Clarence Birdseye and a Brief History of Frozen Food
The thought of frozen food may spark memories of TV dinners, gray mystery meat, or crystalized ice cream yet the development of food-freezing techniques was one of the more important food inventions in culinary history. We all have the Brooklyn, New York born Clarence Frank Birdseye II to thank for this. Birdseye was not the first to freeze food commercially, but his claim to fame was the quick freezing method he introduced in 1924.
Birdseye was working for the U.S. government conducting a survey of fish and wildlife in Labrador, Canada between 1912 and 1915. While working with the indigenous Inuit, Birdseye noticed that his companions almost immediately froze the fish they caught. When the fish later thawed, he found that the food was just as delicious as it was when fresh.
"The first winter, I saw natives catching fish in fifty below zero weather, which froze stiff as soon as they were taken out of the water. Months later, when they were thawed out, some of these fish were still alive". Clarence Birdseye
The Inuit also showed Birdseye how to preserve fresh seasonal vegetables by placing them in tubs and buckets of water in the cold weather, freezing the vegetables for later use. These ancient techniques were inspirational for Clarence Birdseye. Prior freezing methods used a slower rate of freezing the food, which resulted in poor food flavor,an unappealing texture, as well as a better than average chance of the food spoiling as the food thawed. By using a quick method, like the ones the Inuit used, the food quality remained intact in taste and texture.
Birdseye returned to the US and discovered there was a great deal of food waste when commercial fisherman tried to sell their "fresh" catch to market , the fish was spoiling before it could be sold. On July 3,1924, Birdseye moved from New York to Gloucester, Massachusetts to start a new venture, General Seafoods Corporation. Gloucester was a hub of North Atlantic commercial fishing and Birdseye knew he could put to use the techniques he learned from the Inuit. Using a multi plate freezing system, to lock in nutrition and taste, Birdseye was able to successfully freeze meat, fish, and vegetables. He had a technique for which he patented (200 in all) , had proven success that allowed for him to raise money to continue running his operation, and pulled away from any perceived competition as the leader of frozen foods. Birdseye controlled what he could control brilliantly, the problem was what he couldn't control. At this time, electricity was still not commonplace in every American home and if the family had the resource they often didn't have robust home refrigeration and relied on ice boxes even though the home refrigerator was invented almost 10 years earlier. Further, trucks and trains lacked insulation and markets didn't have freezers like we have today.
With all that said, Birdseye's business caught the eye of an extremely savvy business woman named Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post, the wealthiest woman in America and the visionary leader of the Postum Cereal (maker of grape nuts) Company, recognized what Birdseye created; a proven product with no competitors and all the patents in his possession. Post had been gobbling up businesses that she felt would add value to the Postum Company portfolio, even if they had nothing to do with cereal. In 1929, Post purchased General Seafoods from Clarence for $20 million dollars (over 300 million dollars today), rebranding the Postum Company as General Foods as an accurate reflection to
of the portfolio she had been amassing, while maintaining Clarence as an employee and updating his company name to Birds Eye Frosted Food.
On March 6, 1930, Birds Eye Frosted Food products were sent to a test market in Springfield, Massachusetts. The grocery store selected was Davidson's Market and the first item for sale was spinach. Sales were slow, but promising. This led to Birdseye patenting the freezing method officially in the US on August 12, 1930. Interesting to note, he had received a patent in the UK three years earlier for fish sticks. Eventually 18 grocery stores in the area were selling frozen peas, spinach, raspberries, loganberries, cherries, fish and meats. Though Birdseye’s concept was revolutionary, it took awhile to catch on in America. Refrigeration units in grocery stores and markets were not prepared for his products, often storing the frozen food in ice cream cabinets. General Foods had a marketing idea; give glass top freezers away to retailers who were willing to sell the product. By 1933, 516 stores were selling the frozen food with better equipment to store the product. Right around the time of World War II, the family dynamics were changing. Men were abroad, serving their country, while the women found themselves working outside of the home. To provide their families with quick, yet nutritious meals, frozen food became the solution. Birds Eye created 168 patents for freezing, packaging, freezer paper, and similar inventions, many of which are still used today in modern freezing.
Clarence Birdseye died on October 7, 1956 from a heart attack at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea off the coast of his beloved Gloucester, Massachusetts. Marjorie Post died as one of the wealthiest women in the world in 1973. Interesting fact about Marjorie, she built an enormous 62,000 square foot mansion in Palm Beach, Florida just prior to purchasing Birdseye's business. At the time of her death, the mansion was given to the National Parks Department as hopes of becoming the "winter white house". The maintenance for the property was burdensome and expensive, leading the Parks Department to return the mansion back to the Post Foundation (with congressional approval) in 1981. Four years later, the mansion (which Post named Mar-a-Lago) was sold to the future President Donald Trump for 10 million dollars.
Another interesting fact about Birds Eye. On November 15, 1969, the very first color TV commercial in the UK was aired, featuring Birds Eye peas. The commercial was aired during the children's show, The Thunderbirds, and was a bargain cost of 23 pounds. I could not end this story without mentioning the frozen dinner. Birds Eye started a version of the tv dinner in 1939 however it was a single dish, not a complete meal. chicken fricassee was the meal offered. In 1945, Maxson Food Systems of Long Island, New York created the first complete frozen meal. Maxson made Strato-Meals, which included pieces of meat, a vegetable and snack, for US Military airplane passengers. The meals were whipped up by a Swedish chef that lived in Queens (and was previously employed by the Queen of Romania). After an attempt to sell these meals to retail customers in a department store in Newark, New Jersey named Bamburger's, Strato-Meals never really got off the ground. This left the door wide open for Swedish immigrant Carl A. Swanson to launch Swanson TV Dinners on April 6, 1954. The first TV Dinner was roast turkey, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas. The frozen meal sold for 98 cents and the directions called for cooking the meal for 25 minutes at 425F. The design of the tray came from sales executive Gerry Thomas. He was inspired by how Pan American Airlines in Pittsburgh kept the food hot for airline passengers. The airline used aluminum trays that were separated into three compartments, to keep the food from blending together.