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.
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Watch a preview of The Food That Built America. The three-night event begins Sunday, Aug 11, at 9/8c