The unlikely success of fish sticks

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There are many curious facts about fish sticks. The invention of this frozen food warranted a US patent number, for example: US2724651A. The record number of them stacked in a tower is 74. And, each year, a factory in Germany would produce enough fish sticks to circle the Earth four times.

But perhaps the weirdest thing about fish sticks is 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 range 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, he thrived. In a world where many people are wary of seafood, the fish stick has caught on even behind the Iron Curtain of the Cold War.

Adored by some, simply tolerated by others, the fish stick has become ubiquitous, as much an essential food rite of passage for children as it is a cultural icon. There is a whole South Park episode dedicated to riffing on the term fish stick, and 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 worth US$257 which included blanched asparagus, saffron mayonnaise, edible flowers, caviar and, most importantly, gold leaf encrusted fish sticks.

A UK advert for Smedley’s fish sticks appears in 1957, four years after the frozen food was unveiled by Birds Eye. Photo by Neil Baylis/Alamy Stock Photo

As to why the fish stick has become a hit, there’s probably no better guide than Paul Josephson, the so-called “Mr. Fish stick. Josephson teaches Russian and Soviet history at Colby College in Maine, but her research interests are wide-ranging (think sports bras, tinfoil cans, and speed bumps). In 2008, he authored what is still the defining scientific paper on fish sticks. This search required him to obtain information from seafood companies, which proved surprisingly difficult. “In a way, it was easier to access the Soviet archives concerning nuclear bombs,” he recalls.

Josephson doesn’t like fish sticks. Even as a child, he didn’t understand why they were so popular. “I found them dry,” he says. Putting personal preferences aside, Josephson insists the world didn’t ask for fish fingers. “Nobody ever demanded them.”

Instead, the fish stick solved a problem that had been created by technology: too much fish. More powerful diesel engines, larger boats and new materials increased catches after World War II. Anglers have started catching more fish than ever before, Josephson says. To prevent spoilage, the fish were skinned, gutted, deboned and frozen on board.

Frozen foods, however, had a terrible reputation. Early freezers slowly cooled meat and vegetables, causing large ice crystals to form that made food mushy when thawed.

That all changed in the 1920s, when entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye developed a new freezing technique, in which food was placed between metal plates chilled to at least -30°C. The food froze so quickly that the dreaded ice crystals could not form. But when used on fish, the method creates large interlocking clumps of fillets that, when pulled apart, tear into “mutilated, unappetizing pieces,” writes Josephson. The fishing industry tried to sell the blocks whole, like fishbricks. These were packaged like blocks of ice cream, with the idea that a housewife could cut as many fish as she wanted that day. But supermarkets had little luck selling the bulky bricks, and many stores lacked even enough 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 frozen fish blocks through an X-ray machine to ensure they are boneless, then use band saws to cut them into slices. These “fingers” are tossed in a batter made from egg, flour, salt and spices, then breaded. Then they are briefly tossed in hot oil to set the coating. The whole process takes about 20 minutes, during which time the fish stays frozen, even when dropped into the fryer.

Two women work on a production line for frozen fish sticks

Production line workers inspect fish sticks as they speed down a conveyor belt. The process of slicing, beating and frying frozen foods has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s. Photo by RGB Ventures/SuperStock/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1953, 13 companies produced 3.4 million kilograms of fish sticks. A year later, four million kilograms were produced by 55 other companies. This surge in popularity was partly due to a marketing push that emphasized the convenience of the new food: “no bones, no junk, no smell, no fuss”, as the proclaimed a Birds Eye ad.

The appeal of fish sticks is somewhat paradoxical. They contain fish, but only the one with the mildest flavor – and that fish has been dressed to look like chicken fillets.

Beaten disguise may be necessary because, at least in North America, seafood has often been second-best. “We mostly considered eating fish to be below our aspirations,” chef and author Barton Seaver writes in American seafood. Traditionally, fish was associated with sacrifice and penance – a food to eat when meat was unaffordable or, if you were Catholic, to eat on the many days when red meat is banned. Fish also spoils quickly, smells bad, and contains sharp bones that pose a choking hazard.

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

A 1964 advert for Birds Eye fish sticks, as the beaten cooked dish is known in the UK.

Josephson calls fish sticks “the hot dogs of the ocean.” Served in a casserole or accompanied by mashed potatoes, they quickly became reserve meals for school lunches and family dinners. During the pandemic, demand has increased – in some countries by up to 50% – as families stock up on ready meals during lockdowns.

Surprisingly, fish sticks are quite durable. Today, most contain Alaskan pollock, which largely comes from well-managed fisheries, says Jack Clarke, a sustainable seafood advocate at the U.K.-based Marine Conservation Society. The climate impact of fish sticks is also low. “I was surprised how low it was,” says Brandi McKuin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, 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 sure what exactly they eat when they consume the breaded fish. In the UK, where fish sticks are known as fish sticks, a survey found that one in five young adults believe they are actually fish sticks.

They always eat them with pleasure.

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