How Fish Sticks Became The Food Of The Future That Nobody Asked For

How Fish Sticks Became The Food Of The Future That Nobody Asked For

As a society, our relationship with food is in constant flux. Sometimes we value efficiency in the name of feeding as many people as possible. Other times we value quality ingredients in the name of nurturing the body or soul. When the modern fish stick was invented in the 1950s, it was definitely for efficiency. But rather than doing it in the name of feeding as many people as possible, it was all sold as being the wave of “the future”.

Magazine ad from the March 1956 issue of Scientific American showing the quick-freezing seafood of the future

During World War II consumption of fish rose in the US, not because Americans had acquired a new taste for seafood, but because meat producers were focused on the war effort. Beef was being rationed, and burger chains like White Castle were even brainstorming new products like chop suey and fish patties. But after the war, the sale of fish declined and Americans went back to buying meat. So what did the fishmongers do? They came up with a futuristic product that absolutely no one asked for and marketed the hell out of it: The fish stick.

The entire story is told in the absolutely fantastic paper The Ocean’s Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick by Paul R. Josephson. The title alone is wonderful, but the paper gives us a great look at how a food product can be created, marketed and ultimately sold to consumers even if those same consumers are tremendously sceptical that the product even qualifies as food.

The fish stick’s arrival and domination was truly remarkable. The Wall Street Journal called fish sticks “the first really new processing development in a quarter-century for one of the nation’s oldest industries” in 1954.

Josephson’s description of how the fish stick first came to be isn’t very appetising. In fact, it might put you off fish sticks altogether if you’re the squeamish type, as he describes the various technological advances that had to occur after World War II to make fish sticks a reality (emphasis mine):

These advances occurred in catching, freezing, processing, and transportation technologies. The postwar years witnessed a rapid increase in the size of merchant marines in many countries, with these merchant fleets adopting new, almost rapacious catching methods and simultaneously installing massive refrigeration and processing facilities onboard huge trawlers. Sailors caught, beheaded, skinned, gutted, filleted, and then plate or block-froze large quantities of cod, pollock, haddock, and other fish — tens of thousands of pounds — and kept them from spoiling in huge freezing units. Once on shore, the subsequent attempt to separate whole pieces of fish from frozen blocks resulted in mangled, unappetizing chunks. Frozen blocks of fish required a series of processes to transform them into a saleable, palatable product. The fish stick came from fish blocks being band-sawed into rectangles roughly three inches long and one inch wide (~7.5 2.5 cm), then breaded and fried. Onboard processors eventually learned to trim fish into fillets and other useable cuts before freezing. Processors considered these other cuts the “portion,” which found a home in institutional kitchens (schools, hospitals, factories, and restaurants). Fish sticks had a largely retail success, however, because demand for them in schools and elsewhere waned as more manufacturers entered production and quality declined.

For his paper Josephson gained access to the Gorton’s company archives. Gorton’s is a US company that’s probably best known for their yellow-hatted mascot; a fisherman in the frozen food aisle hawking fish sticks and prawns. And from the paper we get a glimpse into some of the marketing that made fish sticks a success.

For instance, in 1953 the head of Gorton’s advertising convinced the publishers of Parents magazine to give fish sticks a “seal of approval”. By 1955, sales of Gorton’s fish sticks were up 27 per cent.

Even companies that had nothing to do with fish sticks were hawking the product in one way or another. Because as we’ve seen here at Gizmodo time and again, advertisers love to be associated with anything that’s even vaguely associated with “the future”.

The Modern Mechanix blog has the ad that appears at the top of this post, which ran in the March 1956 issue of Scientific American magazine. Despite being for ball bearings, it associated itself with the futuristic idea of flash-freezing fish, and by extension the burgeoning fish stick market:

From catch to “quick-freeze” in minutes . . . that’s the trawler of tomorrow — a floating fishery to locate, attract, catch, process, package and freeze fish … manufacture by-products and conserve spawn. Imaginary? Sure! But it’s coming. And look for New Departure ball bearings, many self-sealed and lubricated-for-life, on the job. New Departures simplify design, require little or no maintenance, assure long-life performance of working parts under extreme conditions. Today, as in the future, it’s New Departure for the finest in quality and engineering service.

And it wasn’t just marketing to consumers that made fish sticks take off. The product benefited tremendously from government subsidies for everything from purchasing freezer display cases for supermarkets to making sure that fish sticks were part of school lunch programs.

Paul R. Josephson’s paper, The Ocean’s Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick, is a must-read for anyone interested in the retro-future of food. Or anyone, for that matter, who ever ate a fish stick — whether you liked it or not. For those of us who grew up on them, it’s hard to think of a fish stick as the future. But with apologies to both trash and treasure, one man’s past is another man’s future.

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