How Clarence Birdseye and Ice Fishing Changed the Food Industry
Frozen food aisle.
CREDIT: Southern Foodways Alliance
Where else would one change the world of frozen food but in the frozen north?
Under the tutelage of the Inuit native peoples of northern Canada, American naturalist and inventor Clarence Birdseye discovered a way to safely seal flavor and freshness in food through flash freezing.
In doing so, Birdseye revolutionized the way people eat and gave birth to what has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the food industry.
Chinese and Romans used ice cellars
Today we can grab a fillet of sole or a bag of peas from the freezer, throw it on the stove and enjoy it as if we had purchased it that day from the grocery store or market.
Frozen foods weren't always so tasty or easy-to-maintain, however.
Both the ancient Chinese and Romans stored food for the winter and beyond in cellars packed with ice or snow, according to the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA). As recently as the 1800s, cooks and homemakers employed the elements to keep food as cold as possible, burying their meats in ice or snow (where geography allowed).
The earliest prototypes of the modern-style freezer appeared in the late 19th century, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame profile on Clarence Birdseye, but those machines froze food slowly, a process that formed large ice crystals and affected the food's taste.
There was no such problem as slow-freezing in the northern Canadian region of Labrador, which endures sub-zero Arctic temperatures much of the year.
Where foods freeze instantly
In 1912, the year he turned 26, Clarence Birdseye, then a naturalist for the U.S. government, was posted to Labrador. There he noticed how quickly the fish he caught with his Inuit hosts would freeze in the northern air, and how, when cooked, the fish tasted virtually the same as if it had been cooked from fresh, according to the NFRA's history of frozen foods.
The key was in the speed, Birdseye realized. In the north, a fish froze before ice crystals could destroy its cellular structure and, with it, the taste, according to an MIT profile on the inventor.
Birdseye spent the 10 years following his return from the north trying to invent a machine that could mimic this miracle of nature.
He unveiled his Quick Freeze Machine in New York in 1926, two years after establishing a frozen food company, Birds Eye, that could ultimately sell the product of his innovation, according to company history.
Frozen food from then to now
Even though the American public realized that the first line of frozen foods launched by Birdseye's company actually tasted good, flash-frozen foods weren't an instant business success. Refrigeration was costly, and local retailers were reluctant to install the expensive freezers required to store the foods for sale, according to the NFRA.
The industry's big break came in the 1940s, when Birdseye began leasing refrigerated boxcars on railways. This move allowed his line of flash-frozen foods to be shipped nationwide and quickly spread the benefits of nutritious, good-tasting and bacteria-resistant produce available at all times of the year, according to MIT. When the microwave came along in the 1970s, it was a match made in heaven.
Today's flash-freezing methods have improved to the point that most vegetables prepared in this way will keep their quality even after 18 months in the freezer, according to the British Frozen Food Federation.