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Clarence Birdseye (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Last night I ate a frozen dinner. I owe that dinner to a man who relished eating seal, whale, and caribou, and who called the front part of a skunk a rare delicacy. His name is Clarence Birdseye. He worked as a naturalists for the government, although I didn't realize that naturalist ate as much as they watched.

In 1912, Birdseye travelled to Labrador, in Canada, to trade fur. One winter day, while ice fishing, Birdseye piled his catch beside his fishing hole. The combination of ice, wind and temperature instantly froze the fish. When he took them home and cooked them, he was surprised they had the taste and texture of fresh food. Four years later he returned to New York, determined to find the secret to frozen food. He could afford to spend only seven dollars for equipment: He got an electric fan, salt, and ice - and borrowed the corner of an ice house from a friend. He discovered that the cells of the fish had been frozen so quickly that there was no time for large crystals to form. It was these ice large crystals that broke the fish's delicate cell walls and killed it. Then on defrosting the broken cells let vital fluids leak out, destroying the taste of the tissue. So, the key to making palatable frozen food was to freeze it quickly.

He experimented with a regular refrigerator. It works by convection, that is, removing heat by a cold stream of air flowing over the food. Birdseye saw immediately that this wasn't fast enough, so he invented a machine which froze by conduction, by pressing thin pieces of the food between metal plates cooled to 25 degrees below zero. In this way, both the temperature and the freezing time could be closely controlled. Even after Birdseye discovered that quick freezing was necessary to avoid large ice crystals, there remained many problems. For example, all cell structures didn't freeze or defrost in the same way or at the same rate. So, for each kind of food Birdseye had to discover the precise temperature needed to produce the smallest crystals in the shortest time.

Once he perfected his flash freezing method, he borrowed on his life insurance to set up, in 1924, the General Seafood Company. He flash froze the catch as soon as it was hauled aboard a trawler.

His Seafood company brought him a fortune when he sold it for millions. He spent the rest of his life inventing, patenting nearly 3000 ideas. The most successful of Clarence Birdseye's inventions, aside from frozen food, was appropriately enough an infra-red heating lamp for thawing it.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises