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 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. One of the folks that came before Birdseye was Carl Paul Gottfied Linde, from the University of Munich. I mention Linde, not only for his contributions to industrial cooling, but also for his one very special invention. Linde created a carbon dioxide plant for the Guinness Brewery Company, which provided low temperature refrigeration for the storage of their beer. He saved beer, thank you Linde!

Now, back to Birdseye's story. 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 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 and an unappealing texture once 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 spoiling when commercial fisherman tried to sell their fresh catch to market. Due to a lack of insulated transportation and stores that did not have robust refrigeration options, the fish was spoiling before it sold. On July 3,1924, Birdseye had moved from New York to Gloucester, Massachusetts to start a new venture, General Seafoods. Gloucester was a hub of commercial fishing and Birdseye knew he could put to use the techniques he learned. Five years later, Postum Cereal (maker of Grape-Nuts) purchased General Seafoods for $22 million dollars, rebranding the new organization as General Foods as well updating his company name into a new a name for better branding; Birds Eye Frosted Food. On March 6, 1930, Birds Eye 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 lead to Birdseye patenting his 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. 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.

Clarance 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.

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. If you are interested, 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, corn bread 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.

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