Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Birdseye and the Inuits

In a scramble to whip up something for dinner Sunday night, the easiest that came to mind was a stir fry of rice and vegetables. It’s a frequent meal around here, and most times the ingredients are on hand without having to get in the car and drive to the market. One of the ingredients in the recipe is peas and my usual choice is Birds Eye frozen baby sweet peas. I’ve used the same frozen peas for years, even during the years of living in Japan. No trouble finding Birds Eye frozen vegetables in Tokyo.

Don’t know if it was déjà vu, but early Monday morning I read a book review on NPR for a soon-to-be-released book by Mark Kurlansky called Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. It piqued my interest to know something about the man who gave us Birds Eye frozen baby sweet peas, and I gave some thought to ordering the book. But a little impatient about waiting, I dug this up…  

Keeping or providing a supply of fresh food was for many years a problem that occupied the thoughts of those in the food business, and by the early 1900s many were experimenting with both mechanical and chemical methods of preserving food. Naturally, frozen food had always existed in climates that are cold enough for the food to freeze, and a few had developed innovative food-freezing techniques, but the turning point in this venture was Clarence Birdseye.

Clarence Birdseye was a biology major at Amherst College in 1908 when he quit school to work out west as a naturalist for the US Agricultural Department. Between 1912 and 1915 he was posted to the Arctic region of Labrador, where he observed first-hand the lifestyle and methods of the native Inuits living there, and it was there that his interest turned to food preservation by freezing. One of the phenomenons he saw daily was that the combination of ice, wind and temperature froze through almost instantly just-caught fish. He learned as well that when the fish was later thawed and cooked, it was hardly any different in taste and texture from fresh fish, and much superior to the frozen seafood being sold in his native New York. Freezing food was not a new idea, but the only known method, that of slow-freezing had not proven altogether satisfying. Freezing food at a slow rate caused large ice crystals to form, rupturing the cell membranes of the food, and the thawing process caused a leaking out of the food’s flavor and texture. From his experience with the Inuits, Birdseye developed the theory that food must be frozen very quickly in order for it to retain its taste and texture.

From his earlier study of biology, Birdseye understood the chemistry at work in freezing food. He also knew that shoppers would gladly pay for better-tasting quick-frozen foods. The question was, could he deliver it? He returned to New York, and in 1924 founded Birdseye Seafoods, Inc.

Birdseye developed two methods for quick freezing foods, both employing the innovation of packaging the food beforehand. In the first of his techniques, using a calcium chloride solution the packaged food was held between two metal belts and chilled to a temperature between minus forty and minus forty-five degrees Fahrenheit. In the second technique, the packaged food was held under pressure between two hollow metal plates and chilled to minus twenty-five degrees by the evaporation of ammonia. Using this second method, a package of meat two inches thick could be frozen to zero degrees in about ninety minutes. Next, Birdseye envisioned a way to apply this flash freezing process to fruits and vegetables—an ultimately simple process of only thirty minutes that revolutionized the frozen food industry.

This quick-freezing process of Birdseye’s wound up creating 168 patents, covering not only the freezing technique but also the packaging, type of paper used, and a host of related innovations. It turned out to be one of the most important advances in the food industry. Fine tuning his freezing process over the years, Birdseye next invented a system that packed dressed fish, meat or vegetables into waxed cardboard cartons, which were then flash-frozen under high pressure.

He turned his attention next to marketing. By 1930 he was testing refrigerated grocery display cases, and in 1934 was manufacturing them. In 1944, Birdseye’s company began leasing refrigerated boxcars to transport the frozen foods nationwide by rail. The national distribution of frozen food became a reality, and Clarence Birdseye became a legend. The Birdseye flash-freezing process is still basically in use today, a process that preserves the nutrients and flavor of food and has indirectly improved both the health and convenience of virtually everyone in the industrialized world.


  1. My!!! What an interesting article on Birdseye's beginning. I never knew Birdseye froze fish, but if he was into the food business and the freezing of these food, then his natural instinct would be try fish that he saw freeze quickly in Labrador.

  2. Well, Clarence certainly hit the birdseye on frozen food, didn't he? Very interesting on how it was all developed.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America