Walk a supermarket’s frozen-foods aisle, and a seemingly endless array of dining options beckons from behind the frosty glass. Frozen pizzas, blintzes, calzoni and veggies make for quick, easy meals. Frozen berries, peach cobblers and fruit pies bring summer’s bounty to winter tables.
Since the frozen-foods industry emerged during the 1930s and ‘40s, the eating habits of countless families have changed. But the packaged convenience and nonseasonal foods only reflect part of a long and eventful history. The Los Angeles Times was one of many publications that spread the word about the new mechanical method of freezing and the benefits and uses of frozen foods.
Cookbooks such as Helen Quat’s 1964 “The Wonderful World of Freezer Cooking” suggested one method for home entertaining: “As soon as the invitations are out, you dream up your menu, cook it and store it in the freezer. Then you forget about the party until the day before,” when party dishes should be transferred to the refrigerator for thawing. As a preservation process, freezing became as popular as the canning and drying that had come before.
How did frozen foods get their start? One man is largely responsible--a Brooklyn-born fur trader named Clarence Birdseye (though English philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon experimented by stuffing chickens with snow in the early 17th century). On a 1912 trip to Labrador, Newfoundland, Birdseye discovered that when fish was quickly frozen (in this case, by sub-zero weather), it tasted as good as fresh, as long as it was kept frozen until cooking time.
Impressed with the quick-freezing idea, he opened Birdseye Seafoods in New York City in 1922 and soon began selling cleaned fish in specially insulated packages that were frozen under pressure between two flat, refrigerated surfaces. The business failed within a year, however, as Birdseye struggled to perfect the freezing process and keep costs down. Through the late 1920s, Birdseye continued to tinker with various freezing methods (for produce as well as fish) and reestablished the business, which became the frozen-foods division of General Foods Corp. in 1929. Birds Eye Frosted Foods went on sale for the first time in 1930, with frozen peas, spinach, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, loganberries, steak, chicken and fish.
Consumers seemed to like what they tasted, news reports said at the time. But the general public needed to be educated about this new phenomenon called “frosted foods.” So General Foods salesmen and home economists visited women’s clubs and other community gatherings to sell the frosted-foods idea: The packaged food was of the highest quality, it was different from the “cold-storage” variety (still relatively new and often distrusted) and shoppers must remember to store frozen goods in the “ice-cube unit” of their mechanical refrigerators (families began purchasing refrigerators in the 1920s and sales had risen dramatically by the mid-1930s, though old-fashioned iceboxes were still quite common through the 1940s).
In addition, facilities for transporting, storing and displaying the frozen foods were needed. Suddenly, portable freezers and redesigned refrigerator boxcars and trucks were in high demand. And since frozen foods would be competing in grocery stores with fresh and canned goods, they required attractive display cases--ones that didn’t hide the food behind the then-ubiquitous mirrored refrigerator doors. In 1934, the American Radiator Corp. manufactured freezer display cases for grocers that would feature Birds Eye products exclusively.
The Times, like other newspapers around the country, picked up on the buzz generated by the frozen-foods industry. Articles and recipes devoted to the new trend appeared regularly in the food pages by the early 1940s.
On Jan. 10, 1943, food writer Clementine Paddleford described the virtues of “quick-frozen, box-packed” meals in a story headlined “Dinner . . . Hot Off the Ice.” She called them “wartime savers of storage and shipping space,” offering “exciting variety” (virtually anything--melons, peaches, roast beef, spaghetti, lamb stew, angel-food cake batter--could be frozen) and “health values.” According to Paddleford, that year 60 kinds of food were available frozen, packed by 140 companies and sold under 72 brands in 30,000 stores in 48 states.
Another 1943 story promoted the rental of neighborhood frozen-food lockers for storing freezer foods. The article, headlined “Freezing in California: Canning by refrigeration is a practical method of conserving surplus foods,” indicated that these storage facilities were a convenient option for families that did not have “quick-freeze units” set up in the home (even those who did found it difficult to store very much, since the home units generally had space for only four ice-cube trays). Production of large-sized, free-standing home freezers was put on hold during World War II. Sales would skyrocket in the 1950s, however, coinciding with the introduction of frozen “TV dinners.”
Advertisements show that Penguin-brand “frozen-fresh” peas (12-ounce packages) sold for 21 cents at A&P supermarkets in January 1943. French-sliced green beans (10-ounce packages) also sold for 21 cents and whole kernel corn (12-ounce packages) sold for 22 cents. During the same period at Ralphs markets, shoppers could find Birds Eye frozen cherries (16-ounce packages) for 26 cents, baby green lima beans (12-ounce packages) for 30 cents, blueberries (13-ounce packages) for 35 cents or spinach (14-ounce packages) for 24 cents.
Packaging of these items varied through the years. In 1943, Paddleford exulted over the fact that “cardboard and plastic film are all it takes” to package 1 million pounds of frozen peas, whereas “some 269,196 pounds of steel and tin” are required to store the same amount of peas in cans. In 1947, one Times story described “the excellent new durable fiber boxes that have metal ends . . . an improvement in frozen-foods packaging because the cartons are leak-proof and afford more substantial protection to the food contents.” By the 1950s, frozen “TV dinners” would come on three-section aluminum trays.
The Vegetable Medley recipe that follows appeared in The Times on Dec. 9, 1947, under the headline, “Improved Package Makes Frozen Foods Even Better.” And the Creamed Green Beans and Onions recipe appeared on Jan. 17, 1943, under the headline, “Summer Meals--Now!” Each incorporates frozen ingredients and tastes as fresh and healthy as anything we might make today using frozen veggies. Yet they’re a link to the past and a reminder of the frozen-foods industry’s history of ingenuity, marketing savvy and good luck.