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How fish sticks became a pandemic staple for some US households

A large number of breaded fish sticks on a wire conveyor belt at a factory.
A large number of breaded fish sticks on a wire conveyor belt at a factory.

During the covid-19 pandemic, fish stick sales rose as much as 50% in some places. People were looking for convenient, kid-friendly foods that are easy to stock up on. And that’s only the latest problem that fish sticks have swooped in to solve. After their invention in the 1950s, fish sticks helped with an oversupply of fish following World War II. They were there a few years later when more women started full-time work. And when people started cutting red meat out of their diets, fish sticks even played a role in making seafood more sustainable. So while they may just be frozen rectangles, fish sticks are actually flexible enough to help solve some of the food world’s biggest problems.

Quartz executive editor and Quartz Obsession podcast host Kira Bindrim spoke to deputy email editor Liz Webber about how fish sticks became a part of the frozen food renaissance.

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When were fish sticks invented?

Liz Webber: So it starts in the 1950s. And fish sticks were a solution to a problem that consumers didn’t know they had. Following World War II, the fishing industry modernized, upgraded—they had bigger boats, refrigeration was available so they could catch a lot of fish, refrigerate it, and process it on their boats and had all this fish that they were trying to sell to the American public. But the Americans weren’t buying it. You know, post-World War II all of a sudden meat was available again that had been ration during the war. Fish is annoying, it’s smelly, you know, it’s hard to prepare if you’re just going to go buy a whole fish. So the fishing industry started brainstorming ways they could interest the American consumer in fish. The first product they came up with was a bit of a failure. It was a fish brick.

So it’s a kind of what it sounds like: a giant tub of frozen fish that you just like scrape out as much as you want when you’re ready to cook like an ice cream tub. No one was interested in the fish brick, not surprisingly. So, 1953, after three years of product development, the Birds Eye brand in the US came out with the fish stick. You know, it’s a long, skinny piece of fish, breaded and fried. It was closely followed by two other brands, Gorton’s and Fulham brothers. So it really took off.

Are fish sticks popular elsewhere in the world?

Liz Webber: They certainly have a lot of popularity in Europe. The UK is still very big on the fish finger. Germany, also big consumers of fish sticks—the German people eat 2 billion fish sticks a year. Elsewhere in the world, you know, it varies. In 2016, Domino’s China created a special Chinese New Year pizza that had fish sticks in the shape of fish on it because fish are a symbol of wealth and success. So it was an auspicious food for the new year. There’s a brand in South Africa called Sea Harvest that has been making fish sticks or fish fingers since the early 1970s. If you’re looking elsewhere in Africa, had difficulty finding figures or details on store-bought frozen fish sticks. But food blogs in places like Egypt, Nigeria, or Kenya have recipes for making fish fingers at home. So it’s a food that is known and possibly popular there, but not necessarily that you would buy at the store. Although, Kenya within the past couple of years has been trying to promote their local fishing industry, increase production as well as, you know, help the fishermen make more money by introducing processed products like fish sticks.

Did frozen food get popular during the covid-19 pandemic?

Liz Webber: Sure, frozen foods across the board had a lot of sales growth during the pandemic. It did start a little bit before the pandemic, you know, looking at millennials who are now parents who have to get food on the table, and they would often turn to frozen choices for that. But frozen meals, frozen appetizers, frozen seafood generally—sales are up within the past couple of years. So it does kind of follow on a larger trend. And one of the reasons that sales have continued to be high for frozen food, even as, you know, restaurants have reopened, you’re going back to the office, is people bought freezers during the pandemic. And so now they’re like, ‘Oh, I can stock this freezer, because I have it.’

Are fish sticks a sustainable food item?

Liz Webber: Obviously, as with anything involving sustainability, the answer is: It’s complicated. But, looking at where the fish comes from that goes into fish sticks—a lot of it is Alaskan Pollock, or, you know, some other similar species. And those fisheries tend to be very sustainable. A lot of the fish stick brands actually have sought out a sustainability certification of some kind, whether it’s the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), or something else. FRoSTA, that German brand, actually stopped making fish fingers for almost 10 years because they couldn’t source enough MSC-certified fish. And they only recently restarted in 2014. So it’s certainly something that the food companies are thinking about. At the same time, there was a study (pdf) that came out a couple of years ago, that said, yes, the fisheries are sustainable, but that’s not the only thing that goes into making fish sticks—you have to look at the entire supply chain. So after the fish are caught, and, you know, frozen into the giant bricks of fish, they are put on cargo ships that are these gas-guzzling ships. Fish that’s caught off of Alaska, a lot of times, goes to China first to be processed and then sent back to the US where it ends up on trucks to get that go out to the supermarket. So that part of it adds a significant amount of carbon emissions. And so you have to think about the entire supply chain when looking at any product. So, it’s complicated.

How has the marketing of fish sticks changed over time?

Liz Webber: On the fish stick packaging, you will see a lot more about sustainability, for sure. But two of the biggest fish stick or fish finger brands that we’ve been talking, about a couple of years ago around the same time really revamped their marketing efforts in order to appeal to a younger, hipper demographic. So Birds Eye in the UK had been using this character since 1967 called Captain Birdseye. He was a little cartoonish, kinda like a Santa Claus, you know, friendly grandpa with a beard, was played by the same actor for more than 30 years and then since then, there’s been a few different people who have taken on the role of Captain Birdseye. But in 2018, he was recast as this kind of hunky sailor. Which caused a lot of consternation in the UK, in part because it was, you know, this iconic childhood character that was all of a sudden sex-ified, but also it was an Italian actor that people were upset about.

Here in the US, the Gorton’s brand, since 1975, has used a character: the Gorton’s fishermen. And it’s kind of a simple, old school New England fisherman. He’s got a yellow rain slicker and a rain hat. So he did not get a glow up. But also in 2018, he was joined by some new friends: the mer-bros. So, it’s kind of exactly what it sounds like: these very bro-y mermen who are also very sparkly.

Can fish sticks be the future of food?

Liz Webber: So you could also flip it the other way in that fish sticks are trying to grab on to some of the future of food trends. So there’s a company called Good Catch, which is making, for lack of a better term, the Impossible fish stick. You know, it’s a plant-based food, but it’s supposed to mimic what a fish tastes like and what the texture is, you know, the same way that Impossible or Beyond is making the burgers that you know, fool you into thinking you’re actually having a burger. And then the owner of Birds Eye UK, Nomad foods, is working with a US-based company called BlueNalu to develop lab-grown fish products, including fish sticks.

What is the best way to eat fish sticks?

Liz Webber: Well, I am generally a fish stick purist—just have the fish sticks with a dipping sauce. But something that Gorton’s has been pushing recently that I am very tempted to try is fish stick tacos, which totally makes sense when you think about it. It really is a very similar idea of a breaded, fried fish that goes in a tortilla with various other ingredients. One quote from this Gordon’s marketing executive, which I think is just fantastic—and bear in mind, it is the marketing executive, and this quote is from the middle of 2020. He’s talking about how, you know, people who are tired of just eating regular old fish sticks, they make the fish tacos: ‘All of a sudden you feel you’ve been transported to your favorite Mexican restaurant. And that’s where we found the magic.’

In the UK, they are really big on fish finger sandwiches. It’s kind of like a just a fried fish sandwich. The fish is just in a slightly different shape. There are both high-end versions of this, as well as like the low-brow version that you would get at the local pub after a night out. And Birds Eye UK has said that one thing people have been doing during the pandemic when the pubs are closed, is making the fish finger sandwiches at home.

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