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A Birdseye View of Frozen Food

Those microwave burritos you buy at the gas station didn’t get that way by accident. Eskimos, embezzlement, college dropouts, bankruptcy, and bugs all played a part in bringing you frozen food that doesn’t taste as bad as it used to back in the day.

Clarence Birdseye

Yep. You know the name. It’s on all those boxes of frozen veggies at your local grocery store, although the Birdseye family hasn’t had much to do with frozen foods since about 1938.

Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York, back in 1886. As a youngster, he taught himself taxidermy through mail correspondence, which apparently led him to an interest in entomology. In fact, in his two years of college, his adorable nickname was “Bugs.” Clarence dropped out of Amherst after a couple of years, likely due to family financial troubles. As it turns out, his father and one of his brothers went to prison for embezzlement.

It’s entirely possible that the shakeup in Birdseye’s life plan caused a butterfly effect, which eventually created the frozen food aisles in your local grocery. You see, after leaving college early, Clarence ended up working for the USDA. After a couple of years, he was assigned to a post in Labrador, Newfoundland. All you really need to know about that is it can get mucho cold there, like 40-below frigid. Don’t put your tongue on any streetlights.

Frozen Fish

Not offering much in the way of sports entertainment like football or tennis, Clarence took up ice fishing, having learned the tricks from the local Inuit population.

One of those tricks was taking advantage of the blast chiller known as “outside” to freeze the fish quickly. Like cooking an egg on the hood of your AMC Gremlin in Death Valley, the opposite works, too. Waving a cod around in 40-below conditions will quickly turn it into a club.

Anyway, Clarence couldn’t help but notice how yummy those fish tasted when thawed weeks or months later—much better than the mushy, cardboard sort commonly available in his hometown of New York.

Slow Freezing = Lousy Food

Here’s the thing. Traditional freezing methods of the day, done much slower than Arctic Circle processing, foster the growth of ice crystals within the cells of whatever it is you’re freezing. Crystals are generally sharp, pointy things that damage soft stuff like cell walls. So, later, when the food thaws, you end up with a mushy, structure-less mess. If Jabba had frozen Han Solo in a home Frigidaire unit, he would have ended up a gooey mess like that evil Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The critical takeaway is that Birdseye learned the value of flash-freezing food.

Clarence Birdseye’s Flash Freezing Machine

Frozen Foods: Take One

Around 1922, Clarence was back in the US, tinkering with ways to freeze fish like the Inuit. After developing a method using -45-degree temperatures, he founded the Birdseye Seafoods company. Sadly, it took the market some time to thaw to the idea of frozen foods. About two years later, the Birdseye went bankrupt.

Frozen Foods: Take Two

Not to be deterred, Clarence invented a new and improved machine, freezing packaged fish under pressure between two colder-than-ice plates. Soon after, he improved the method further, patenting a system using stainless steel belts chilled by super-cold brine.

His second company, General Seafood Corporation, was successful, and in 1929, he sold the company and his patents for a cool $22 million. That’s approaching half a billion dollars today, so Birdseye’s persistence paid off quite handsomely.

The next time you enjoy a 7-11 frozen burrito, save a bite in remembrance of Clarence Birdseye, won’t ya?

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