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The Strange History of Frozen Food

From Clarence Birdseye to the Distinguished Order of Zerocrats, how Americans learned to eat from their freezers

Gregory Ng is the chief marketing officer for a marketing agency from North Carolina and the self-proclaimed "Frozen Food Master." He doesn't like pickles — especially the frozen kind — and as the dedicated host to the Youtube frozen food review series Freezerburns, he tried Bob's Pickle Pops, which apparently is pretty trendy in Texas.


"People tell me they use it as an energy boost before exercising or as a refreshing snack," he says. "To me that's really disgusting."

But the pickle popsicle is only one of thousands of frozen food items Greg has sampled. He walks the frozen food aisle twice a week at every major supermarket chain. He gets two or three shipments of new frozen meal or snack options per week on dry ice.

"Part of the reason why I coined the term "Frozen Food Master" is really just the idea that I can say with great certainty that I have tasted more [frozen food] variety than anyone on this planet," he says.

There are thousands of new items introduced into the market every month, he says. Some gourmet, some gluten-free, others family size. These days, there are entire grocery store aisles dedicated to frozen pizzas alone. In 2010 — during a recession — frozen-food sales grew 3.1%, according to the Wall Street Journal. Since then, frozen food technology has increased its popularity by including healthier options and more eco-friendly packaging, which allow foods to stay fresher longer and retain more nutrients.

Clarence Birdseye [Photos: Birdseye]

Clarence Birdseye: Father of Frozen Food

The frozen food industry would be nothing without Clarence Birdseye, the man responsible for Birds Eye frozen foods, which is currently owned by Pinnacle Foods Inc. People have been freezing foods as a means of preservation since as early as 1000 B.C., when the Chinese stored goods in ice cellars. But Birdseye figured out the logistics of selling frozen foods: how could he freeze it fast so it didn't deform the food tissue? How would he package it? How would he transport the product?

As a young engineer in Labrador, an eastern province in Canada, Birdseye often froze his catch after a day of fishing to keep it fresh. He learned this from the Inuit who would fish from holes in the ice and let it freeze instantly in the frigid temperatures, Mark Kurlansky writes in Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. Birdseye noticed that when the fish thawed, it wasn't mushy like other frozen foods he had tried before. This was around 1912.

"When he lived in Labrador, the food he froze for his family was really good — not like the frozen food that was available everywhere," Kurlasky writes. "He realized that because it froze instantly, because it was so cold — that was the key to making frozen food good."

It wasn't until 1927 that Birdseye applied to patent a multiplate freezing machine. According to the Handbook of Frozen Foods, Birdseye placed food between two metallic plates at -13 degrees F against a low convection tunnel to flash-freeze the product. In 1928, Birdseye was successful in creating the double belt freezer which would be the forerunner to modern freezing technology. In 1930, the first line of frozen foods went public through the Birds Eye Frosted Food Company which was later sold to Postum, Inc.

The company advertised June peas "as gloriously green as any you will see next summer."

The original, flash-frozen foods included haddock fillets, 17 other cuts of meat and fish, as well as fruits and veggies like spinach, loganberries and raspberries. The company advertised June peas "as gloriously green as any you will see next summer."

By World War II, canned goods were sent to soldiers overseas and Americans were encouraged to purchase frozen foods. Frozen also used fewer ration points than canned, according to the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association's (NFRA) website. Post-war, between 1945 and 1946, Americans bought 800 million pounds of frozen food, Kurlansky writes.

With the invention of the fish stick and the 98-cent TV dinner in 1954, frozen meals became an American staple. TV trays are still among foods Greg reviews on his show, but they make up less than one percent of the total frozen variety.

"People just don't eat that way anymore," he says. "You can make a really good full meal using frozen products out of components in a way that saves time without sacrificing health."

Gerry Thomas: Father of the TV Dinner

Back in 1954, when the Swanson TV dinner was first sold in retail outlets, a complete, frozen meal was the first of its kind. And it was controversial: men wrote to the company complaining that they preferred their wives cook from scratch like their mothers did as opposed to the "just heat and serve" Swanson meal. (A sign of the times, surely). In 25 minutes, this commercial from 1955 says, your wife could make a meal with "hearty slices of moist tender Swanson turkey, with whipped sweet potatoes and golden Swanson butter." The original TV dinner also included "garden fresh" peas and a cornbread dressing.

But as these invention stories go, at least three different sources have been attributed to the TV dinner, according to the Library of Congress: Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc.

In 1944, W.L. Maxson Co. created the first frozen dinner called "Strato-Plates," which it sold to the Navy and airlines.

In 1944, W.L. Maxson Co. created the first frozen dinner called "Strato-Plates," which it sold to the Navy and airlines. The meals consisted of three basic dishes — meat, vegetables and a potato — on a paperboard tray treated with Bakelite resin. According to the April 1947 issue of Popular Mechanics, until then, crew members and passengers had only had the choice of cold sandwiches and K-rations.

Knowing that airplanes had weight limits, founder William Maxson invented a convection oven called the "Maxson Whirlwind Oven" that weighed 35 pounds (made of aluminum and steel) and could cook six frozen meals at once in half the time of a conventional oven. At the time of the Popular Mechanics article, Maxson was making plans to produce "single food items for the busy housewife" like french fries, corn, carrots, Swiss steak and turkey. But due to decline in demand at the end of WWII and the death of Mr. Maxson in 1947, Strato-Plates never made it to the retail market.

Three years later, Jack Fisher released FrigiDinner, the first aluminum tray for frozen meals. It was the design the Swanson TV dinner tray — which was shaped like a television — would borrow from a decade later. When Albert and Meyer Bernstein created Frozen Dinners, Inc. in 1949, the FrigiDinner found a market. By 1954, the same year Swanson trademarked the TV dinner concept, the brothers sold over two and a half-million frozen dinners.

[Photos: blakta2, joebehr / Flickr ]

The most popular story — until recently — was that Swanson exec Gerry Thomas came up with the idea during a turkey surplus in 1952. The company needed a way to sell 520,000 pounds of extra bird.

The most popular story was that a Swanson exec came up with the idea during a turkey surplus in 1952.

Thomas, then 30, was on a business trip to Pittsburgh flying Pan American Airlines, when it hit him. His heated meal was served in a metal tray. This was how Swanson would package the extra turkeys: frozen and in trays like the one on the plane.

"It was just a single compartment tray with foil," he said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."

The first few thousand TV dinners were sold in Omaha near Swanson headquarters in 1954. After the meal went national, they sold ten million dinners in the first year.

In the 1999 AP interview, Thomas claimed credit not for the TV dinner itself — the airlines did that first — but for the method of how it was served. Marketing the product as an easy-to-eat meal in front of the television set, which was then skyrocketing in popularity, and using your lap as a table is what set Swanson apart from the previous frozen meals.

For his years of work in the industry and, of course, the TV dinner, Thomas was inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame (more on that later). One of his trays made an appearance in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and his hand prints are cemented into the ground outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

But in 2003, controversy over the real inventor surfaced from a Los Angeles Times article that questioned Thomas's story. Heirs to the Swanson fortune told the newspaper that Thomas made the whole thing up, that he had little or nothing to do with the design of the dinner tray. Carol Swanson Price said her father, Clarke Swanson, and uncle, Gilbert Swanson, who ran the company in the early 1950s, pitched the idea.

"This has been a source of annoyance to me over the years because I have seen a lot of people claim credit," Price told the LA Times. "I'd like to set the record straight."

Nearly 60 years later, the true inventor remains unknown. One thing we do know: Thomas stuck with his story until he died from cancer in 2005. He was 83.

[Photo: letsgoroadtripping / Flickr]

The First Frozen Bagel

The first frozen bagel was born in New Haven, Connecticut, a product that would introduce a convenience for shoppers that would change the American breakfast table for good. In 1927, Harry Lender and his sons Murray and Marvin began selling traditional Jewish breads and rolls and what would eventually make them famous: bagels. With the efficiency of the Thompson machine (it could form 600 bagels an hour), Lender's outgrew the state of Connecticut in bagel production. Even after they began packaging them in plastic bags in the mid-fifties, the bagels would go stale after a few days. To extend the shelf life of the bagels they were producing in such large quantities, they flash-froze the product before shipping. This, of course, compromised some of the made-from-scratch goodness of the original Lender's bagel, but over time, the company developed recipes for sweeter, softer bagels post freeze. By the seventies, Lenders bagels could be found in grocers' freezers across the country.

The original use of frozen technology was just to keep the bread fresh before delivery. The night before, they'd defrost the bagels and their recipients were "none the wiser," writes Maria Balinska in her book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. Word eventually got out that the "fresh" bagels were yesterday's frozen bread and buyers were angry at first. But the convenience of the easy-to-grab, frozen breakfast item drowned out initial complaints. Lender's was also the first bagel producer to sell frozen bagels pre-cut so clumsy customers wouldn't slice themselves on slippery, recently-defrosted bread. Pre-cut, the frozen product was toaster ready straight from the freezer — a first for bagels and the frozen food industry as a whole.

The Frozen Food Hall of Fame

Gerry Thomas is among hundreds of others in the Frozen Food Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who have substantial involvement with the frozen food industry or have contributed substantially to the advancement of the industry. According to National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association president and CEO Skip Shaw, the first class of the Hall-of-Famers included frozen food wonders from Clarence Birdseye, John Baugh from the Sysco Corporation, to C. James McNutt of the Campbell's company, among others.

The Hall of Fame was co-founded by the NFRA in 1990, but has roots dating back to the early fifties with the creation of the somewhat mysterious group known as The Distinguished Order of Zerocrats.

Each spring, the Zerocrats, made up of industry professionals including Hall-of-Famers and incoming chairman of various trade associations, vote on the newest inductees. The nominations are then sent to the selection committee, which consists of the Chairman of the Zerocrats, the Chairman-Elect and presidents of the NFRA and The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI).

At the last Zerocrat dinner, the inductees for October 2013 were announced. Three individuals: the late Harry Hussmann, founder of the Hussmann Patented Refrigerated Meat Display case and Hussmann Refrigerator Company; Nevin B. Montgomery, retired president of the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association; and the late L.B. (Lively) Willoughby, patented inventor of the refrigerated biscuit dough (later used by Pillsbury). This summer, the Zerocrats will meet again to pick next year's recipients.

While the TV dinner seems a novelty item these days — nostalgic down to its individual tray compartments — it doesn't seem like frozen food products are going anywhere. At least if the "Frozen Food Master" has anything to say about it.

"The technology and convenience of frozen food has created a hyper niche market served by Whole Foods and Trader Joe's," Gregory says. "These healthier companies like Amy's Organics and Kashi are feeding really specific eaters — gluten free, low calorie, and organic. As long as companies have microwave-only kitchens and there are healthy options are out there, frozen food technology is always gonna be around."

K. Annabelle Smith writes about weird food history at Smithsonian.com and has tackled everything from gun culture in New Mexico to the lost Rice Krispie mascot. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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