The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Clarence Birdseye

This New York-born inventor, inspired by Inuit fish-freezing techniques, revolutionized the food world
Clarence Birdseye

Left: Pinnacle Foods Inc.; Right: Birds Eye

Birdseye created an entirely new food industry. 

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees, one per weekday, beginning today. Our first inductee this year is Clarence Birdseye. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.

By perfecting the process of flash-freezing food safely, Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956) transformed the food industry and made more nutritious food more easily available to more people than ever before.

Birdseye was born in Brooklyn but brought up as an outdoorsman, learning taxidermy while a teenager. He attended but did not graduate from Amherst College, instead taking a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Mexico and Arizona as an assistant naturalist. (Among his tasks was killing off coyotes.) From 1912 to 1915, while on government assignment in Labrador, he began research on the fast-freezing of food, a process suggested by his observation of the ice fishing of local Inuits.

Birdseye returned to the U.S. in 1917 and continued his experiments in 1922 at the Clothel Refrigerating Co., with a seven-dollar investment in an electric fan, brine, and ice — then founded his own company, Birdseye Seafoods Inc. This venture went bankrupt in 1924, but by then Birdseye had improved his processes, finding that fish froze best between two refrigerated surfaces under pressure. He established the General Seafood Corporation in 1925 in Gloucester, Massachussetts, and two years later expanded into freezing other foods, including produce and meats, and debuted his patented Quick Freeze Machine. Two years after that, he sold both his company and patents to Goldman Sachs and the Postum Co. for $22 million. After Postum became General Foods Corp., it launched the highly successful Birds Eye Frozen Food Co., shipping its products all over America in refrigerated boxcars.Last year, Americans spent about $53 billion on frozen food, and there is scarcely a home freezer in the land that doesn’t contain at least a few products descended, in one way or another, from Birdseye’s frozen fish.

Frozen food became immensely popular in America, as it preserved the color, texture, and nutritional value of a wide range of foods better than canning (which requires that foods be heated, thus neutralizing some of the vitamins and minerals they contain). Last year, Americans spent about $53 billion on frozen food, and there is scarcely a home freezer in the land that doesn’t contain at least a few products descended, in one way or another, from Birdseye’s frozen fish.

During his lifetime, Birdseye also raised foxes for their pelts, pioneered frozen food grocery display cases, and obtained more than 200 patents for products including light bulbs, harpoons, and paper made from sugarcane pulp. He died of a heart attack in New York City in 1956 — but not before, as the National Inventors Hall of Fame puts it, he “improved the nation's diet and created a new industry based on his innovative food preservation processes.”

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