I very rarely caved to the siren song of fish sticks when my kids were young. As far as convenience foods went, we were a decidedly chicken-finger-and-pizza-pocket household. But in these pandemic times, the decidedly retro protein choice is making a resurgence. The “why” is not terribly interesting – fish sticks are, after all, supremely easy to sling onto a pan, bake, and then slide down your throat. But Hakai Magazine is using this opportunity to do a deep dive into the history of the finger food, and show how a wacky mid-century foray into frozen stick entrees (Eggplant! Ham! Lima beans, for god’s sake!) solved a particularly mid-century problem – too efficient technology.
“Stronger diesel engines, bigger boats, and new materials increased catches after the Second World War. Fishers began scooping up more fish than ever before, says [historian Paul] Josephson. To keep them from spoiling, fish were skinned, gutted, deboned, and frozen on board. […]
The fishing industry tried selling the blocks whole, as fishbricks. These were packaged like blocks of ice cream, with the idea that a housewife could chop off however much fish she wanted that day. But supermarkets had little luck selling the unwieldy bricks, and many stores even lacked adequate freezer space to display them.”
So the industry embraced technology further: slicing the fishbricks into smaller, oblong fishbricks, x-raying them to confirm bonelessness, and deep-frying them so quickly that the fish itself remained safely frozen inside.
And then, what Paul Josephson calls “the ocean’s hot dogs” took off, as a no-mess convenience alternative to gutting, scaling, and cooking regular fish. All this despite North Americans’ general distaste for fish, between its flavour (deliberately engineered to be mild in a fish stick) and its reputation as “second best” to meat.
On this last point, fish sticks are poised to enter the future, as their reliance on stable, well-managed species of fish mean their climate-change footprint is remarkably small. Perhaps I will break with longstanding DFC tradition, and sample a stick or two, in honour of the sheer technological wonder!