The ubiquitous “TV dinner” – the bane and boon of our times, to use a cliché – may have destroyed dinner-table conversation but has saved many from domestic drudgery. The simple principle behind it is the word, “frozen”. And thereby hangs a tale.
Man, as in humankind, invented the controlled use of fire and began to cook food about a couple of million years ago. But let’s not get into that tangle of history; it’s too complicated. However, it took much longer to harness ice beyond the winter months – that, too, in cold countries, to systematically freeze food.
Unsurprisingly, the first to use the power of ice to freeze and preserve foods were the Chinese. They built ice cellars circa 1000 BC. The Greeks and Romans compressed snow in insulated cellars and stored food. The Egyptians and Indians knew all about rapid evaporation through porous walls and keeping food cool in clay pots, and also producing ice crystals in them. No surprises there, too. These were all cradles of human civilisation. But modern man took a while to commercially freeze and transport food.
Refrigeration came on the scene before air conditioning did, but it was mechanical refrigeration. And then, by the 1740s, G Richman was experimenting with freezing; he presented a paper on the subject at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Thomas Moore, in 1803, received a US Patent for a refrigerator – purportedly the first patent issued in the United States for refrigeration. In 1805, Oliver Evans proposed a closed-cycle, vapour-compression refrigeration system in The Young Steam Engineer’s Guide. Enoch Piper, William Davis, and Daniel E Somes were a few of the early birds who came up with innovative food-freezing techniques. But none of them really cut the ice, so to say.
Then came Clarence Birdseye, a US fur trader, who in his line of work, travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador… and the neighbourhood, where he observed the Inuit people use ice and wind to freeze freshly caught fish almost instantly. He found that the frozen catch was as good as new when thawed and cooked after months. He deduced that food needed to be frozen immediately to preserve its freshness and taste, not to mention its texture. Frozen food available elsewhere, used methods with a slow rate of freezing, which resulted in forming of ice crystals and rupturing of cell membranes, for example, of peas. Ergo, when defrosted, the ice crystals would melt, leaving them soggy and tasteless.
Birdseye saw an opportunity in flash-freezing, and was quick to capitalise on it. He came back to the United States and, with the help of financial backers, founded the General Seafood Corporation, and in 1926 introduced his Quick Freeze Machine.
Birdseye, in fact, had developed two methods of freezing food: In the first, the packaged food was held between two metal belts, which were chilled from -40 degrees F (-40 degrees C) to -45 degrees F (-42.8 degrees C) using a calcium chloride solution. In the second method, the packaged food was held under pressure between two hollow metal plates, which were chilled to -25 degrees F (-31.6 degrees C) by the evaporation of ammonia. This method allowed freezing of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. What was common to the two methods was that the food items were pre-packed. This was an innovation. In fact, Birdseye’s quick-freezing and related processes resulted in garnering 168 patents, including for freezer display cases. According to chronicles, by the time he died in 1956, it had risen to a staggering 300 in diverse fields. However, he was not only an innovator but an ace entrepreneur. His gaze was set on selling frozen food nationwide.
But as always, the cold chain journey was not an easy one. There was resistance to the new idea from various quarters – consumers gave an icy response, and retailers thought it was risky to invest in refrigerated display cases, and cold-shouldered it. However, fortuitously, in the 1930s, American railroads and steamships were crisscrossing the country, with pantry cars and ship galleys, which needed food that would last longer, and frozen food was a blessing. The staff cooked and served them, and the customers, who didn’t know this, dug into the dishes, and found no difference in taste.
However, there were now competitors in the industry, and the industry itself was facing a slump. And then came World War II and, albeit sadly and ironically, saved the frozen food industry. Japan, one of the adversaries, had captured the tin reserves in South East Asia, leading to stringent restrictions on tin in America, even otherwise a precious commodity in war times. Also, canned food had to be sent to feed the army. So food tins disappeared from retail chain shelves, and made way for frozen food, typically packed in paperboard, waxed paper and cellophane.
And by 1944, Birdseye, a supposed school dropout, was not only transporting the popular Birds Eye brand across the country but also leasing refrigerated boxcars, making it possible to distribute through a cold chain, to use a paradox, “fresh-frozen” food. Customers could now enjoy a variety of seasonal dishes all through the year, and frozen food became a billion-dollar industry in America, with several players scrambling to get on to the reefer truck wagons. With competition came innovations, and the coming years saw many milestones being crossed, like frozen concentrated orange juice, frozen breaded seafood and fish stick. By now, Birdseye had found a way to dehydrate food for preservation.
Then in the 1950s, television sets came to American homes, and with that the TV dinner – a full meal from meat down to dessert – which could be warmed up and consumed by couch potatoes, even as they lapped up their daily dose of dramas. Frozen food had ushered in a new way of life.
Sources: https://www.birdseye.com/birds-eye -view/history https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/ mysteries/frozenfood.html http://www.nfraweb.org/resources/ articles/details.aspx?ArticleId=18 https://books.google.co.in/books ?id=NwsLhivGXHIC&pg=PT198&lpg =PT198&dq=Birdseye+Electric+ Company&source=bl&ots=HlRGO3p 7RE&sig=ZvBJC3X4m1zDaS-lijVw5 gVvFIo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKE wjg4uqzqJrKAhWTCI4KHb49CbsQ6 AEIRDAI#v=onepage&q=Birdseye% 20Electric%20Company&f=false