During the covid-19 pandemic, sales of fish sticks have increased by 50% in some places. People were looking for food that was convenient, child-friendly and easy to store. And that’s just the latest problem that fish sticks have solved. After their invention in the 1950s, fish sticks contributed to an oversupply of fish after World War II. They were there a few years later when more women started working full time. And when people started cutting out red meat from their diets, fish sticks even helped make seafood more sustainable. So even though they’re just frozen rectangles, fish sticks are actually flexible enough to help solve some of the biggest problems in the food world.
Kira Bindrim, Quartz Editor and host of the Quartz Obsession podcast, told Associate Editor Liz Webber how fish fingers have become part of the frozen food renaissance.
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When were fish sticks invented?
Liz Webber: So it starts in the 1950s. And fish sticks were a solution to a problem that consumers didn’t know they had. After WWII the fishing industry modernized, improved – they had bigger boats, refrigeration was available so they could catch lots of fish, chill it and process it on their boats and had all that fish they were trying to sell to the American public. But the Americans did not believe it. You know, after World War II, all of a sudden the meat that had been rationed during the war was available again. Fish, it’s boring, it stinks, you know, it’s hard to prepare if you’re just going to buy a whole fish. The fishing industry therefore began to think of ways to interest the American consumer in fish. The first product they came up with was a bit of a failure. It was a brick of fish.
So it’s sort of what it sounds like: a giant tub of frozen fish that you like to scrape up as much as you want when you’re ready to cook like a tub of ice cream. No one was interested in the fish brick, unsurprisingly. Thus, in 1953, after three years of product development, the Birds Eye brand in the United States released the fish stick. You know, it’s a long, lean piece of fish, breaded and fried. It was closely followed by two other brands, the Gorton’s Brothers and Fulham. So it really took off.
Are fish sticks popular elsewhere in the world?
Liz Webber: They certainly have a lot of popularity in Europe. The UK is still very big on the fish finger. Germany, also a big consumer of fish sticks, Germans eat 2 billion fish sticks a year. Elsewhere in the world, you know, it varies. In 2016, Domino’s China created a special Chinese New Year pizza with fish sticks in the shape of fish because fish is a symbol of wealth and success. It was therefore an auspicious food for the new year. There is a brand in South Africa called Sea Harvest which has been making fish sticks or fish sticks since the early 1970’s. store-bought frozen fish sticks. But food blogs in places like Egypt, Nigeria or Kenya offer recipes for making fish sticks at home. So it’s a known and maybe popular food there, but not necessarily one that you would buy at the store. However, over the last couple of years Kenya has been trying to promote its local fishing industry, increase production and, you know, help fishermen make more money by introducing processed products like fish sticks.
Did frozen foods become popular during the covid-19 pandemic?
Liz Webber: Of course, frozen foods across the board have seen strong sales growth during the pandemic. It started a little before the pandemic, you know, looking at millennials who are now parents who have to put food on the table, and they would often turn to frozen choices for that. But frozen entrees, frozen appetizers, frozen seafood in general, sales have increased over the past two years. So it kind of follows a larger trend. And one of the reasons that sales have continued to be strong for frozen foods, even though, you know, restaurants have reopened, you’re going back to the office, is that people have been buying freezers during the pandemic. And now they’re like, “Oh, I can store this freezer, because I have it.”
Are fish sticks a sustainable food?
Liz Webber: Of course, as with all things sustainability, the answer is: it’s complicated. But, looking at where the fish that goes into the fish sticks comes from, a lot of it is Alaska pollock or, you know, other similar species. And these fisheries tend to be very sustainable. Many fish stick brands have actually sought sustainability certification, whether it’s the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or something else. FRoSTA, this German brand, actually stopped making fish sticks for almost 10 years because they couldn’t source enough MSC-certified fish. And they only recently restarted in 2014, so that’s definitely something food companies are thinking about. At the same time, there was a study (pdf) that came out a few years ago that said yes, fishing is sustainable, but that’s not the only thing that goes into making sticks fish—you have to look at the whole supply chain. So once the fish are caught and, you know, frozen into giant fish bricks, they’re put on freighters which are these gas-guzzling vessels. Often, fish caught off Alaska goes first to China for processing, then back to the United States where it ends up in trucks for delivery to the supermarket. So this part adds a significant amount of carbon emissions. And so you have to think about the whole supply chain when looking at a product. So it’s complicated.
How has the marketing of fish sticks changed over time?
Liz Webber: On the packaging of the fish sticks you will certainly see a lot more about sustainability. But two of the biggest fish stick or fish stick brands we talked about about two years ago around this time really revamped their marketing efforts to appeal to a younger, hipper demographic. So Birds Eye in the UK had been using this character since 1967 called Captain Birdseye. He was kind of cartoonish, kind of like a Santa Claus, you know, a friendly grandfather with a beard, was played by the same actor for over 30 years and then since then there’s been a few different people who have took on the role of Captain Birdseye. But in 2018, he was recast as this kind of hunky sailor. Which caused a lot of consternation in the UK, partly because he was, you know, this iconic childhood character who was all of a sudden sexified, but he was also an Italian actor who pissed people off .
Here in the USA, the Gorton’s brand, since 1975, uses a character: the Gorton’s fishermen. And he’s kind of a simple old-school New England fisherman. He has a yellow raincoat and a rain hat. So there was no light. But also in 2018, he was joined by new friends: the mer-bros. So, it’s kind of exactly what it sounds like: these very brother newts who are also very bright.
Can fish sticks be the future of food?
Liz Webber: So you can also reverse it as the fish sticks are trying to capture some of the future of food trends. So there’s a company called Good Catch, which makes, for lack of a better term, the Impossible fish stick. You know, it’s a plant-based food, but it’s supposed to mimic the taste of a fish and its texture, you know, the same way Impossible or Beyond does the burgers you know, make you believe that you’re having a burger. And then Birds Eye UK owner Nomad Foods is working with an American company called BlueNalu to develop lab-grown fish products, including fish sticks.
What’s the best way to eat fish sticks?
Liz Webber: Well, I’m generally a fish stick purist – just have the fish sticks with a dip. But something Gorton has been pushing lately that I’m very tempted to try is fish stick tacos, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. It’s really a very similar idea of a breaded and fried fish that goes in a tortilla with various other ingredients. A quote from this marketing manager from Gordon, which I think is just fantastic – and keep in mind this is the marketing manager, and this quote is from mid-2020. He talks about how, you know, people who are tired of eating old fish sticks, they make fish tacos: “All of a sudden you feel like you’ve been transported to your favorite Mexican restaurant. And that’s where we found the magic.
In the UK they are really big on fish finger sandwiches. It’s kind of like a simple fried fish sandwich. The fish is just in a slightly different shape. There are both high-end versions of this, as well as the low-brow version you’d get at the local pub after a night out. And Birds Eye UK said one thing people have been doing during the pandemic when pubs are closed is making fish finger sandwiches at home.