Brrrr. The Secret History of Frozen Food
Times have changed dramatically: Mom wouldn’t think of buying frozen green beans now—instead she buys fresh haricots verts, the slender and tender green bean, available year-round at her local Publix. And as an adult, I was the one reaching into the frozen vegetable case at the grocery store for the rock-solid peas, because that’s all my kids would eat. I considered getting the kids to eat anything green a triumph, and frozen peas were an easy, inexpensive, reliable victory.
Frozen peas are one of the most popular frozen vegetables, and have been since Clarence Birdseye discovered in the 1920s that peas quickly blanched before being frozen result in a vividly green pea.
Birdseye was the father of frozen food, the man most responsible for what is now a $240 billion global industry. As with so many of our food innovations, frozen food arose from the unpredictable mix of an eccentric, adventurous, inquisitive mind, a man’s serendipitous move through the world (his interest in frozen food was rooted in fox farming in Labrador, in northeastern Canada, a place that gets mighty cold in the winter), and advances in technology and in packaging during the 1920s that allowed new ideas to find their physical realization.
Birdseye’s influence was no small matter. As Mark Kurlansky writes in his excellent book Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, “Undeniably, Birdseye changed our civilization. He created an industry by modernizing the process of food preservation and in so doing nationalized and then internationalized food distribution.” Moreover, Kurlansky writes, Birdseye “greatly contributed to the development of industrial-scale agriculture.” Once we could stockpile produce that previously would have gone bad, we could grow more and more food and keep it indefinitely.
As a young man seeking adventure in the early twentieth century, Birdseye was offered a chance to work for a celebrated medical missionary in Labrador. There he found a land rich in animals valuable for their pelts, and abundant sea life—lobsters, halibut, cod, and seals. Inhabited by fur trappers, fishermen, and Inuit, Labrador routinely experienced temperatures that could drop below –30 degrees Fahrenheit. Survival required him to learn all methods of preserving food—salting, drying, and freezing. And with freezing, he paid particular attention to the size of the ice crystals relative to the way the fish or meat was frozen. He recognized that when the crystals were large, a result of slow freezing, they damaged the cell structure, the meat leaked juices, and its texture became mealy. He experimented with freezing vegetables and caribou meat, simply as a matter of ensuring he had enough to eat.
On returning from Labrador, he took a series of jobs, eventually landing a position as the assistant to the president of the US Fisheries Association, a lobbying group for commercial fishermen that worked to improve the fishing industry.
Now engaged in work that joined two of his passions, wildlife and food, he turned his attention from the fisherman to the fish itself and the problem of getting fish to market before it went bad. Thus was born his first idea: a change in the way fish was packaged.
Birdseye developed an inexpensive container that was better insulated than what was currently used, and kept the fish chilled during transport to markets. The fish was better, but still not comparable to what it was at its source. Birdseye knew this was due to spoilage, and he considered his packaging a failure. It was a problem he kept working at in the back of his mind.
peas from field to freezer 2 min. 23 sec.
Then Birdseye recalled a traditional method he’d learned from watching the Inuit: fast freezing. “My subconscious suddenly told me that perishable food could be kept perfectly preserved in the same way I had kept them in Labrador—by quick freezing!”
He needed to find a way to re-create it in the United States, so he convinced an ice cream company to let him experiment in their plant. He left his job with the US Fisheries Association and embarked on a new adventure, creating in 1923 his first frozen foods company, the General Seafood Corporation.
His first major invention in freezing food, of some two hundred inventions during his lifetime, was the development of hollowed metal plates filled with an ammonia-based refrigerant that kept the metal between –20 and –50 degrees Fahrenheit. Two-inch-thick cartons were filled with food and pressed between the plates (not unlike the block of green beans my mom dumped weekly into a pot of water). Multi-plate freezing, as it was called, would be used for decades.
The next leap for Birdseye was to change those metal plates to belts, chilled with a calcium chloride spray—food could run continuously between the belts and the space between the belts could be adjusted. More food could be frozen faster than ever before.
But while he would invent various tools for the actual quick freezing, Kurlansky writes: “The originality of Birdseye’s work was as much in the packaging as the preparation of food.” This packaging had to eliminate air pockets, and the material had to be waterproof, as moisture condensed on the packages. Waterproof ink had to be used. Cellophane, a French invention, was relatively new. Birdseye wanted to use it for packaging fish but found that it disintegrated when used on moist fish. So he persuaded DuPont to create a waterproof version of cellophane. (For a time Birdseye was the only customer for the product. “Then cigarette companies bought it,” Kurlansky writes, “and cigars started to come wrapped in it, and soon cellophane wrappers were a standard feature of American consumer goods—another little-known Birdseye influence on our world.”)
Harvey Levenstein, in Paradox of Plenty, notes that many methods of freezing predate Birdseye, “but they were used primarily to preserve foods that were already going bad from deteriorating further; this had fostered a connotation between freezing and low quality in the public mind.” In other words, one of Birdseye’s major contributions was to convince a skeptical public, via savvy packaging, that this frozen food was high quality.
Birdseye could now freeze enormous quantities of food. In the summer of 1927 he froze 1.6 million pounds of seafood. And this abundance resulted in a problem that had to be solved. What to do with all of it? There weren’t trucks or trains that could keep the food frozen during transport. There weren’t warehouses with freezers to store the food. And retail stores didn’t have freezers. But there was now a need for them, and they would soon follow. The first retail store freezer became available in 1928 and, while expensive, it allowed some stores to stock frozen food.
In 1929 the new Birds Eye company began working at capacity, freezing and storing twenty-seven kinds of food from meat to fish to berries to peas and spinach, and would launch with major advertising to introduce to a country suspicious of frozen food a brand-new product called “frosted food.” It promised unparalleled convenience, the luxury of eating vegetables out of season, and fresh-tasting seafood to the middle of the country, but the infrastructure required for its success didn’t exist. It wasn’t until after World War II that frozen food came into its own. Within a decade, frozen foods would be a $50 billion dollar industry in the United States, and $300 billion worldwide.
The growth of the industry was due in large part to the proliferation of larger and larger supermarkets in the late 1940s and 1950s, the great spinning wheel of American commerce and technology accelerating, advances in one product fueling advances in others to feed a growing, prosperous country. Once relegated to the perimeter of the store, aisle-long stand-alone freezer cases— referred to as “upright multi-decks”—are common and have become more energy efficient. At my favorite Heinen’s, these cases run about seventy-five feet at the rear of the store, one of which contains a single category: a seemingly endless array of ice creams, sorbets, sherbets, and gelatos, and variations for every diet-restricted lover of cold confections.
Thus it was that America would become the country where commercial freezers and frozen food developed and also the country that would lead the world in the manufacture of refrigerators and freezers.
An adapted excerpt from the new book Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman published by Abrams Press.
Michael Ruhlman is the author of The Elements of Cooking, Ratio, and Ruhlman’s Twenty. He has collaborated on several bestselling cookbooks, including The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon, and Alinea.