Working as a fur trader in Labrador, Canada, in the early 20th century, Clarence Birdseye noticed that locals often froze their food to ensure that they’d have plenty to eat when fresh fare wasn’t available. Back in the U.S., he began experimenting with techniques to quick-freeze a variety of produce and seafood, eventually discovering a way to preserve their original flavor. By the time of his death in 1956, frozen foods had become a billion-dollar industry.
His name lives on through the Birds Eye brand found in supermarket freezer sections all over America, but many more brands have appeared over the years and new techniques have been developed. The quality of frozen foods is now better than ever.
Of course, we love fresh food, locally sourced if possible — as the proliferation of farmers markets around the country in recent years has shown. (Their number has grown from fewer than 2,000 a quarter-century ago to more than 8,600 today.) At the same time, though, sales of frozen food have actually grown slightly in the past couple of years. According to the American Frozen Food Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, that growth has come primarily in the categories of soups/sides, appetizers/snack rolls, and breakfast foods.
There are, of course, many more items in the freezer case besides prepared foods like these. There’s an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables harvested at their seasonal peak and preserved by flash-freezing, including newly popular foods that Clarence Birdseye surely never heard of, like “superfood” açaí berries and innovative products like cauliflower rice. The frozen food pioneer would surely be amazed, in fact, by the biggest fads and trends in food and drink since 2010.
There are various reasons for buying certain foods in frozen form. Convenience is a big one — not having to peel or shell some produce; having access to ready-to-use ingredients at a moment’s notice — as is access to “seasonal” produce out of season. Stocking frozen food also cuts down on food waste, since we don’t have to worry about spoilage and food items going stale. (That’s less likely to be an issue in the case of these foods with the longest shelf life.)