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Clarence Birdseye And His Fantastic Frozen Food Machine

Birdseye's original multiplate freezing machine froze food fast — the secret to maintaining fresh flavor
Birdseye's original multiplate freezing machine froze food fast — the secret to maintaining fresh flavor

There's a particular pleasure in being reminded that the most ordinary things can still be full of magic. Frogs may turn into princes. Lumps of dirt can hide sparkling gems. And having just read Mark Kurlansky's new biography of Clarence Birdseye, I now see the humble fish fillet in a whole new light.

For as Kurlansky tells it, when Clarence Birdseye figured out how to pack and freeze haddock, using what he called "a marvelous new process which seals in every bit of just-from-the-ocean flavor," he essentially changed the way we produce, preserve and distribute food forever.

Today, tiger shrimp from Thailand, Japanese edamame and blueberry cheesecake outshine the plain white fillets in the freezer case, but those packs of haddock launched the freezer revolution: They embody the magic combination of size, shape, and packaging.

Unlike Kurlansky's book on cod, here he focuses on the man behind the fillet. And Birdseye's remarkable life uniquely prepared him to lead the world into its frozen future.

Born in 1886, he had a naturalist's curiosity, a love of food, and a strong entrepreneurial streak. At the age of ten, he was hunting and exporting live muskrats and teaching himself taxidermy. He studied science in college, but had to drop out for financial reasons. Forced to support himself, he joined various scientific expeditions that took him to remote places, including Labrador, where he spent several years in the fur business.

On all these trips he liked to experiment with whatever fresh food was on hand. In the Southwest, he ate slices of rattlesnake fried in pork fat. From Labrador, he wrote letters home that described exotic meals like lynx marinated in sherry, porcupine, polar bear meat and skunk.

The long Labrador winters also taught him what it was to crave fresh food, and introduced him for the first time in his life to frozen food that tasted good.

Up until the 1920s in America, it was the food of last resort. "When it thawed it was mushy and less appealing than even canned food," writes Kurlansky. But in Labrador he learned from the Inuit how to fish trout from holes in the ice and watch it freeze instantly in the air, which registered at 30 degrees below zero. And when it was cooked, it tasted like fresh trout.

It was the same with their meat and game, which they kept fresh for months in hard-packed snow.

He soon figured out that the key to success was to freeze food fast, and at very low temperatures. This prevented large ice crystals from forming. These large crystals could damage cells and were responsible for giving much frozen food an unpleasant mushy texture.

But it took a while for Birdseye to see where all this would lead him. He and his family returned to the US in 1917 and he took a series of jobs before joining the U.S. Fisheries Association in Washington — a lobbying group. It was while working with them that the "big Birdseye idea," as Kurlansky calls it, first began to take shape.

Packaging Matters

Birdseye realized that the way to expand the market for fish was to develop the means to pack and transport it over long distances, "in compact and convenient containers" and distribute it to individual customers with its "intrinsic freshness" intact.

He experimented with his own containers to chill food at first, but when that failed, he started thinking about what he learned in Labrador. And the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that quick freezing had huge potential.

In 1922 he left his job at the Fisheries Association and set out to "create an industry, to find a commercially viable way of producing large quantities of fast frozen fish."

Even if he didn't pioneer actual freezing, Kurlansky points out, that Birsdseye he had "to pioneer most everything else in his process." This included everything from the boxes he packed the fish in to the machine that froze them and everything in between — from waterproof inks and glues to scaling and filleting machines.

The fish had to be frozen in small portions both for speed and because he wanted to sell it to individual customers. He was also concerned with eliminating the little air pockets that in whole fish could harbor bacteria and lead to decomposition. So a key part of his original 1924 process called for filleting the fish — which was an unusual thing to do in 1920s. It had to be done by hand. But it allowed them to be packed tightly into rectangular fiberboard boxes.

At first, Birdseye put these boxes into a long metal holders that was immersed in freezing calcium chloride, but three years later, in 1927, he applied to patent his multiplate freezing machine.

Large Scale Fast Freezing

This invention, along with the process which went with it, became the basis of the new frozen food industry, says Kurlansky, and "remained the basic commercial freezing system for decades."

In essence, the machine squeezed waterproof cartons holding two inch blocks of fish between freezing plates that were kept between 20 and 50 degrees below Farenheit, for 75 minutes.The cartons never came into contact with the refrigerant and the neat packages were suitable for marketing to individual customers. And with a few tweaks, this new machine could be used to freeze anything from berries to pork sausages."

By now, Birdseye's own ambitions had soared way beyond fish fillets, but it didn't happen quite as Birdseye had imagined.

His haddock fillets were slow to catch on. Kurlansky explains that people distrusted frozen food, railroads worried that they might be sued if the fish thawed in transit, public health officials fretted about bugs and germs. Stores had nowhere to store the frozen fillets and customers had no way to keep them frozen.

The boxes piled up in the factory. Birdseye ran out of money and sold his company to the Post company.

But Birdseye, now a newly minted millionaire, continued to work for the new Birds Eye Frosted Foods division of the Post company. It shared Birdseye's vision that this was the food of the future.

Convincing The Public

To win over customers, the company started with ten stores in Springfield Massachusetts in March 1930. They gave them display freezers, put their staff through a three-day training course, and offered the food on consignment.

These included 27 different frozen items: The original haddock fillets, porterhouse steak, spring lamb chops, loganberries and raspberries, spinach and June peas advertised "as gloriously green as any you will see next summer."

Gradually, the world came to realize that frozen food was safe, and could provide an appealing and often more nutritious alternative to canned, salted and smoked foods. It overcame the limitations of local and seasonal food in unprecedented ways.

Stores and domestic kitchens began to acquire freezers, and after World War II, frozen food got a huge boost, because it made it possible to put entire meals on the table without women having to spend hours in the kitchen. It even helped shaped current school lunch programs. as Allison Aubrey reported.

There was no going back.

Kurlansky argues that "by modernizing the process of food preservation, Birdseye nationalized and then internationalized food distribution... facilitated urban living and helped to take people away from the farms... and greatly contributed to the development of industrial -scale agriculture." Birdseye, he says, would have seen all these as positive things.

Not everyone would agree with that verdict of course, but it's harder to disagree with Kurlansky's claim that "Undeniably, Birdseye changed our civilization."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning science journalist Alison Richards is deputy supervising senior editor for NPR's science desk.

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