Fish Sticks Make No Sense

How a weird 1950s finger food made it big

Fish sticks on a production line
RGB Ventures/SuperStock/Alamy Stock Photo

There are many curious facts about fish sticks. The invention of this frozen food warranted a U.S. patent number, for instance: US2724651A. The record number of them stacked into a tower is 74. And, every year, a factory in Germany reportedly produces enough fish sticks to circle Earth four times.

But the most peculiar thing about fish sticks may be their mere existence. They debuted on October 2, 1953, when General Foods released them under the Birds Eye label. The breaded curiosities were part of a lineup of newly introduced rectangular foods, which included chicken sticks, ham sticks, veal sticks, eggplant sticks, and dried-lima-bean sticks. Only the fish stick survived. More than that, it thrived. In a world in which many people are wary of seafood, the fish stick spread even behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain.

Beloved by some, merely tolerated by others, the fish stick became ubiquitous—as much an inevitable food rite of passage for kids as a Western cultural icon. There’s an entire South Park episode devoted to riffing off the term fish stick, and the artist Banksy featured the food in a 2008 exhibit. When Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday, in 2016, Birds Eye presented her with a sandwich that included blanched asparagus, saffron mayonnaise, edible flowers, caviar, and—most prominently—gold-leaf-encrusted fish sticks.

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.

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.

The appeal of fish sticks is somewhat paradoxical. They contain fish, but only that with the mildest flavor—and that fish has been dressed up to resemble chicken tenders.

The battered disguise may be needed because, at least in North America, seafood tends to be second-tier. “We’ve mostly considered the eating of fish to be beneath our aspirations,” writes the chef and author Barton Seaver in American Seafood. Traditionally, fish was associated with sacrifice and penance—food to eat when meat was unaffordable or, if you were Catholic, to eat on the many days when red meat was verboten. Fish also spoils fast, smells bad, and contains sharp bones that pose a choking hazard.

The advent of fish sticks made eating fish easier and more palatable for the seafood wary. “You can almost pretend that it isn’t fish,” says Ingo Heidbrink, a maritime historian at Old Dominion University in Virginia. In his native Germany, where a reported 7 million people eat fish sticks at least once a week, companies have changed the fish at least three times since the product’s introduction, from cod to pollock to Alaska pollock, a distinct species. “Consumers didn’t seem to notice,” Heidbrink says.

Josephson calls fish sticks “the ocean’s hot dogs.” Served as casseroles or alongside mashed potatoes, they quickly became standby components of school lunches and family dinners. During the pandemic, demand has risen as families stock up on convenience foods during lockdowns.

Surprisingly, fish sticks are fairly sustainable. Today, most contain Alaska pollock, which is largely sourced from well-managed fisheries, says Jack Clarke, a sustainable-seafood advocate at the United Kingdom–based Marine Conservation Society. The climate impact of fish sticks is small, too. “I was surprised at how low it was,” says Brandi McKuin, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz, who recently studied Alaska-pollock products. Each kilogram of fish sticks produces about 1.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which “rivals the climate impact of tofu,” she says. Beef, by comparison, produces more than 100 times that amount of carbon dioxide per kilogram.

But not everyone seems confident about what exactly they’re eating when they consume the breaded fish. In the United Kingdom, where fish sticks are known as fish fingers, a survey revealed that one in five young adults believes they are actually the fingers of fish.

They still eat them happily.

This post appears courtesy of Hakai Magazine.