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How refrigeration (and Captain Birdseye) changed our world

How refrigeration (and Captain Birdseye) changed our world

Today we buy frozen meat and fish, not to mention vegetables and ice cream without a second thought. But the preservation of meat for later consumption hasn’t always been that easy.

By James Cunningham of Bapro Storage

While ice houses were used to preserve animal carcases, salting in barrels or smoking was far more common, but not entirely safe. It was James Harrison, a newspaper editor from Geelong, Australia, who, finding his fingers got cold from cleaning type with ether, set investigations in motion that resulted in refrigeration as we know it today.

 A photograph of Sir David Graaff. He travelled to Europe and the US for several years sourcing equipment and knowhow with which to establish Imperial Cold Storage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

At the end of the 19th century, industrialising European cities were growing rapidly and colonies in South America, Australia and New Zealand had surplus livestock. If it could be slaughtered, frozen and transported safely across the equator, a huge business opportunity was there for the taking. After some mishaps, the commercial shipment of frozen carcases was proven with the voyage of the Dunedin in 1882. This sailing ship was equipped with the earliest coal powered refrigeration system and her cargo made a profit of GBP4 700. A banquet was held at which the cooked frozen lamb was served. The brave souls that participated where watched for several days to see if they would survive the ordeal.

American inventor and businessman Clarence Birdseye in the 1940s. 
(Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Dunedin’s voyage was carefully watched by a Cape Town butcher named David de Villiers Graaf. Nicknamed ‘Octopus Graaf’ for his tendency to get his tentacles into all sorts of business, Graaf had a ‘brambles’ or slaughtering area in Cape Town. As soon as the telegraph brought news of the Dunedin’s success, he travelled to Europe and the US for several years sourcing equipment and knowhow with which to establish Imperial Cold Storage. While his first cold store in Dock Road burnt down in the 1920s the offices of the second edition still exist. Indeed, Cape Town’s first power station was also built by ‘Octopus’ Graaf. The building still stands next to the Molteno reservoir and supplied power to his new cold store in Dock Road.

Photograph of the newly completed Graaff Electric Lighting Works next to the Molteno Dam in 1895. (Credit: Wikipedia)

But slowly frozen meats don’t really taste so good when they are defrosted and eaten. They tend to be mushy and tasteless as large ice crystals destroy their structure. The ultimate example of this was the ‘alleged’ frozen woolly mammoth served up at the Explorers Club’s 1951 Dinner at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. It was advertised as being 250 000 years old, dug from the permafrost of Akutan Island in the Bering Sea. Being tasteless, one diner preserved a bite sized chunk which has recently been subjected to DNA testing. It seems the mammoth might have been a turtle after all.

The slow freezing problem challenge was solved by one Clarence Birdseye. He started out as a taxidermist, but discovered in the 1920s that fresh fish caught in the high Arctic froze quickly at -43°C and tasted far better than when slow frozen. I suspect the Eskimos had known this for centuries but when western civilisation got hold of it, an entire world of TV dinners and other frozen delectables opened up.

A sample of the meat served in 1951 that researchers used for DNA testing. 
(Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History)

Ironically, Birdseye’s first company went bankrupt from lack of interest, but his second was sold for a fortune to Goldman Sachs and eventually became part of Unilever. During my youth, its mascot, Captain Birdseye, became the most recognisable captain on the planet, except for Captain Cook. One doesn’t easily forget his famous fish fingers and the tag line, ‘Only the best for the Captain’s table’.



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