Fish sticks, or fish fingers as they’re known outside the US, are a comforting nostalgic food for many around the world, especially during the pandemic. Those crusty breaded oblongs filled with nondescript white fish have an unlikely origin story that begins with a glut of seafood and some 1950s “future of food” ingenuity.
After World War II, the US fishing industry expanded at a rapid clip. Larger boats with onboard refrigeration and processing allowed fleets to catch a lot more fish. Unfortunately, not many people wanted to buy it. As war rationing ended, meat sales soared, and then, as now, fish had a reputation for being smelly and difficult to prepare. One big seafood company, Gorton’s, saw its first loss in 20 years in 1953.
A newfangled product that fish companies hoped would excite consumers was “fishbricks”: layers of frozen fish filets packed into tubs, like ice cream, that allowed housewives to scoop out the amount they needed for each meal. Needless to say, fishbricks were a flop.
The industry’s winning innovation came from Massachusetts-based Birds Eye, the frozen food company founded by Clarence Birdseye, who famously developed his method for flash freezing food after observing Inuit preservation techniques. After three years of development, Birds Eye’s parent, General Foods Corporation, applied for a patent for its “production of fish product” in 1952, describing
“A process…which comprises freezing fish pieces into a relatively large unit, subdividing said unit into small, consumer-size units, applying a batter and a breading material thereto, frying said units to at least partially cook the same, and packaging and freezing said product.”
(Fish sticks are still made pretty much the same way today.)
Birds Eye’s fish sticks hit the market in 1953. According to a glowing New York Times article announcing their debut, one executive called it “the most outstanding event in that field of food since the development of the process of quick freezing by his company in the early Nineteen Thirties.”
Competing products from fellow Massachusetts firms Gorton’s and Fulham Brothers followed close behind. The former eventually won out as the top fish stick brand in the US, thanks in part to national ad campaigns targeting busy housewives looking for an easy and nutritious meal. Gorton’s also successfully convinced large supermarket chains like A&P and Food Fair to increase their freezer space to carry more frozen seafood products, and the company pushed fish sticks to be part of the US school lunch program.
Manufacturers soon discovered fish sticks had global appeal. Birds Eye introduced the novel food product to the UK in 1955—renaming them fish fingers based on a poll of female factory workers—and within 10 years they accounted for 10% of UK fish consumption.