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  • The Ocean’s Hot Dog:The Development of the Fish Stick
  • Paul Josephson (bio)

"Der Mensch ist, was er isst."

—Ludwig Feuerbach 1

The fish stick—the bane of schoolchildren who generally consider it an overcooked, bread-encrusted, cardboard-tasting, fish-less effort of lunchrooms and mothers to deceive them into consuming protein—is a postwar invention that came into existence as the confluence of several forces of modernity. These forces included a boom in housing construction that contained kitchens with such new appliances as freezers; the seeming appeal of space-age, ready-to-eat foods; the rise of consumer culture; and an increasingly affluent society. Yet the fish stick arose during the 1950s not because consumers cried out for it, and certainly not because schoolchildren demanded it, but because of the need to process and sell tons of fish that were harvested from the ocean, filleted, and frozen in huge, solid blocks. Consumers were not attracted by the form of these frozen fillets, however, and demand for fish products remained low. Manufacturers believed that the fish stick—a breaded, precooked food—would solve the problem. Still, several simultaneous technological advances had to take place before the product could appear. 2 [End Page 41]

These advances occurred in catching, freezing, processing, and transportation technologies. The postwar years witnessed a rapid increase in the size of merchant marines in many countries, with these merchant fleets adopting new, almost rapacious catching methods and simultaneously installing massive refrigeration and processing facilities onboard huge trawlers. Sailors caught, beheaded, skinned, gutted, filleted, and then plate- or block-froze large quantities of cod, pollock, haddock, and other fish—tens of thousands of pounds—and kept them from spoiling in huge freezing units. Once on shore, the subsequent attempt to separate whole pieces of fish from frozen blocks resulted in mangled, unappetizing chunks. Frozen blocks of fish required a series of processes to transform them into a saleable, palatable product. The fish stick came from fish blocks being band-sawed into rectangles roughly three inches long and one inch wide (~7.5 3 2.5 cm), then breaded and fried. Onboard processors eventually learned to trim fish into fillets and other useable cuts before freezing. Processors considered these other cuts the "portion," which found a home in institutional kitchens (schools, hospitals, factories, and restaurants). Fish sticks had a largely retail success, however, because demand for them in schools and elsewhere waned as more manufacturers entered production and quality declined.

How Gorton's, based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, entered the fish stick market and achieved a leading position is the story of this essay. Based on corporate archives and industry publications, it focuses on supply-side factors that contributed to the rise of the fish stick as an important icon of U.S. food-product ingenuity. I focus on Gorton's for two reasons. First, the company was a pioneer in the portion and fish stick industry, has remained at the cutting-edge of product innovations in institutional and home products, and, along with the Birds Eye and Mrs. Paul's companies, has dominated the fish stick industry in sales from the beginning. 3 And second, I believe the Gorton's experience with the fish stick is paradigmatic of the industry. Materials from its corporate archives reveal clearly how technology, marketing, and other forces led to the invention of the fish stick. I do not intend this essay to be a paean to Gorton's; the company was, however, a leader in product development and maintained levels of quality control higher than many other manufacturers.

Consumer demand, consumer attitudes, changes in the postwar American household and family—all of these things also contributed to the success of the fish stick. But its success had more to do with the revolutions in catching, processing, and preparing frozen foods, along with other factors: one was an apparently successful marketing campaign directed at busy housewives; another was the role of the federal government in developing, [End Page 42] promoting, and regulating new food products and in providing markets for them through school lunch programs. University scientists—in the case of Gorton's, those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—gave rise...