In 1923, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini refused to pay a Gloucester seafood company for a shipment of salt cod.
Mussolini’s action nearly bankrupted the company, but it changed the way we eat. Today we owe at least partial thanks to the Italian Fascist for creating products that are now household names: Gorton’s, Birdseye and Sylvania.
By the time Mussolini seized power in 1922 Gloucester, Mass., had long thrived as a major fishing port. The city’s fishermen primarily caught, cured and sold cod, a big, dumb fish easy to catch. For centuries, salt cod served as a staple that fed slaves and the working poor. Some historians consider salt cod the most important fish on the planet.
But by 1923, the public was losing its appetite for salt cod, preferring fresh fish. Gloucester’s largest fishing company, Gorton’s, was no doubt relieved and happy to get a $1-million-plus order for salt cod from the Italian government.
When the shipment of salt cod reached Italy, Mussolini ordered it seized and refused to pay Gorton’s. The company faced bankruptcy.
The next year, an eccentric inventor named Clarence Birdseye moved to Gloucester and rescued Gorton’s.
Slade Gorton, originally a Rhode Island mill worker, came to fishing by accident. He moved to Cape Ann to oversee the Annisquam Cotton Co., but a fire leveled the mill when Gorton was 51. Out of a job, he helped his wife run a boardinghouse by catching and curing fish for her boarders.
Gorton’s thrifty wife bought a fishing schooner and rented Rockport’s Motif No. 1 for a shop. “We are now in the fish business,” she said, according to lore.
Gorton’s sons joined the business and it prospered.
On March 31, 1906, Slade Gorton made a stunning announcement: It would merge with three other Gloucester fishing operators, creating the largest fishing company on the East Coast with 55 vessels and thousands of employees.
The year after Mussolini stiffed Gorton’s for the salt cod shipment, Clarence Birdseye moved to Gloucester so he could work on freezing fresh fish. He and a few others then opened the General Seafoods Company.
Birdseye had spent five years trapping furs in Labrador, where he noticed how the Eskimos preserved fish. They put them in barrels of brine, where the sub-zero temperatures quickly froze them. The fish tasted fresher and better than fish frozen at higher temperatures in freezers.
Birdseye mimicked the Eskimos’ method with a $7 investment in an electric fan, a cake of ice and a bucket of brine. With that apparatus he flash froze haddock.
After his move to Gloucester, he played around with ways to freeze and package seafood, vegetables, meat and fruit.
The nearly bankrupt Gorton’s turned to Birdseye for help developing a way to freeze fish. Over the next few years, they came up with a product that ended up in millions of U.S. households: frozen fish sticks in a family-size box with the Gorton logo on it – a fisherman in a yellow slicker.
Today, Gorton’s of Gloucester is now a subsidiary of Japanese conglomerate Nippon Suisan Kaisha. It still packages and sells frozen seafood in supermarkets, but it also sells fish sticks to McDonald’s.
Will It Play in Springfield?
Meanwhile, Clarence Birdseye continued to tinker with freezing techniques.
In 1926, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the daughter of a food company founder, was yachting off Gloucester. She was served a goose that had been frozen six months earlier, and its flavor impressed her. Marjorie then asked some questions about the goose and learned that Clarence Birdseye had frozen it. So she told her father, and he bought Birdseye’s business in 1929 for $22 million.
Then called the Postum Co., it became General Foods. The company kept Birdseye on staff to research and develop freezing techniques and put his name on their frozen products. Birdseye invented a commercial freezer, freezer cases for grocery stores and wax packages for retail customers.
On March 6, 1930, Clarence Birdseye market tested 27 frozen foods in 18 Springfield, Mass., grocery stores. Consumers loved it.
Birdseye went on to invent quick-drying in 1946. He improved the incandescent light bulb and founded an electric company that became part of Sylvania. By the time of his death in 1956 he had received 250 patents.
General Foods became a multinational food processing corporation that is now part of Altria, formerly Philip Morris.
Image: Clarence Birdseye By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35811599; Fish sticks By BCastle75 – Photo in a supermarket, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20415400. This story was updated in 2023.