As Johnson writes, &ldquowe take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass.&rdquo

One of Johnson&rsquos stories on the cold front is that of Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye had spent some winters in the &ldquoremote tundra of Labrador,&rdquo where he started a fur company. Out with Inuits, he observed that within seconds fish pulled out of a hole cut from thick ice over a lake froze solid. Frozen food was available in the early 1900s, but it didn&rsquot taste good, because it wasn&rsquot frozen at a low enough temperature. Birdseye took his idea for flash-freezing food and added to it an inspiration from another industry altogether &mdash the assembly line of the nascent automobile business.

On the cusp of the market crash in 1929, Birdseye&rsquos General Seafood company was acquired by Postum Cereal Co., which shortly changed its name to General Foods. You can still find Birdseye&rsquos name in the freezer aisles of supermarkets today.

The ability to control and direct coldness has had enormous impacts not only on how and what we eat but on where we live and how we work. Johnson points out that the advent of air conditioning induced a mass migration to Florida, Texas and Southern California, shifting the demographic of the electoral college toward the Sunbelt.

Without air and humidity control, we wouldn&rsquot be working in tall office buildings year-round in highly dense cities. Johnson covers the unfolding permutations of sound technologies as well, and points out that if we didn&rsquot have telephones, office buildings wouldn&rsquot work, either. To get someone a message on the 48th floor would take a lot more time and a lot more manpower than it does now to either pick up the phone or send an e-mail.

The reader of &ldquoHow We Got to Now&rdquo cannot fail to be impressed by human ingenuity, including Johnson&rsquos, in determining these often labyrinthine but staggeringly powerful developments of one thing to the next. One quibble is that Johnson calls the triggering of change upon change &ldquocoevolution,&rdquo which he renames &ldquothe hummingbird effect.&rdquo Coevolution is the development of traits in one organism in relationship with another organism, and that goes both ways, back and forth between the hummingbird&rsquos long beak, for example, and the equally long spur of a flower it pollinates. But coevolution ties organisms more and more deeply together &mdash its innovations are narrowing rather than expanding. He is really talking about another thing that nature does, which is riff on forms, retaining useful ones and mostly getting rid of those that no longer serve a purpose.

And a dark cloud hangs over the techno-exuberance on display in these pages and in our world. Johnson points out that millions of lives have been saved from death and disease by innovations he explains in his chapter on &ldquoClean.&rdquo

&ldquoAnd yet today,&rdquo he writes, &ldquothere are more than three billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems. In absolute numbers, we have gone backward as a species. (There were only a billion people alive in 1850.)&rdquo Hopefully, the abundant human creativity his book celebrates will find another way.


'Birdseye': The Frozen Food Revolution

You may not have heard of Clarence Birdseye, but odds are you've eaten the results of his culinary innovation.

Birdseye is the man credited with inventing frozen food. Everything you see in supermarket freezers today, from vegetables to pizzas to frozen dinners, can be traced back to Birdseye's work. His name would come to symbolize a veritable frozen food movement in the United States.

Mark Kurlansky, known for his histories on eclectic topics such as Salt and Cod, has written a new biography about Clarence Birdseye. He joins Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin to talk about the book, called Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.

Interview Highlights

On Clarence Birdseye's outsized curiosity

"He was somebody who just wanted to know about everything. He wanted to know why people did things the way they did, and couldn't they be done better. He was very interested in processes. He was very curious about nature. He had a nickname for a while — other kids called him 'Bugs.' He was interested in all these slimy little things."

On his time living in Newfoundland, the setting for his great inspiration

"This was just really the wilds. There wasn't fresh food, and so he became concerned about his wife and baby. He noticed that the Inuits would catch fish and they would freeze as soon as they were out of the water. And what he had discovered was that if you freeze very quickly, you don't destroy the texture of food. It's something salt makers knew for centuries — that in crystallization, the faster the crystals are formed, the smaller they are. And the problem with frozen food is that they were frozen barely at the freezing point, and they took days to freeze, and they get huge crystals and they just became mush."

On Birdseye's entrepreneurial mindset

Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod, Salt and The Food of a Younger Land. He lives in New York City. Sylvia Plachy/Courtesy Doubleday hide caption

Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod, Salt and The Food of a Younger Land. He lives in New York City.

Sylvia Plachy/Courtesy Doubleday

"He set up a company in Gloucester, Mass., but he wasn't so much interested in having a seafood company he understood perfectly well that there wasn't much of a market for it. What this company was to do was to develop machinery and ideas and patent them, and sell the patents to people with big money. . The decade before he was born, Bell invented the telephone and Edison the phonograph and the light bulb was invented, and [Birdseye] very much had that idea in his head, that that's what you did — you came up with an idea and you started a company based on it."

On the source of Birdseye's passion

"One thing that was very clear about him was that, in his way, he was a real foodie. . He would go out to farms and talk to farmers about how they could make their processes and their product better suited for industry. Just the reverse of what food lovers think about today . [in] the locavore movement. He was trying to correct the locavore movement."

On Birdseye's personality

"He was a very garrulous, likable person and an absolutely brilliant salesman. When he was trying to get investors, he would send entire dinners of frozen food to their Manhattan apartments. He really had a confidence in this product that if people just tried it, they would love it."

On the lessons Kurlansky learned from Birdseye

"I learned, first of all, how much a person is shaped by the times they live in. I think that if Birdseye lived today, he would see a lot of things very differently. And I also learned that possibilities are limitless if you have the brains and the curiosity and, you know, the chutzpah, to go out there and sell them."


Clarence Birdseye And His Fantastic Frozen Food Machine

There's a particular pleasure in being reminded that the most ordinary things can still be full of magic. Frogs may turn into princes. Lumps of dirt can hide sparkling gems. And having just read Mark Kurlansky's new biography of Clarence Birdseye, I now see the humble fish fillet in a whole new light.

For as Kurlansky tells it, when Clarence Birdseye figured out how to pack and freeze haddock, using what he called "a marvelous new process which seals in every bit of just-from-the-ocean flavor," he essentially changed the way we produce, preserve and distribute food forever.

Today, tiger shrimp from Thailand, Japanese edamame and blueberry cheesecake outshine the plain white fillets in the freezer case, but those packs of haddock launched the freezer revolution: They embody the magic combination of size, shape, and packaging.

Unlike Kurlansky's book on cod, here he focuses on the man behind the fillet. And Birdseye's remarkable life uniquely prepared him to lead the world into its frozen future.

Born in 1886, he had a naturalist's curiosity, a love of food, and a strong entrepreneurial streak. At the age of ten, he was hunting and exporting live muskrats and teaching himself taxidermy. He studied science in college, but had to drop out for financial reasons. Forced to support himself, he joined various scientific expeditions that took him to remote places, including Labrador, where he spent several years in the fur business.

On all these trips he liked to experiment with whatever fresh food was on hand. In the Southwest, he ate slices of rattlesnake fried in pork fat. From Labrador, he wrote letters home that described exotic meals like lynx marinated in sherry, porcupine, polar bear meat and skunk.

The long Labrador winters also taught him what it was to crave fresh food, and introduced him for the first time in his life to frozen food that tasted good.

Up until the 1920s in America, it was the food of last resort. "When it thawed it was mushy and less appealing than even canned food," writes Kurlansky. But in Labrador he learned from the Inuit how to fish trout from holes in the ice and watch it freeze instantly in the air, which registered at 30 degrees below zero. And when it was cooked, it tasted like fresh trout.

It was the same with their meat and game, which they kept fresh for months in hard-packed snow.

Birdseye packed and froze his fish fillets in the patented cartons he developed U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hide caption

Birdseye packed and froze his fish fillets in the patented cartons he developed

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

He soon figured out that the key to success was to freeze food fast, and at very low temperatures. This prevented large ice crystals from forming. These large crystals could damage cells and were responsible for giving much frozen food an unpleasant mushy texture.

But it took a while for Birdseye to see where all this would lead him. He and his family returned to the US in 1917 and he took a series of jobs before joining the U.S. Fisheries Association in Washington — a lobbying group. It was while working with them that the "big Birdseye idea," as Kurlansky calls it, first began to take shape.

Packaging Matters

Birdseye realized that the way to expand the market for fish was to develop the means to pack and transport it over long distances, "in compact and convenient containers" and distribute it to individual customers with its "intrinsic freshness" intact.

He experimented with his own containers to chill food at first, but when that failed, he started thinking about what he learned in Labrador. And the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that quick freezing had huge potential.

In 1922 he left his job at the Fisheries Association and set out to "create an industry, to find a commercially viable way of producing large quantities of fast frozen fish."

Even if he didn't pioneer actual freezing, Kurlansky points out, that Birsdseye he had "to pioneer most everything else in his process." This included everything from the boxes he packed the fish in to the machine that froze them and everything in between — from waterproof inks and glues to scaling and filleting machines.

The fish had to be frozen in small portions both for speed and because he wanted to sell it to individual customers. He was also concerned with eliminating the little air pockets that in whole fish could harbor bacteria and lead to decomposition. So a key part of his original 1924 process called for filleting the fish — which was an unusual thing to do in 1920s. It had to be done by hand. But it allowed them to be packed tightly into rectangular fiberboard boxes.

At first, Birdseye put these boxes into a long metal holders that was immersed in freezing calcium chloride, but three years later, in 1927, he applied to patent his multiplate freezing machine.

Large Scale Fast Freezing

This invention, along with the process which went with it, became the basis of the new frozen food industry, says Kurlansky, and "remained the basic commercial freezing system for decades."

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In essence, the machine squeezed waterproof cartons holding two inch blocks of fish between freezing plates that were kept between 20 and 50 degrees below Farenheit, for 75 minutes.The cartons never came into contact with the refrigerant and the neat packages were suitable for marketing to individual customers. And with a few tweaks, this new machine could be used to freeze anything from berries to pork sausages."

By now, Birdseye's own ambitions had soared way beyond fish fillets, but it didn't happen quite as Birdseye had imagined.

His haddock fillets were slow to catch on. Kurlansky explains that people distrusted frozen food, railroads worried that they might be sued if the fish thawed in transit, public health officials fretted about bugs and germs. Stores had nowhere to store the frozen fillets and customers had no way to keep them frozen.

The boxes piled up in the factory. Birdseye ran out of money and sold his company to the Post company.

But Birdseye, now a newly minted millionaire, continued to work for the new Birds Eye Frosted Foods division of the Post company. It shared Birdseye's vision that this was the food of the future.

Convincing The Public

To win over customers, the company started with ten stores in Springfield Massachusetts in March 1930. They gave them display freezers, put their staff through a three-day training course, and offered the food on consignment.

These included 27 different frozen items: The original haddock fillets, porterhouse steak, spring lamb chops, loganberries and raspberries, spinach and June peas advertised "as gloriously green as any you will see next summer."

Gradually, the world came to realize that frozen food was safe, and could provide an appealing and often more nutritious alternative to canned, salted and smoked foods. It overcame the limitations of local and seasonal food in unprecedented ways.

Stores and domestic kitchens began to acquire freezers, and after World War II, frozen food got a huge boost, because it made it possible to put entire meals on the table without women having to spend hours in the kitchen. It even helped shaped current school lunch programs. as Allison Aubrey reported.

Kurlansky argues that "by modernizing the process of food preservation, Birdseye nationalized and then internationalized food distribution. facilitated urban living and helped to take people away from the farms. and greatly contributed to the development of industrial -scale agriculture." Birdseye, he says, would have seen all these as positive things.

Not everyone would agree with that verdict of course, but it's harder to disagree with Kurlansky's claim that "Undeniably, Birdseye changed our civilization."


Sources for Additional Study

Burch, Ernest S., Jr. The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998.

Chance, Norman A. The Eskimo of North Alaska. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

——. The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1990.

Craig, Rachel. "Inupiat." Native American in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5, edited by David Damas. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984.

Langdon, Steve. The Native People of Alaska. 3rd ed., revised. Anchorage: Greenland Graphics, 1993.

Maas, David. "Alaska Natives," in Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp. 293-301.

Vanstone, James W. Point Hope: An Eskimo Village in Transition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.


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