There really was a Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956).If he hadn't visited the Arctic, there may never have been frozen TV dinners. Now he is recognized as amajor innovator in the food industry.
As a young scientist working in the frozen North, it didn't surprise Birdseye to note that freshly caught fish, when placed on the Arctic ice and exposed to the wind, immediately froze solid. What did surprise Birds-eye was that the fish, if thawed and eaten much later, retained all of its fresh characteristics. This discovery was to create a new food industry and make Birdseye a millionaire. The youthful Birdseye had the courage to thaw out the rock hard fish weeks later and cook them for dinner, as an experiment. At the time, this was a real risk. He could have become very ill by eating "rotten" fish; but he didn't. Instead, the young naturalist found that the fish tasted almost the same as if they had been fresh, and with the same texture.
Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 9, 1886. He attended Amherst College, with the intention of becoming a biologist. But he didn't graduate. Instead, he went to work for the U.S. Biological Survey as a field naturalist. His supervisors sent him to the Arctic to do research on the ways of the native Americans who lived there, and even to trade some furs.
The combination of ice, wind, and low temperatures in the Arctic froze anything left exposed almost instantly. Birdseye soon realized that such quick freezing of certain foods kept large crystals from forming. Slow freezing attempts had resulted in the formation of large crystals, transforming the food so that it could never be eaten. But if the freezing was accomplished quickly enough, there was no damage to the cellular structure of the food.
As a young scientist, Birdseye was making notes on his fascinating discovery. He also realized that he had the germ of a new business that could be very profitable. Throughout his life, Birdseye was a skilled businessman. He did more than create the modern frozen food industry. He also obtained almost 300 patents for various inventions, many of them in the fields of incandescent lighting, wood pulping, and infrared heating.
Birdseye Seafoods was Born
Birdseye knew that he had discovered something very important, but he wasn't certain what. All he knew for sure was that he had the beginnings of what could be a very profitable business. A careful man, he continued to work in various federal departments from 1917 to 1925, while perfecting his freezing methods. All the time he knew that the public would clamor to pay for all the various types of foods they could enjoy if they didn't have to be obtained fresh. He knew that frozen foods would be in demand if he could figure out exactly how to accomplish the freezing.
In September 1922, while still employed by the government, Birdseye returned to New York City and formed his own company, Birdseye Seafoods, Inc. The company was far from an immediate success, as Birdseye continued his experiments with fish filets. He would freeze them, then thaw them, at his plant headquarters near the Fulton Fish Market in New York. He didn't have to eat every experiment because he already knew that the food would be safe to eat. He was trying to perfect a way to ensure the flavor and texture of the food.
The Final Secret
At last Birdseye discovered the secret to safely freezing food. After two years of experimentation, he tried wax-packing dressed fish and other foods in cartons then freezing them between two flat, refrigerated surfaces under pressure. The "double plate" freezer was the solution. This technique quickly froze the foods solid with almost no damage at all to their cellular structure. Foods packaged and frozen in this new way were almost exactly the same when thawed weeks or months later. Birdseye quickly applied for, and was granted, a patent on the exclusive method.
Birdseye knew he had found the answer to safely preserving foods for an indefinite time, an answer that could make him a fortune. With this new technique safely patented, he decided to form another company. On July 3, 1924, he formed the General Seafood Corporation with some rich partners who believed in his process.
General Seafood was the beginning of a food industry that has since become massive. A look in the refrigerated section of any local grocery store will reveal a stunning variety of delicious frozen foods. There will be many types of fish, the food item that started it all, and dozens of meat and poultry foods as well as French fried potatoes, milkshakes, and complete breakfasts and dinners. There are even pizza combinations and other specialty frozen foods waiting for consumers. Recently, chain hamburger and hot dog companies began supplying their products in frozen form to supermarkets. This huge industry began with the discoveries of Clarence Birdseye.
Birdseye was a hard worker who was always thinking of new ideas. Even as he was perfecting his freezing techniques, he was also working on other food items. In the late 1930s, he perfected and patented a new food dehydrating process. However, he was so busy with his frozen food ideas that he didn't begin marketing the dehydrating idea until 1946.
Birdseye Built a Successful Company
Company success didn't happen overnight. The first retail sale of frozen foods occurred on March 6, 1930, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Birdseye called it the "Springfield Experiment Test Market." In his frozen food cases he included 26 different types of fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables. He posted a number of rather questionable signs on the frozen food display with words like "50 Below Zero," but people bought the new items. They loved the idea that they could take home, thaw, and eat foods that were otherwise not available to them at a reasonable price.
Premature thawing continued, however, to be a problem. Birdseye contacted the American Radiator Corporation. This company agreed to manufacture low-temperature retail display units that would hold the frozen food in markets. Markets agreed to display only Birds Eye products. In return, they were able to lease the units for about eight dollars per month. The new units would keep the foods solidly frozen until customers bought them.
Always on the lookout for ways to expand his business, Birdseye began to lease insulated railroad cars in 1944. These cars were specially designed for the nationwide shipment of his frozen food products. This final move assured the success of Birdseye's company.
By the 1950s, frozen food sales exceeded one billion dollars every year. About 64 percent of all retail food markets had frozen food areas. Pre-cooked foods or prepared frozen foods began to account for a majority of the sales. There were even "boil-in" bags of frozen food items, derived from Birdseye's original experiments. The Association of Food and Drug Officials in the United States adopted a standard for the handling of frozen foods, to insure that foods were not allowed to thaw between manufacture and consumption. By then, most airlines were using frozen foods that could be prepared as needed on airliners.
Birdseye's Company Today
Today, Birds Eye, Inc. targets the growing wave of health-conscious consumers. They were the first to introduce "Custom Cuisine," a line of six varieties of vegetables and sauces to which meat is then added. They also introduced foil wrapping on boxed vegetables, which holds moisture ten times better than waxed paper. The Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged that frozen foods, when correctly handled and cooked, are as healthy as the same foods would be if cooked fresh. Birdseye had come to the same conclusion decades before. There are now children's frozen foods, "family size" portions, appetizers, meal kits, and snacks. The fast-paced lifestyles of modern consumers have encouraged the continued growth of the frozen food industry.
The process invented by Birdseye is still in widespread use. It preserves not only the flavor and texture of the foods, but also their nutritional value. Clarence Birdseye indirectly improved the health of almost everyone in the industrialized world by providing fresh food in a convenient way. Before his death in Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 8, 1956, at the age of 70, Birdseye realized that his discovery on the cold tundra of the Arctic had grown into a highly successful business.
Further Reading on Clarence Birdseye
A Sudden Chill, Time Life Books, 1991.
Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia.