Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight

FISH FINGERS

Birdseye Frozen Foods, Clarence Birdseye, Captain Birdseye and the original herring prototype for fish fingers

FISH FINGERS

In your heart you always knew it.

The original prototype for the Birds Eye Fish Finger was a Herring Savoury. And there really was a Captain Birdseye. Well, all right, not a Captain, but at least a Clarence.

At some point between 1953 and 1955, the new fish product was market-tested with the Great British Public, as represented by the good people of South Wales and Southampton. Would they go for the oil-rich, tender-fleshed delights of the herring or a blander alternative offered as a control?

So it was, Cod Fish Fingers came to represent the acme of British culinary invention.

The first fish finger

In the United States, fish fingers are fish sticks. Birds Eye, named after frozen fish pioneer Clarence Birdseye, developed the commercial product at its Great Yarmouth factory and launched it in 1955. The decision to call the cod sticks fish fingers came after a vote by the women working on the production line. The first recorded mention of a ‘fish finger’, however, was a recipe published in the Tamworth Herald of Saturday, June 30th, 1900:

TASTY FISH FINGERS A very useful breakfast dish can be prepared as follows: flake and mince and cooked fish vey finely, and mix it with two-thirds its bulk of cold cooked rice; season to taste with pepper, salt, and minced parsley, mixing it into cakes with the white of an egg; shape these neatly, brush with beaten egg, cover with breadcrumbs, and fry in plenty of hot fat to a delicate golden brown; drain well and serve.

Clarence Birdseye

With an elder brother called Kellogg, Clarence Birdseye was, perhaps, always brand waiting to happen. A naturalist who dropped out of Amherst College when family fortunes took a dip in 1908, he went to work for the United States Agriculture Department and in 1912 went on an assignment to Labrador.

Clarence Birdseye in Labrador, c 1912
Clarence Birdseye in Labrador, c 1912

Taught ice fishing by the local Inuits – and in Labrador, we’re talking of either the Nunatsiavut or the NunatuKavut – he saw that at -40 °C fish froze immediately. More importantly, he then saw what the Inuit had long known: when the fish was thawed it retained its texture and flavour. Freezing food, including fish, was not new, but the existing technology of slow freezing allowed ice crystals to form, which damages the tissues and consequently the quality of the food.

Experimenting with fast fish freezing, Clarence set up Birdseye Seafoods in the early 1920s, but by 1924 the company had gone bankrupt due to the lack of interest in superior frozen food. He knew it made sense, however, and persisted. He came up with the double belt freezer and, in 1925, set up the General Seafood Corporation in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

In 1926, Marjorie Merriweather Post sailed into Gloucester in her yacht. Her father, once a patient at John Harvey Kellog’s sanitorium in Battle Creek Michigan, invented a wheat and molasses drink he called Postum and set up his own Battle Creek company to market it, along with the cereal Grape Nuts, which he also invented. He invented a rival corn flake called Elijah’s Manna, as well, but that didn’t do so well – in part, at least, because Elijah had been fed bread and flesh by ravens, rather than Manna, which everybody knew was a Moses/Exodus thing. As a whole, however, the business did well enough for Marjorie to be sailing into Gloucester in her yacht.

She was served fish. She was told it had been frozen for six months. She liked it so much she bought the company.

It took her three years and Clarence had expanded into meat, fruit and vegetables, but in 1929 Postum became General Foods. Clarence continued to work for the new company, developing products and inventing the multiple plate freezer in 1930. It was General Foods Corporation, which set up the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company.

Birds Eye fish fingers

Clarence developed Fish Sticks, which were first commercially produced in 1953 in the USA. He seems to have used herring although maybe not exclusively. The idea for Herring Savouries was a natural for Birds Eye’s British operation and its factory in what, at least to the English, was still considered the world’s herring capital, Great Yarmouth.

In 1953, General Foods also sold the British Birds Eye operation to Unilever, who had form with fish, William Lever having set up Mac Fisheries. At the Great Yarmouth plant, the development of the Herring Savoury was undertaken by HAJ Scott. The cod fish finger that emerged was marketed with the slogan, No bones, no waste, no smell, no fuss. How could it fail with the Great British Public?

In a stroke of genius, even though they were selling cod fish fingers, Birds Eye followed the unwritten law of clupeid marketing: you need a guy with a beard. Angus Watson had brought the bearded fisherman in his sou’wester to the Skippers brand; Raskin’s had a bearded Jewish grocer for their Schmaltz Herring; Captain Birdseye arrived in 1967.

Until 1998 he was played by John Hewer. Birds Eye tried to kill him off in 1971, even placing an announcement in The Times:

Birdseye, Captain. On June 7th, 1971, after long exposure, life just slipped through his fingers. Celebrity and gourmet. Mourned by Sea-Cook Jim and the Commodore, in recognition of his selfless devotion to the nutritional needs of the nation’s children.

The British Public was having none of it, however and they had to bring him back in 1974. When Hewer retired they tried a makeover, bringing in the designer-stubbled Thomas Pescod, but they realised the error of their ways.

Elsewhere in Europe, Captain Birdseye is known as Captain Iglo. This may or may not be a recognition of the role played by the Inuit in the development of frozen fish products.

Herring fish fingers

Yes, history could have been so different, but we do not have to accept the historical inevitability of the cod fish finger. In one of the rare windows of herring availability, the herripedia set up its own production line.

Herring fish finger production line
Trimmed herring fillets, flour, egg, breadcrumbs: a production line

The herring fish fingers – or herring savouries – were packaged.

Herring fish fingers ready for the freezer
Ready for freezing, albeit only at -18 °C

And you can cook them straight from your freezer – No bones, no waste, no fuss and the gentle aroma of fried herring!

Herring fish fingers in the pan

I served them to my grandchildren.

Oh, Grandpa! my grandchildren said. What were the good people of South Wales and Southampton thinking? That Birds Eye company certainly missed a trick when they didn’t go with their herring prototype! Were you really able to cook these straight from the freezer?

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