December: A Month Known for Freezing

On December 9, 1886 Clarence F. Birdseye II was born in Brooklyn, New York.

He was a biology major at Amherst College. He did not graduate, however, as he chose to quit school to accept a job as a field naturalist for the US Biological Survey.

In the summer of 1910, Clarence spent this spring and part of the summer in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, trapping and shooting wild game and wild rodents in  in order to collect ticks for research about Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

He trapped and shot more than 700 small animals and collected more than 4,000 ticks in an effort to understand the lifecycle of the wood tick.

For his next assignment, he was posted in a Labrador, in the Arctic, in order to study the ways of the Inuit. It was during this posting that he came up with the first inkling of an idea which would not only make in a millionaire, but would also revolutionize cooking.

He noticed that the fish they caught froze even as it was being pulled from the water. He inferred that the combination of wind, ice, and very low temperature instantly froze fresh fish.  He also realized that when that frozen fish was cooked, it tasted the same as fresh fish and, amazingly, maintained the same texture.

For years, there had been attempts to freeze foods in order to preserve them, but up until that time, those attempts had been thwarted by the formation of ice crystals on the foods which were being experimented on. But with his biology background, he was able to make the observation that the fish was frozen so quickly that ice crystals were not able to form.

Ever the cautious man, Clarence continued to work for the federal government in different departments until 1925, all the while perfecting his method of freezing food. He had realized how the public would welcome foods which tasted fresh despite the fact that they were not.

In September of 1922, while still a government employee, Clarence returned to New York City and started his own company which he called Birdseye Seafoods, Inc. with an investment of $7.00 for an electric fan, cakes of ice, and a few buckets of brine. 

After much experimentation, he concluded that packing food into waxed cardboard cartons, placing it between frozen plates, and flash freezing it while applying great pressure to it garnered the best results. He found that food frozen and packaged this way was consistently the same in taste and texture when they were thawed out, and even months later. Clarence applied for a patent on the quick-freeze double-belt machine which facilitated the revolutionary method of freezing and was granted one.

In 1929, Clarence sold his company and his patents to Goldman Sachs and the Postum Company -- which eventually became General Foods Corporation. Clarence walked away with $22 million, and General Foods founded Birds Eye Frosted Foods. 

He continued to work with the company, and soon realized that customers needed a place in which to display and store his food. In 1930, he invented the refrigerated grocery display case. In return for their promise to display exclusively Birds Eye products in the cases, stores could lease the cases for $8.00 a month.

In 1944, he came up with the idea of leasing insulated refrigerated train cars, which served to transport his frozen food from coast to coast.

He invented dozens of things and held numerous patents for such things as a harpoon for marking whales, a spotlight for store window displays, and an infrared heat lamp.

Clarence died on October 7, 1956 in a Manhattan hotel of a heart attack. His freezing process lives on and has undergone virtually no changes. Frozen food sales account for more than $30 billion a year, all thanks to Clarence Birdseye.