Food Below Zero
You can eat June-caught trout in January, have your own garden strawberries for Christmas—with fast freezing
MRS. BROWN was flabbergasted. She’d just complimented Betty Wallace on her fish dinner only to have Betty shrug it off with a nonchalant, “Oh, just a little something Bob and I caught up north six months ago.”
“Six months ago!” whooshed Mrs. Brown, sounding like a tire that had just picked up a spike.
“Fast-freezing,” smiled Betty. “That’s the answer. Since Bob rented a frosted food locker, we’ve had no end of food surprises. Like the vegetables tonight. I’ll bet you never expected to taste fresh asparagus and corn-on-the-cob in March.”
Mrs. Brown took some convincing. Lake trout six months old! Preposterous! But not to anyone familiar with fast-frozen foods and how they’re already revolutionizing our eating habits. Today hundreds of thousands of Canadians and Americans can eat fried spring chicken in December, fresh peaches or strawberries in April and wild duck or venison in July. Wherever fast-frozen foods are available, few things are out of season.
Today in the United States about 5,000 locker plants cater to more than 1,500,000 customers and hundreds of thousands of others are waiting. In
Canada the number of plants probably exceeds 500.
“Of these, more than 350 are in Ontario,” says R. H. Chambers, president of the Ontario Frosted Food Locker Association. These serve about 160,000 locker families. Only about 50 of the plants, however, are truly deserving of the name. Most are merely a type of cold storage operated as an adjunct to some other business. They offer none of the specialized services provided by the authentic modern food locker plant.”
I visited one of the two food locker plants operated in Toronto by Chambers and his brother. A streamlined establishment costing $35,000, its 500 steel lockers were snapped up quickly when the plant opened for business in May, 1942. Today there’s a waiting list.
Like all modern locker systems, the plant has several departments. First is the “chill room.” Here freshly killed meat is hung under ultra-violet light for cooling and “ageing” at a temperature of 38 deg. Fahr. Next is the “cutting room”—a fully equipped butchershop, where the meat is tailor-cut any way a locker patron wants it. Persons renting lockers buy meat from the plant in wholesale lots at wholesale prices. They pay four cents a pound for ageing, cutting, wrapping, fastfreezing and other handling. This, locker men say, still gives the customer meat cheaper than he can buy it elsewhere. When cut the meat is wrapped in special air-tight, moistureproof paper. Each package Ls identified and dated. Then it Ls ready for fast-freezing.
This is done in a special cabinet in the locker room. Packaged meat—or fruit or vegetables or whatever is to be processed—is set atop refrigeration coils in the cabinet and quick-frozen at 20 deg. below zero. It takes about two and a half hours to process the average roast. Twenty minutes will do a steak. Peas or berries quick-freeze in a half hour or less. Once frozen, the packages are stored in steel lockers. These are
drawerlike containers, stacked in layers, usually five high, in a room where the temperature is constantly at zero. Each locker has its own key, measures six cubic feet, can hold 200 pounds of frozen foods and rents from $8 to $15 a year.
WE PROCESS about 400 pounds of food per year per locker,” says Mr. Chambers. “People want ail sorts of things fast-frozen garden vegetables, oysters, cantaloupe, lobster, blueberries, all kinds of fish. One chap has us fast-freeze dozens of wild ducks every fall and during the hunting season we get 18 or 20 deer a day.”
If the locker patron wunts the plant to fast-freeze vegetables or fruits from his own garden, he should harvest them at the proper time. Vegetables should be washed, scalded and cut into desired lengths before going to the locker plant. Fruits should be picked when fully ripe, washed and sometimes placed in a sugar syrup for best freezing results. However, fresh berries, vegetables, etc., can be bought at wholesale prices from the locker and processed at so much a quart or basket.
“The fundamental purpose of a food locker,” explains Mr. Chambers, “is to allow a customer to buy foods when they are plentiful and cheap for storage until later on when they are out of season or higher in price.”
Fast-freezing is the big secret of the business and techniques change as better methods are discovered. The faster the freeze, the better, because both animal and plant organisms contain a complex fluid, part of which is water. It is characteristic of these fluids that when their temperature is reduced below the freezing point of water, the water progressively crystallizes out as ice. When the freezing is slow large ice crystals form, rupturing the tissues. Quick-freezing produces only minute ice crystals—and less damage to the tissues. That’s why quick-frozen meat, etc., retains its shape when defrosted, while slow-frozen foods lose their shape when thawed and collapse. Quick-freezing also checks the chemical and enzyme actions which produce off flavors and discoloration of the product.
“They used to think zero was cold enough for processing foods,” says Mr.
Chambers. “Today, we know this is not satisfactory. Strawberries frozen at zero will get mushy when defrosted. Berries treated at 20 below zero retain their firmness, natural color and taste. We’d freeze at 40 or 50 below zero if it were economical. Freezing, however, no matter how rapid, will not make a poor berry good. Your defrosted product is only as good as it was before freezing.”
How long will foods keep in this frozen form? Indefinitely, say some authorities.
Mr. Chambers calls the fast-freezing of foods “a form of suspended animation.” »Says he’s eaten meat two years old and found it delicious. “Of course,” he adds, “we recommend that people use their frozen foods sooner than that. And in times of rationing we make a regular check of food lockers. We tolerate no hoarding and every locker holder has to turn in ration coupons the same as anybody else.”
Extensive research has disclosed that food stored in lockers should la* kept, at a zero temperature. Vegetables stored at above 0 deg. Fahr, lose color, flavor and their Vitamin C content. In meats stored at less than zero the fats become rancid. Pork is hardest to keep. At 15 deg. Fahr, the fats in pork become rancid in two months. At zero there is no sign of rancidity at the end of a year.
Beef, lamb and veal are more stable but show rancidity at the end of three months under a temperature of 15 deg.
Fahr. Sausage is one form of meat that keeps poorly in frozen form.
When taken from the locker vegetables should be kept frozen until cooking begins in boiling water. Frozen vegetables require only about half to two thirds the cooking of fresh vegetables.
Fruits should be allowed to defrost in their containers before being eaten. It is unwise to hurry defrosting with heat.
For instance, strawberries will thaw* in fine shape at room temperature but will turn purple if subjected to heat. Steaks,
roasts, etc., need only be tossed into a pan while still frozen and cooked as usual. No food once frozen and defrosted should ever be frozen again. And housewives should remember that fruits or vegetables are highly perishable when the frost has been removed. They are not sterilized when fast-frozen as they are when canned and molds and bacteria develop rapidly in the thawed product faster than in the fresh product. This, frozen food men say, is typical of any food once it’s frozen.
GENERALLY credited with getting the frosted foods business off on the right foot is Clarence Birdseye, scientist, inventor and onetime Labrador fur trader. When he entered the fish business in the United States, Birdseye was disgusted with the industry’s inefficiency and lack of sanitation. It is not surprising then to learn that fish was the first food successfully frozen and distributed by Birdseye. Later, in 1929, he sold his ideas to General Foods, which set up a division known as Frosted Foods Incorporated. Up to 1939 General Foods is said to have spent $80,000,000 on frosted food research and promotion.
Today, authorities predict that this onetime infant of the depression years will become a postwar giant with as great an influence on the perishable foods business as canning and pasteurization—the only two basically new methods of food preservation discovered in 2,000 years.
In 1930 General Foods turned out 80,000 pounds of frosted foods. By 1941 they were packing 100,000,000 pounds and in 1943 the over-all production figure in the United States had rocketed to 800,000,000 pounds—which figure, officials say, will be quickly outstripped in postwar years. In 1943 some 40,000 stores in the United States and thousands more in Canada were selling frozen vegetables, fruit and fish. A recent survey revealed that 13.8% of all U. S. families were using frozen vegetables and 10.8% frozen fruits.
In Canada, where one of the first commercial packs was made as recently as 1933, it is more difficult to
picture annual production. This is because Canadian figures lump together not only those foods considered “fast-frozen” but also those that have been either “slow-frozen” or merely kept in cold storage. However, on this basis statistics show 3,290,420 pounds of “frozen” fruits handled here in 1941 and 1,917,476 pounds of “frozen” vegetables. Ontario, a leader in the field, was credited with packing 1,082,325 pounds of fruits and 555,459 pounds of vegetables in “frozen” form.
Berries Are Popular
TODAY strawberries account for 50% of the quickfrozen fruit pack. Others include raspberries, gooseberries, apricots, prunes, blackberries, peaches and cherries.
Peas lead the vegetable pack with fast-frozen beets, lima beans, cauliflower, artichokes, asparagus and spinach as other top-ranking favorites.
Most fruits and vegetables and all meats can be fastfrozen. Lettuce is the principal vegetable exception. Also regarded as unsuited to freezing, because of their high water content, are potatoes, cucumbers, radishes and turnips. Tomatoes can be frozen, but lose their shape when defrosted and look like canned tomatoes. Bread has been fast-frozen successfully and pies and cakes get even flakier and fluffier under freezing.
How do frozen foods taste? Opinions differ. Some I sampled tasted garden-fresh. Others seemed to have lost something in freezing. Strawberries and peas 1 found excellent. Corn-on-the-cob came out of the cooking pot looking good enough to make your mouth water, but it tasted soggy, flat, tough—faults that could be blamed on overcooking, which robs some frosted foods of their flavor. I tried a steak three months old and found it delicious. But Dr. J. H. L. Truscott of the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph, Ont., one of Canada’s leading authorities on frozen foods, who has taste-tested several thousand samples of frozen foods during eight years of research says:
“I have yet to taste one as good as the fresh product.”
Dr. Truscott recently told a gathering of locker men that he thought most frozen fruits needed sugar. The flavor of some he found so affected by freezing as to be inedible. He thinks people are often disappointed in tasting frozen foods because the perfection of such foods has been overemphasized. A cautious man, not given to quick praise, Dr. Truscott advises:
“Care should be taken to get the right variety of the fruit or vegetable for freezing. It is possible to find varieties in most kinds of fruits and vegetables that freeze with good results. But, unfortunately, most varieties of most kinds of fruits and vegetables give disappointing results.”
Scientific findings, Dr. Truscott’s included, show that quick-frozen foods retain their vitamin and mineral content better than foods preserved by any other method—a factor which frosted food specialists think will add to the industry’s almost limitless horizons in a vitaminand diet - conscious postwar world.
And what is that future?
IMPEDED now by wartime material shortages, the fast-freezing of foods is expected soon after victory to bring an unprecedented boom to the refrigeration industry. Special, low temperature equipment will be required for the freezing, transport, storage and delivery of frosted foods. Railways, long partial to ice-cooled cars, may have to switch to mechanical refrigeration. Restaurants, hotels and institutions serving quickfrozen foods will require new equipment to handle them.
A much-debated question in the refrigeration industry today is whether or not the average housewife will take to frozen foods earnestly enough to want a zero freezing cabinet in addition to the regular refrigerator in her home. About eight cubic feet in size, these cabinets resemble an ice-cream freezer and would allow storage of large quantities of
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Food Below Zero
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frozen foods in the home. In the United States refrigeration men predict sales of from 250.000 to 3.000.000 home | freezers after the war—with a slightly higher per capita sale in Canada. Pre-war prices, ranging from $400 up,
‘ will probably be drastically cut as the demand increases. Before the war, tens of thousands of home freezers had been sold in the United States and the idea had caught on in some Canadian rural districts.
Refrigeration men taking the 1 opposite view argue that the average housewife will be content to shop at her grocer’s for frosted foods as she needs them, buying in small quantities and storing them in the separate, large freezing compartment of her postwar two-temperature refrigerator. (A few of these were on the market before the war, and practically all designers are planning them for postwar production.) j They doubt if talk of two refrigerators in every home will ever amount to anything more than talk—though they don’t scoff at the idea as loudly as they once did.
Locker men think the home freezer : plausible—to a point. “They’ll be fine I for storage,” says R. H. Chambers, i “but they won’t do for processing the foods. They don’t get cold enough for efficient quick-freezing.”
Whatever the outcome the refrigeration boys can’t lose. It’s little wonder ; their faces light up like a theatre marquee at the mention of frosted foods.
And since research has shown that not only fresh but cooked foods as well can be fast-frozen, stored for months at zero, then defrosted and heated up with j no taste deterioration, some large ! restaurant chains are reported planning j to cook their foods in great central kitchens, fast-freeze it on the spot and then ship it to eating outlets across the country. This would cut food waste and provide a uniformity otherwise impossible. If this became reality, hundreds of millions of steaks a year could be cooked and fast-frozen near the great packing houses of Chicago or j Toronto and then distributed across the ¡ continent, to be eaten any time from a I day to a year later anywhere from ! British Columbia to Prince Edward Island or from New England to New Mexico.
Some frosted food enthusiasts even foresee a day when hundreds of j thousands of Canadian and American housewives will go for weeks without actually cooking anything. Instead, the housewife will order her dinners precooked and fast-frozen from her nearest dealer or processing plant. No matter what she wants —fried chicken, chops, sea food or a juicy steak—she’ll be able to get it on short order, heat it up and pop it on the table ready to eat.
One large American food packer is reported planning to fast-freeze everyi thing right on the farm—eliminating the estimated 33% waste encountered while moving produce from farm to ! city.
Fast freezing may also bring us many tropical delicacies—fruits that until fast-freezing came along couldn’t stand shipping but had to be eaten freshly picked off the bush or tree. There’ll be meats from far-off lands and strange sea foods, too—fish never heard of before except by ichthyologists.
Joe Doakes’ gastronomical vocabulary is in for a beating.