Memories Frozen In Time: Clarence Birdseye and Frozen Foods

birdseye-clarenceOn March 6, 1930, General Foods brought Birds Eye brand frozen peas to the consumer market in 18 stores in the Springfield, Massachusetts area. Clarence Birdseye, who many consider the “father of modern frozen food,” was responsible for changing the way our ancestors ate and how their food was preserved.

Do you remember when frozen foods became more popular in American culture during the 1950s? When TV dinners were all the rage and were seen as a novelty more than a convenience food? Let’s take a walk down the frozen food aisle and see what memories we can find . . .

A Brief History of Modern Frozen Food

Birdseye was a scientist and inventor who created a better way to freeze food in order to retain its freshness, taste and appearance. Prior to the development of his “flash freezing” techniques, frozen foods were often damaged by the freezing process and proved unpopular with the consumer market. Birdseye was inspired by freezing methods he learned while on an ice fishing expedition in parts of Canada.

In 1927, Birdseye patented a method of flash freezing and packaging certain foods such as vegetables. A few years after the 1930 debut of his products, frozen foods were introduced on a nationwide basis once insulated railroad cars were produced to ship products. More changes in the grocery store landscape soon took place once display cases were manufactured which could display frozen foods to the consumer as they shopped. By the early 1950s, the majority of grocery stores in the United States had a “frozen foods” section.

How Did Our Ancestors Preserve Food?

Food preservation was a constant challenge for our ancestors especially when the winter season set in and it was impractical to grow certain foods or to hunt for game. Prior to freezing foods for later consumption, our ancestors would either smoke or dry meats and vegetables or use salt as a preservation method.

One method of food preservation that was likely popular with your family was the use of canning jars. In many rural, farm-based communities, the canning season would begin in mid-summer once berries, fruits and vegetables were ready to be harvested. The ability to eat these foods at a later date no doubt contributed to better nutrition; prior to the advent of home canning, families survived on root vegetables, potatoes and apples, stored in the basement root cellar.

And in the warmer climates, dehydrating items such as grapes and plums was also common. Often, however, such methods produced a less-than-fresh flavor and consistency – a problem that frozen foods seemed to solve.

Frozen Foods: From Novelty to Convenience

Clarence Birdseye’s invention certainly seemed impractical at first; consumers couldn’t imagine buying foods that were frozen when they could either get them fresh or, during winter months, as canned foods (if they hadn’t canned their own items!). By the 1950s, the “TV dinner” consisting of a full meal, even with dessert, was still a novelty. If you grew up eating them, your mother thought they were great because it meant she didn’t need to prepare dinner that night, and as a kid you got a kick out of a foil-wrapped meal right out of the oven.

Fast forward two decades and as more women entered the workforce and families seemed to be always on the go, paired with the availability of the microwave oven, frozen foods were more about convenience. Add in the focus on dieting in the 1980s (with Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice meals), and frozen foods were no longer novel, but had become a staple.

Also consider how the advent of frozen food changed the way we purchased refrigerators . . . they now needed larger freezers to accommodate the new frozen foods. Even large chest freezers were developed and sold to consumers allowing them to buy foods in bulk and freeze for later consumption.

Finally, in the 21st century, the “foodies” demanded freshness and the best quality in food and ethnic dishes and even organic foods can be found in the frozen food aisle of most grocery stores.

© 2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Thomas MacEnteeThomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. He is a frequent guest blogger for SavingMemoriesForever.com. For more information visit http://hidefgen.com.

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