Yes, fishermen not only provide fresh, healthy, versatile and tasty proteins but they were the inspiration that created the frozen food section at the grocery store. No joke, a poor college biology student was intrigued by how indigenous Inuit tribes in Canada could quickly freeze fish and caribou meat that tasted fresh months later develop a process that created the modern frozen food industry.
Food preservation has always been a topic of concern for producers and consumers. Enough food needs to be produced for present consumption as well as the future. Hunter-gathers in cold climates were at an advantage in storing items with ice and snow. Their warmer weather counterparts developed other technologies such as smoking, drying, and salting. Natural ice was used well into the 1900’s especially by rural residents but man-made ice entered the scene in Australia in 1870. The invention of the first refrigerators was originally pursed by Australian beer makers but cattlemen soon followed. However, the first frozen meat shipped from Australian to England deteriorated because the slow freezing method formed ice crystals in the meat cells.
Where’s the fish? In 1912 Clarence Birdseye traveled to Labrador to make money. While working a variety of jobs, he learned the customs of the Inuit and noticed when they went ice-fishing they let the fish immediately freeze in the extremely cold air. The quick freezing prevented the formation of ice crystals in the food. Also called flash freezing, the process preserves the cell structure of the food which maintains much if not all of the food’s original flavor and texture. While in Labrador, he experimented with freezing fruits and vegetables to feed his family.
After returning home to America, Birdseye worked with a lobby group for commercial fishermen. At this time, large amounts of fresh fish spoiled before making it to stores. He remembered the flash freezing he had done in Labrador and founded a frozen fish company in New York. This venture quickly ran out of money but he was undeterred. Moving to Massachusetts, he started another business in the center of the fishing industry of Gloucester. He continued to develop equipment and packaging for his patented freezing process under the name General Seafoods.
Birdseye sold this business in 1929 to the Postum Cereal Company who believed in the potential of his ideas. Postum renamed their company General Foods and created the Birds Eye Frosted food Division. He remained with the company and continued to grow this new industry as the director of research. He developed a blanching technique to briefly boil vegetables before the quick freezing to lock in color and seal the flavor. He is also credited with the first clear food packaging called cellophane that let customers see the product. Other innovations included a technique for freezing the product in the package it was to be sold in and convenient sized packages that reduces preparation effort.
There were a number of challenges in the early days including retailers having refrigerated display cases, the lack of insulated transportation vehicles to deliver the products, and overcoming the bad reputation of the first commercially frozen food that was unpopular. The slowly frozen food lost its texture and flavor. Changing the image and convincing consumers of the new and improved frozen food caught a break during World War II when the tin used for making cans for food was rationed. After the war, refrigerator technology reached a point that the average family could afford such appliances in their homes. Today, freezers are common and frozen foods of all types are simple and easy to prepare. Frozen foods last longer than fresh which cuts down on waste. Whether out of season vegetables and fruits or delicious seafood from distant waters, Charles Birdseye was a curious man who improved life for everyone by watching and learning from those Inuit fishermen.
*Rhonda Cummins is the Calhoun County Extension Agent for Coastal and Marine Resources with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service and the Texas Sea Grant College Program.