Clarence Birdseye did not invent frozen food, but he is credited with creating the industry by developing a flash-freezing process that was commercially viable and produced frozen food people were willing to eat. Freezing gave consumers an important new choice; no longer did they have to choose between canned foods, salted foods or simply going without when fresh wasn’t available.
“He made it possible for people to have frozen food that had its original flavor, color, texture and taste,” says Paula J. Johnson, a curator in the division of work and industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. “He brought the process to everybody, and that was a big deal – and it continues to be. Frozen food is something a lot of people rely on.”
Indeed. Retail sales of frozen foods in the United States through all retail channels totaled $44 billion in 2012, according to figures provided by Corey Henry, vice president of communications for the American Frozen Food Institute, a national trade association located in McLean, Va. That’s about 8 percent of total grocery sales, which may not sound like much unless you consider that the meat, fish and poultry sector counts for about 13 percent, and produce is at 11 percent, he says.
“Everything in the frozen food aisle is a result of his innovation,” Henry says of Birdseye.
No wonder Mark Kurlansky titled his biography of the man Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. In the book, he traces Birdseye from his birth in Brooklyn, N.Y., to his early adventures out West researching Rocky Mountain spotted fever to his job as fur trader in Labrador around 1912. It was there, watching the local Inuit people ice-fishing, that Birdseye noticed how the catch would freeze almost instantly in the subzero air and, later, when thawed and cooked, tasted almost like fresh. He became fascinated with the idea of flash-freezing.
Birdseye’s experiments with freezing were not altruistic, as Kurlansky noted in his book. American inventors expected to make money – lots of money, hopefully – on their projects.
Birdseye struggled in the beginning as he set out to develop a viable commercial freezing process. His first tools were later famously described as an electric fan, ice cakes and salt brine, costing about $7. His first frozen foods company, Birdseye Seafoods, began in 1923 but ran out of money shortly thereafter, Kurlansky wrote.
His second venture, General Seafoods Corp., was sold to Postum Cereal Co. and Goldman Sachs Trading Corp. in 1929, along with Birdseye’s patents related to the freezing process, for about $23.5 million, according to Kurlansky. He was set for life but remained becomingly modest about his success.
“To be perfectly honest,” Birdseye told The American Magazine in 1951, “I am best described as just a guy with a very large bump of curiosity and a gambling instinct.”
Birdseye stayed on with the company, which had been renamed General Foods, and continued to work on the frozen food concept. The resulting product line, sold then and now under the soon-iconic brand name of Birds Eye, was launched in Springfield, Mass., in 1930 at 18 markets.
Although most famous for frozen food, Birdseye worked on a number of other innovations. He was, as Johnson noted, one of those American inventors of the late 19th and early 20th century who was always creating something. Birdseye experimented with dehydrating food and developed a light bulb with a built-in reflector. At the time of his death at age 69 in 1956, he was working on ways to make paper from sugar cane waste.
Kurlansky believes Birdseye would be “favorably impressed” by the modern frozen food industry. Both in his biography and in a telephone interview, the author wonders what Birdseye would make of various movements that run counter to industrialized food.
“They are so contrary to all of his thinking,” Kurlansky says, using as an example the locavore movement with its emphasis on local, sustainable and seasonal food. Birdseye, he believes, would be perplexed that anyone would spurn the possibility of obtaining food from around the world.
“He created an industry, which is what he set out to do,” Kurlansky notes. “He was someone who came out of the Industrial Revolution, and people of his generation loved industry, just like young people today think you should digitize everything.”