February 6, 2007

Birdseye

And the man behind the brand is...
Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye had been coming to the Arctic north since vacation breaks from Amherst College, and later, as a naturalist for the United States Biological Survey. Now, in 1916, the 30-year old Birdseye returned to Labrador as a fur trader and medical missionary.

The house which the scientist and his young family occupied was but a tiny cottage perched on storm-gnawed rock above the Labrador Sea. Outside, the great grey wall of an Arctic winter pressed upon them. Here, amid the towering snowdrifts and biting Arctic wind, was born "the most revolutionary idea in the history of food."

Birdseye hunted and fished to provide food for his wife and weeks-old child. The deer carcasses he hung outside the cottage quickly froze into blocks of meat sliced only by axe. Fish drawn through a hole in the ice congealed in the middle of a flip.

Birdseye came to realize that his frozen meat and fish retained their fresh flavor. Cold storage meat, however, always lost much of its original flavor in the freezing process. What was it about the natural freezing process in Labrador that preserved the flavor of food?

Birdseye returned home to Gloucester, Massachusetts and began a series of experiments in the freezing of food. At the start he could afford to spend only $7 for equipment, including an electric fan, ice and salt. Eventually Birdseye came to realize it was the quick freezing that sealed in the flavor and freshness - and remained sealed in until the food was thawed and cooked.

Fresh, perishable food was cleaned and prepared and then wrapped in moisture-proof cellophane. The packages, with the food at the peak of freshness, were plunged into a patented Birdseye Quick-Freezing Machine at minus-50 degrees. Since the food was frozen in the package no flavor-enhancing juices escaped. Birdseye frozen foods cooked and handled just like fresh foods. He had perfected a new freezing process.

And the business failed. The process was a success but the manufacturing and distribution were not. Retailers were not ready to invest in specialized refrigeration equipment necessary to merchandise the frozen food. Birdseye hocked his life insurance and tried again. This time he got it right. In 1924 Birdseye and three partners formed the General Seafoods Company and a year later quick-frozen fish filets fresh off the Gloucester wharfs were available. Soon Birdseye Foods included more than 100 varieties of meats, fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables. Housewives quickly adjusted to the cooking directions on the new frozen food packages.

In 1929 Birdseye sold the business for $22,000,000, including 168 patents on quick-freezing. A $50,000 yearly stipend was thrown into the package. It was the largest sum ever paid for a patent up to that time. The name of the company was immediately changed to General Foods Corporations, which made back their investment hundreds of times over.

Clarence “Bob” Birdseye later invented a reflector and infra-red heat lamp. One of his hobbies was whale tracking, leading to his perfection of a kickless harpoon gun. In 1949 he devised a method for dehydrating food. He continued working in the frozen food field and was single-handedly responsible for every important development in the young industry. All told he received nearly 300 patents before his death in 1956. "I like to go around asking a lot of damn fool questions," he always said.

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