Whenever you grab a frozen dinner for a quick, prep-free meal, you're in some debt to Clarence "Bob" Birdseye (1886–1956). The inventor was the pioneer of the flash-freeze method, which turned the frozen food industry into a billion-dollar enterprise. Check out some facts on Birdseye's life that reveal his genius as a food innovator and why we came close to enjoying frozen alligator.
1. HE WAS A FUR TRADER.
Like many geniuses, Birdseye didn't have his life entirely mapped out. Hoping to become a biologist, he enrolled at Amherst College in 1910 but couldn't complete his studies because tuition was too expensive. Instead, he became a field naturalist for the U.S. Biological Survey. In 1912, he joined a six-week medical mission in Labrador, Canada. There, in his spare time, he worked in fur trading. This experience proved be a crucial turning point in Birdseye's life.
2. HE WAS INSPIRED BY THE INUIT.
While on the trip, Birdseye observed Inuit performing their own version of flash-freezing. After catching fish, they would use a careful balance of ice and environmental conditions to instantly freeze their food without destroying it. (The air was so cold—sometimes as low as -45°F—that caught fish would essentially freeze in mid-air.) When the fish thawed, Birdseye was delighted to find that it still tasted good. The difference was that foods frozen slowly formed cell- and flavor-destroying ice crystals, while quick-frozen (or "flash-frozen") foods did not. Thinking he could adapt the same principles to other foods like vegetables, Birdseye returned to the States in 1917 with the ambition of developing a quick-freeze machine. By 1923 he was experimenting with various methods in his kitchen in the suburbs of New York City. One involved rabbit meat, candy boxes, and dry ice.
3. HE DEVELOPED TWO METHODS FOR QUICK-FREEZING.
Eager to replicate the Inuit way for mass production, Birdseye came up with two novel methods for quick-freezing foods. Using calcium chloride, Birdseye could chill metal belts to -45°F and press the food between them, speeding up the freezing process. He then improved this process by using hollow metal plates filled with an ammonia-based refrigerant. When squeezed between these plates, meat and vegetables could be frozen in 30 to 90 minutes.
4. PEOPLE WERE WARY OF FROZEN FISH.
While his ingenuity would ultimately prove successful, at first people were highly suspicious of frozen seafood. Consumers had no basis for comparison and didn't know what to expect when it came to taste; railroads and store owners, meanwhile, were worried they might be held liable if thawed food made people sick. But there was enough potential that Birdseye sold his company, General Seafood Corporation, to Postum in 1929. (Postum later changed its name to General Foods.)
5. HE SPEARHEADED THE ENTIRE FROZEN FOOD INDUSTRY.
Before Birdseye's patented methods, no one really stored or ate frozen foods (then called “frosted foods”) owing to their terrible taste—it was so noxious that New York State even banned using it to feed prisoners. In order to get the general public to accept frozen foods as a viable market product, Birdseye—who was still working for General Foods after the sale—needed to develop packaging, freezer cases, and transportation methods. It was an arduous process involving test markets and large-scale salesmanship, but by 1944, refrigerated boxcars were carrying Birdseye (labeled Birds Eye) products to stores across the country, and customers were bringing them home to store in their newly bought home freezers.
6. HE TRIED FREEZING EVERYTHING. EVEN ALLIGATORS.
Birdseye was virtually obsessed with finding the potential limits to the food-freezing process. Toiling at his factory in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Birdseye experimented with almost anything he could get his hands on. In addition to fish, meats, and vegetables, he also tried freezing porpoise, whale, shark, and an alligator.
7. HE REINVENTED THE PEA.
While he was busy amassing his frozen food empire, Birdseye actually had a material effect on one food's appearance. By blanching green peas before freezing them, Birdseye noticed that the vegetable would turn a vibrant green. The colorful pea soon became a staple of the frozen vegetable market.
8. HE ALSO CHANGED THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY.
Birdseye was constantly on the lookout for ways to perfect his flash-freezing production process. Acknowledging that frozen food packages would develop condensation, he looked toward the French invention, Cellophane, to wrap his fish. But the packaging would disintegrate once it got wet. Birdseye convinced Cellophane's manufacturer, DuPont, to create a moisture-proof version. He was its only customer until cigar and cigarette companies realized that the material would keep their products dry.
9. HE WAS BUSY UNTIL THE END.
Birdseye died in 1956 at the age of 69, but age hadn't slowed his ambition. At the time of his death, he was hoping to perfect a process by which sugar cane could be turned into pulp for paper. Today, his Birds Eye products continue to populate virtually every frozen food section of every supermarket in the country.