Locavores and foodies beware, Oct. 7 marked the 66th anniversary of Clarence Birdseye’s death. As the forgotten father of the frozen food industry, he changed the way Americans eat forever. That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration — Birdseye left a permanent mark on the way the entire world consumes and transports food.
He was an odd man with an odder story. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1886, Birdseye had one eye on science, and the other on a dollar: “…wanted to get into some field where I could apply scientific knowledge to an economic opportunity.” He went west in 1910, taking a stint chasing coyote pelts in New Mexico and studying ticks in Montana. From there, it was on to Labrador in Canada.
The extreme cold of Labrador was the catalyst that launched Birdseye into frozen food. The key to frozen food (good frozen food) was fast freezing: The faster the ice crystals form, the smaller they are, and the less damage inflicted on the product. There was already frozen food on the market before Birdseye. The concept and practice of frozen foods was nothing new to Americans. But the freezing and marketing process prior to Birdseye’s involvement produced terrible tasting food.
Getting to the root of a particular invention can be a bit thorny. Quite often, credit for an invention goes to the “last man through the door,” and in many cases, whoever sticks in the last piece of the puzzle gets credit for the whole deal. Regarding frozen food, Birdseye was more innovator than inventor.
In Birdseye’s case, he recognized the potential market and need for “good” frozen food. Freezing, packaging, transport and presentation — Birdseye wrapped them into a composite and never looked back. He scraped together funds to start up a frozen fish company and put his ideas into action. A few years of success caught the attention of General Foods and Birdseye sold out for $23.5 million in 1929.
At his death in 1956, after transforming the U.S. food industry — Clarence Birdseye, the king of frozen foods, was cremated.
(For more on the frozen food story, see “Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man” by Mark Kurlansky.