The first few years of my parents marriage, in the late 1960s, my father was a merchant salesman for the Birds Eye brand of frozen foods. He worked for the manufacturer and sold to retail grocery distributors like , Frosty, Kroger’s distributor at the time. Birds Eye had a private label they packaged in the same Birds Eye brand plant near Geneva, New York, which they called Genessee Valley. They, like other food manufacturers, used cookbooks to sell their newer products. Birds Eye used a woman called Peg Bracken, whose cookbook was titled “The I Hate to Cook Book.” Sort of a nod to the growing Women’s Equality movement, it was based on convenience food prep, and filled with sarcastic commentary like prep and “light a cigarette while you stare sullenly at the sink.” Bracken had worked as a copywriter with Homer Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, Matt Groening’s, father. Mom and Dad’s standard meal in those early years of marriage was an economical one of ground beef cooked with a package of Birds Eye frozen vegetables. Another brand popular with Birds Eye in the late 1960s was a new frozen non dairy whipped topping called Cool Whip, which Dad said sold like hotcakes to retailers.
The Birds Eye brand represents a huge innovation in American Food. Clarence Birdseye, a biology school dropout, caught on to the idea of fast freezing while on a U.S. Department of Agriculture field naturalist gig in the Canadian peninsula of Labrador. As comic as it sounds, Birdseye saw that Eskimos froze their food in the winter due to the challenges of finding fresh food during that time. He noticed that when fresh caught fish was frozen instantly, it retained its fresh quality once thawed. The reason was that only small ice crystals were formed on the surface, that didn’t pierce the cell walls, but left them intact, preventing the sogginess when thawed. Birdseye wondered how this quick freeze process could be applied to vegetables nd other foods. The slow freeze process used at the time caused an enzymatic process when freezing vegetables that caused off flavors. This process could change that.
Clarence Birdseye, inventor of flash freezing of foods (1884-1956)
In 1925, when returning to the states, Birdseye unveiled the Quick Freeze Machine, which worked on fruits, veggies, and fish. With the help of wealthy investors, he started a company called the General Seafood Company, setting himself up in the fishing town of Glouchester, Massacheusetts, first freezing halibut, then expanding to meats, poultry, veggies and fruits.
The story goes that Marjorie Post, the daughter of Charles W. Post, cereal inventor of Grapenuts (1898) and Post Toasties (1904) , happened on a sample of Birdseye’s handiwork – frozen goose – on a stopover in Glouchester, on one of her and her husband’s many yachting trips. Struck by the profitable possibilities of frozen foods, she convinced her board of directors to add Birds Eye to their lineup and in 1929, Birdseye sold his brand and technology to the then Postum Company, which became General Foods.
He stayed on as a consultant, and developed over 300 patents to his name, including grocery store freezer displays, that he could charge proprietors to lease. By the time of Birdseye’s death in 1956, frozen foods had become over a billion dollar industry.