Fish Sticks.Posted: October 3, 2007
That isn’t a clever headline for a post about something else. This is about fish sticks.
We take them for granted, but fish sticks did not always share the planet with us. They were invented in 1953. (And, somehow, “invented” seems like the right word.) I love them! What a tasty way to get your Omega-3’s! Maybe they remind me of being a child again, and since for some reason that feels good to me, I guess I didn’t have such a miserable childhood after all.
For people of a certain age, fish sticks can be like Proust’s madeleine, if one just allows oneself to get over oneself (and one’s inner foodie). The sense memories they evoke bring every other kind of memory swimming back.
At a flea market recently, I discovered this 1956 issue of Consumer Reports, which covers the waterfront (as it were) of the new phenomenon. You might think the fuddy-duddies at CR would be all, “These aren’t nutritious, and if you must have them, you can make your own fish sticks from scratch cheaper at home,” but no. They fall in love with the fish stick just as all America did, though in their own reserved CR way and perhaps a little bit in spite of themselves.
“Frozen fish sticks, neatly oblong in shape and uniform in size,” the article begins, marveling at this culinary advancement, “are almost as much a product of the factory as of the fisherman’s net. But a great many consumers seem to like their fish in sticks without bones, and their appreciation of this rather new form of sea food helped raise the per capita consumption of fish in the United States in 1954 alone from 10.8 to 11.1 pounds per year.” 11.1 pounds per year! Why, that’s 3.41 ounces per American per week! Roughly the equivalent of two whole pieces of sushi!
CR rated the competing fish sticks on three criteria. “APPEARANCE. For a high score, the package must be in very good condition, and the sticks in it must fit snugly…After proper heating, the sticks must be uniformly of good color…and the coating must adhere without blistering, cracking or slipping…CHARACTER…The packaged stick must separate without breakage, and remain whole when…served in a normal manner…FREEDOM FROM DEFECTS…The fish sticks must be free of…skin particles, burned spots, dark carbon specks, and other extraneous material.”
Not surprisingly, the top-rated stick was Mrs. Paul’s, the gold standard of fish sticks for over half a century. Who was Mrs. Paul? Was there a real Mrs. Paul? Aren’t you glad you asked. The answer can be found at The Mrs. Paul’s Website; I’m sure they won’t mind my lifting it in return for the link and the invaluable free publicity.
Seems that “in 1946, power plant worker Edward Piszek started selling deviled crab cakes in a local Philadelphia bar to earn money while the plant was on strike. ‘One Friday, I prepared 172 and we only sold 50,’ he recalled later. ‘There was a freezer in the back of the bar, so we threw ‘em in there. It was either that or the trash can.’ A week later the frozen crab cakes still tasted fine, so Piszek and a friend, John Paul, each chipped in $350 and started a frozen seafood business.
“Piszek’s mother pressured her son to name the company after her…but instead, they named it Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens after John’s mom. Piszek bought out his partner in the 1950s but kept the Mrs. Paul’s name. In 1982, he sold the company to Campbell Soup and in 1996, it was purchased by Pinnacle Foods Corporation.”
“Fish sticks” is a phrase that is both hard and fun to say. The sh and the st are impossible to pronounce in sequence, unless you take a pregnant pause between them, and who wants to do that? The only way to say “fish sticks” is to elide the two words into one, so that you eliminate the s of “sticks,” resulting in fishticks. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t say fishticks when he means to say “fish sticks”? I haven’t, and frankly don’t want to.