Beautiful Fish: Stickfish (Part 2)


Stickfish; fish stick, fish finger

About the April 2nd post on Stickfish … It was intended to appear online April 1st, so with the delay, you might call it a red herring.   The fish stick in the photograph here was drawn for the previous post by P K Bezanson.

Embedded clues in the previous post:

(Asperacutis clarencei)  For Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956), who, right here in Gloucester,  developed the process for manufacturing frozen fish blocks.  Most fish sticks are cut from blocks.  Mark Kurlansky’s 2012 biography of this remarkable man is highly recommended.

Francis McCaffery (1921-2010)  Mechanical Engineering graduate of Columbia College, 1943.  Went immediately to work on the Manhattan Project, then after the war, to the Birdseye Division of General Foods.  In 1954 McCaffery cofounded Commodore Foods with plants in Lowell and Westford where he developed the machinery to manufacture fish sticks.

  1. Robert Kinney (1917-2013) Joined Gorton’s in the early 1950’s, becoming president in 1958.  Guided Gorton’s to lead in the production and marketing of fish sticks.  In 1968 General Mills acquired Gorton’s and Kinney moved to Minneapolis where he soon became CEO of General Mills.  From there he further strengthened Gorton’s earnings by deploying the considerable resources of General Mills Engineering Departments on the fish stick manufacturing practice.

[M.A.T.W]   Guy whose picture is on the yellow bag.  The fish stick in the photo is from this bag.

mean length 3.5 to 4 inches.  Largest specimen 6.4 inches.  Fish blocks are 19X10X2½ inches and there are only so many ways you can slice a block into sticks.  It takes some doing to cut the 19 into thirds and get it through the process intact.


I landed in the fish stick business in 1964 with Gorton’s engineering.  Fish sticks had only been around for about ten years at that time and I knew of three companies who each claimed to be first to market fish sticks.  After moving elsewhere, continued work on the manufacturing process back at Gorton’s and with other producers for a span of fifty years.  Trivia point … a modern fish stick processing line produces in under twenty years enough sticks, if they are place end to end,  to reach the moon.  This on a single shift basis with average down time.



3 thoughts on “Beautiful Fish: Stickfish (Part 2)

  1. In the mid 1960’s Gorton’s was challenged to meet a fast growing demand for fish sticks. In the Seafood Center we were replacing worn out sprockets on the breading equipment every weekend because the equipment was running much, much faster than the design limits. And then we would modify it to run ever faster. We broke out a wall on the water side to add another line, and to do this, we had to remove the flake yards and bring in our salt cod from Canada. As a lover of good salty fish cakes I still regret my complicity in taking down the flakes. Not all our products were a raging success. “Fish Sticks in Pizza Sauce”, thankfully, was pretty much a flop. Picture six sticks submerged in thick red glop. The fillers that squirted the glop into the aluminum trays often missed the target and the floor showed it in short order. The best I can say about that one is we only ran it a few days a month. We kept a lot of people busy sawing blocks and packing sticks and portions neatly into boxes like Lincoln logs. And we made so many products it would make your head spin. One day the Director of Quality Assurance, who shared my office, looked up from his pile of recipes hand-written on the backs of time cards and declared the count was up to 1,400 products. This or that coating, species, portion size, breading percentage, count per box, cooked or raw, whatever the sales department wanted they got.

    Al Bezanson


  2. Great reply too schooner39 love them fish sticks and cod cakes Gorton’s. Older brother worked there in 1970’s hard worker! 🙂 Dave & Kim 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dave, the early 70’s was the time of the Great War on Sawdust at Gorton’s. Up to that time sticks and portions were cut from blocks with saws. The fish loss was enormous and the sawdust had no use as a byproduct, except indirectly, for sausage, one might say, when it was collected, as a favor, by a pig farmer, Nugent’s, if I remember right. Gorton’s and General Mills Engineering teamed up to develop slicing equipment to eliminate the sawdust loss and the New Products Center of Raytheon’s Microwave and Power Tube Division in Waltham came up with a conveyorized microwave tunnel to temper blocks uniformly and quickly to a temperature that enabled slicing. The microwave was the size of a school bus and was right off dubbed the “the bomb” by the seafood worker operating the prototype slicer. The bomb was installed in a freezer and there was just one operator, a Newfoundlander, who loved working in there. If the blocks weren’t bombed right there was hell to pay at the slicers. The people on the production lines had a certain kind of screwdriver from Gloucester Supply. The blades were ground off the screwdrivers to make them like ice picks, and when they were plunged into a block they could tell by the feel if the block was tempered right. If not, send it back and bomb it again.

      Gorton’s was way out ahead of the rest of the industry in what I would call “responsible processing” to reduce loss of fish. Think of it like this … when there is a skinless fillet yield of 36% from round weight you need 27.8 million pounds of live fish to get 10 million pounds of fillet blocks. If you throw away 5% of the block in the form of sawdust you need another 500,000 pounds of blocks to make up for the loss. So then you need to catch another 1.4 million pounds of fish per 10 million pounds of blocks. Gorton’s has processed hundreds of millions of pounds of blocks in this way and the cumulative savings in live fish is many tens of millions of pounds.

      Al Bezanson


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