Paul Josephson, the self-described “Mr. Fish Stick,” is probably best at explaining why the fish stick became successful. Josephson teaches Russian and Soviet history at Colby College, in Maine, but his research interests are wide ranging (think sports bras, aluminum cans, and speed bumps). In 2008, he wrote what is the defining scholarly paper on fish sticks. The research for it required him to get information from seafood companies, which proved unexpectedly challenging. “In some ways, it was easier to get into Soviet archives having to do with nuclear bombs,” he recalls.
Josephson dislikes fish sticks. Even as a kid, he didn’t understand why they were so popular. “I found them dry,” he says. Putting aside personal preference, Josephson insists that the world didn’t ask for fish sticks. “No one ever demanded them.”
Instead, the fish stick solved a problem that had been created by technology: too much fish. Stronger diesel engines, bigger boats, and new materials increased catches after the Second World War. Fishers began scooping up more fish than ever before, Josephson says. To keep them from spoiling, fishers skinned, gutted, deboned, and froze their hauls on board.
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Frozen fish, however, had a terrible reputation. Early freezers chilled meat and vegetables slowly, causing the formation of large ice crystals that turned food mushy upon defrosting.
That all changed in the 1920s, when the entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye developed a novel freezing technique, in which food was placed between metal plates. Food froze so quickly that the dreaded ice crystals couldn’t form. But when used on fish, the method created large blocks of intermingled fillets that, when pried apart, tore into “mangled, unappetizing chunks,” Josephson wrote. The fishing industry tried selling the blocks whole, as “fishbricks.” These were packaged like blocks of ice cream, with the idea that a home cook could chop off however much fish she wanted that day. But supermarkets had little luck selling the unwieldy bricks, and many stores even lacked adequate freezer space to display them.
Success came when the bricks were cut into standardized sticks. In a process that has remained essentially unchanged, factories run the frozen fish blocks through an X-ray machine to ensure they’re bone-free, then use band saws to cut them into slices. These “fingers” are dumped into a batter of egg, flour, salt, and spices, and then breaded. Afterward, they’re briefly tossed into hot oil to set the coating. The whole process takes about 20 minutes, during which the fish remains frozen, even when dunked in the deep fryer.
In 1953, 13 companies produced 3.4 million kilograms of fish sticks. A year later, 4 million kilograms were produced by another 55 companies. This surge in popularity was partly due to a marketing push that stressed the convenience of the new food: “no bones, no waste, no smell, no fuss,” as one Birds Eye advertisement proclaimed.