Clarence Birdseye and a Brief History of Frozen Food
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 critical 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, resulting in poor flavor, an unappealing texture, and a better-than-average chance of spoiling as the food thawed. 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 a great deal of food waste when commercial fishermen 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 use the techniques he learned from the Inuit. Birdseye froze meat, fish, and vegetables using a multi-plate freezing system. He had a method for which he patented (200 in all), had proven success that allowed 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. 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 ten 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 a highly savvy businesswoman 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
She had been amassing the portfolio 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 spinach was the first item for sale. Sales were slow but promising. This led to Birdseye patenting the freezing method officially in the US on August 12, 1930. Interestingly, he had received a patent in the UK three years earlier for fish sticks. Eventually, 18 grocery stores in the area sold frozen peas, spinach, raspberries, loganberries, cherries, fish, and meats. Though Birdseye’s concept was revolutionary, it took a while 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 to retailers willing to sell the product. By 1933, 516 stores were selling frozen food with better equipment to store the product. Right around World War II, the family dynamics were changing. Men were abroad, serving their country, while the women found themselves working outside of the home. Frozen food became the solution to provide their families with quick yet nutritious meals. Birds Eye created 168 patents for freezing, packaging, freezer paper, and similar inventions, many of which are still used 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. An interesting fact about Marjorie, she built an enormous 62,000-square-foot mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, just before purchasing Birdseye's business. At the time of her death, the estate was given to the National Parks Department in hopes of becoming the "winter white house." The property maintenance was burdensome and expensive, leading the Parks Department to return the mansion to the Post Foundation (with congressional approval) in 1981. Four years later, the estate (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 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 frozen meal. Maxson made Strato-Meals, which included meat, a vegetable, and a snack, for US Military airplane passengers. The meals were whipped up by a Swedish chef living in Queens (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 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 separated into three compartments to keep the food from blending.