Frozen food, like folded laundry and alimony, is one of those things that all of us always expect to be there. How many of us are aware that the concept was the product of someones inventive spirit and foresight? Truth be told, frozen food that tastes as fresh as when it was packaged was the revolutionary discovery of one man only. His name was Clarence Birdseye and his story is truly an example of the American dream fulfilled, even though it involves vegetables.
The expression, "necessity is the mother of invention" could never have been truer than in the case of inventor, Clarence Birdseye. This extraordinary outdoorsman was a taxidermist by trade, but a chef at heart. While in high school, he showed an interest in food preparation and took some classes. The summer before attending Amherst College where he was a biology major, he worked as an office boy for a Wall Street firm. It was during this time that he developed a personal shorthand that he used throughout his life in his private scientific journals. This system evolved serendipitously, from his study of a portion of a mail-order course that he found on a New York sidewalk.
Ever the discoverer of opportunities as well as a master weaver of dreams, Clarence Birdseye was born on December 9,1886 in a place where anything can happen, Brooklyn, New York. (I ought to know. I hail from there myself.) He was the son of Clarence Frank Birdseye, a lawyer, and Ada Underwood, the daughter of a noted inventor and manufacturer. He was a man of incredible vision, insatiable curiousity and enormous persistance.
Attending Amherst College was a family tradition, but family money was tight. He paid his way through school by using his interest in wildlife and the outdoors. He earned the nickname "Bugs" (no relation to "Bugsy" of gangster fame, whose bugs were in his head) by trapping and selling black rats to geneticists at Columbia University and selling live frogs for use as reptile food at the Bronx Zoo. In 1910, after completion of his second year, Birdseye left Amherst and for the next two years held a variety of jobs. He became a fur trader in Labrador and married Eleanor Gannett in 1915. He began to notice how easily Eskimos were able to store duck, caribou and fish for many months if they were frozen quickly, a process accomplished at such a speed that only small ice crystals are able to form. He further concluded that this rapid freezing in extremely low temperatures kept the food fresh when thawed and cooked months later. He said of himself: "I am just a guy with a very large bump of curiousity and a gambling instinct."
Although the practice of preserving food by freezing has been traced back to as early as 1626, and the first commercial venture in producing it to 1875, Birdseye is credited with developing, refining and making the quick freezing process marketable. In an early radio program, Birdseye himself said: "perhaps my basic contribution was the idea that a wide line of perishable foods, meats, poultry, seafood, fruits and vegetables could be dressed ready to cook, conveniently packaged, really quick frozen, and then delivered to housewives while still truly fresh."
In 1923, with an investment of $7.00, Birdseye bought an electric fan, buckets of brine and several cakes of ice. These items became integral parts of his invention and perfection of a fresh food packing system involving waxed cardboard boxes and flash-freezing under high pressure. The Goldman-Sachs Trading Corporation and The Postum Company (later the General Foods Corporation) bought Birdseyes patents and trademarks in 1929 for $22 million. The first quick frozen vegetables, fruits, seafoods and meats were sold to the public in March of 1930 in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the tradename Birds Eye Frozen Foods.There were twenty-seven items, including peas, spinach, cherries, fish and several kinds of meat in this initial consumer test. Another run was done in Syracuse, New York in 1934, followed by still another in Rochester, New York. Frozen food history was made as it coldly slithered on to national distribution.
Birdseyes fast freezing method caused no damage to the cellular structure of food, any breakdown of which would have affected its taste, texture and general appearance. His brilliant vision catapulted the concept even further by the presentation of frozen food in a package that could be sold directly to the consumer. In 1924, Birdseye with the assistance of several financial backers, set up shop in Gloucester, Massachucetts for experimental work in freezing fish. These experiments with quick freezing devices resulted in the development of the first commercially practical freezer. This business became General Foods Company, which served as the parent company for General Seafoods.
Since many retailers couldnt afford to buy freezers during the Great Depression, Birdseye introduced an inexpensive freezer display case and leased it to them. The ability to distribute and sell frozen foods at the retail level marked the beginning of the frozen food industry. In 1944, Birdseye leased the first insulated railroad cars, which expanded the industry to a national level. As the relevance for frozen food in our diets grew, so did the freezer cubic space provided in home refrigerators.
Clarence Birdseye didnt stop with frozen foods. He soon turned his attention to other interests. He considered whaling a hobby and he invented a one-man, shoulder-firing, "kickless" harpoon while participating in the International Whaling Commission study of whale migratory habits. During this same period, he started a small company (Birdseye Electric Company) to create a single unit bulb and reflector for use in display lighting. He also designed more efficient lighting filaments and heat lamps to be utilized for warming food. In 1939 he sold the company and it later became part of the Sylvania Company.
Birdseye said of his many hobbies: "I have more
than the law allows. Some are sissy. Some have hair on their chest." And in another area of personal interest, Birdseye developed an electrical fishing reel. It permitted fishing at deeper levels and made catching fish a quicker and easier process.
In addition to his inventive genius, Clarence Birdseye also was a formidable writer. He penned articles on everything from fox farming to food drying and while in Labrador wrote an published a work of fiction entitled Hard Luck in The Labrador. In 1951,in collaboration with his wife, he published a book on woodland plants, the knowledge of which was based on a long time shared hobby.
The last years of his life were devoted to the development of better methods of paper manufacture. He worked for two years on a Peruvian plantation where he developed a method of converting sugar cane waste into paper pulp, shortening to twelve minutes a process that had previously taken nine hours! (Not bad for a college drop out!)
He died in 1956 at age 69 from a heart attack. He was survived by his widow, Eleanor and their four children, two boys and two girls. Of himself he said: "I do not consider myself to be a remarkable person. I did not make exceptionally high grades when I went to school. I never finished college. I am not the worlds best salesman. But I am intensely curious about the things which I see around me and that curiousity, combined with a willingness to assume risks, has been responsible for such success and satisfaction as I have achieved in life."
And so, my frozen friends, the moral of the story is to have a dream, research it well and take a chance. Freeze friends and relatives before branching out to strangers. Who knows where it will lead and if and when it will ever end. I hope not, for an inventive spirit has no limitations except for those invented by non-inventors. Reach out and take a chance, but always remember that he who hesitates is lost and that you should always look before you leap.
Happy frozen thoughts, dreams, ideas and Margaritas!
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