Whether it's frozen waffles for breakfast or a bag of frozen peas to supplement dinner, you probably take the availability, affordability, and convenience of frozen food for granted. Yet things like tasty frozen pizzas were once a pipe dream, and we can thank entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye for making it possible to buy high-quality frozen foods year-round.
Call of the Wild
Born in Brooklyn in 1886, Birdseye was fascinated by the outdoors. As a child, he loved reading about adventurous hunters and trappers, and taught himself taxidermy. After graduating from high school in Montclair, New Jersey, he briefly worked as an inspector for the New York City Sanitation Department and as an office boy on Wall Street. He then started college at Amherst, where he studied biology, and where his fellow students teased him for his passionate curiosity about frogs, rats, and bugs.
After he was forced to drop out of Amherst due to limited finances, he bounced from job to job: Birdseye traveled to Arizona and New Mexico to study animal populations as an assistant naturalist for the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Biological Survey; worked at an insurance company; recorded the amount of snow that New York City removed from the streets after snowstorms; and, in the summer of 1910, collected ticks to research Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a potentially fatal tick-borne disease.
Then, in 1912, Birdseye traveled to Labrador, where he became involved in the fur trade. It was an experience that would change his life—and the world.
He noticed that the fish frozen by the Inuit tasted better once thawed and had a more appealing texture than any frozen food he had eaten before. After observing their techniques and conducting his own experiments, he eventually realized that the cold temperatures in Labrador—often -30° F or colder—froze food instantly, preserving its taste, texture, appearance, and nutrients. With that, Birdseye had the insight necessary for turning tasty frozen food into a business. He would later say, "Quick freezing was conceived, born, and nourished on a strange combination of ingenuity, stick-to-itiveness, sweat, and good luck."
A Cool Idea
Frozen food was available to Americans in the early 20th century, but it was far from favored: Because items were frozen slowly just around 32° F and in large quantities, usually over the course of several days, the food was often mushy and tasted unappealing. (In fact, it was so bad that New York banned it from state prisons as inhumane.) Birdseye knew he could do better.
After years of experiments, Birdseye finally hit the bullseye: He developed two methods of flash-freezing food that would prevent large ice crystals from forming and degrading the food's quality. Each involved putting packages of food between metal—first belts chilled with calcium chloride, then hollow plates filled with an ammonia-based refrigerant—which kept taste and texture intact by allowing only tiny ice crystals to form. In 1924, he helped found the General Seafoods Company, which became Birds Eye Frosted Food Company, and by 1930, after a purchase by General Foods, he was peddling his frozen food in supermarkets, delighting customers with frozen meat, fish, oysters, raspberries, peas, and spinach.
In the 1940s, Birdseye was able to distribute his frozen food nationally by using refrigerated boxcars. Besides freezing, packaging, and marketing his frozen food, he also built a distribution infrastructure to transport it to retail stores across the country. World War II was a boon for business: Rations on canned foods—which were sent to soldiers overseas—meant that people purchased more frozen foods.
A Legacy of Invention
Besides establishing his frozen foods company, Birdseye was a prolific inventor who filed hundreds of patents for everything from an infrared heat lamps to a recoilless harpoon gun for whales. Birdseye also spent time in Peru to develop a method of quickly converting sugar cane waste into paper pulp. When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed bird watching and spending time with Eleanor, his wife of more than four decades. He died of heart failure in 1956 in New York City.
Today, nearly a century after Birdseye began selling frozen food, his company, Birds Eye, still sells frozen vegetables. And although food trends have been shifting from frozen to fresh, local foods, many people in the world don’t have year-round access to fresh produce. That means frozen food—and Birdseye’s contributions to it—won’t become obsolete anytime soon.
Additional source: Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man