Aug. 25, 1961, was a big day in Gloucester, Mass. In a long clapboard building on Rogers Street, just above the Inner Harbor, some 250 attendees gathered to glad-hand and listen to speeches by various VIPs, including the esteemed professor and researcher Samuel Goldblith. Up from Washington was Sen. Benjamin Smith II (D-Mass.)—keeping JFK’s seat warm while he was in the White House—who hailed the “foresight and vision” of his hosts.
You might guess this event was a gathering of the local Freemasons, or perhaps a class reunion for Harvard or MIT. But you would be incorrect. The party took place at the Gorton’s Seafood Center, and the occasion was the fifth anniversary of fish sticks.
Did you just snicker a little? Well, get off it. Odds are that you’ve had plenty of fish sticks in your life—in grade school, at home and probably in the not-so-distant past. After all, fish-stick production topped 24,900 metric tons in 2017. And leading the fish-stick category is the brand that invented it, Gorton’s, which sold over 19 million pounds of fish sticks in the last year alone. That’s 8% more than last year.
But explaining how that Eisenhower-era mainstay of the postwar suburban kitchen has stayed popular is tricky. Gorton’s marketing vp, Chris Hussey, has a few thoughts. Fish sticks, she said, are “incredibly nostalgic. There’s this kind of harkening back to the way things used to be, and somehow we all turn that into something positive. Even if [some people’s] associations with eating them weren’t great, it’s still nostalgic.”
That Americans can feel nostalgic about fish sticks at all is the work of a man named E. Robert Kinney. Barely out of college, the Maine native had watched lobstermen taking crabs stuck in their lobster traps and throwing them away. Seeing an opportunity, Kinney offered the fishermen a penny for each crab, then started a canning operation. By the early 1950s, Kinney found himself doing consulting work for Gorton’s, the huge fishing company based in Gloucester, where he saw another opportunity.
The expansion of the international merchant marine saw the proliferation of modern trawlers that could harvest huge quantities of fish like haddock, cod and pollock, then gut them and freeze them right onboard. The problem was that, once ashore, massive fish blocks were hardly ready for retail sale. Kinney’s solution was to portion them into rectangular drumsticks. Bread and fry them, and voila: you have the fish stick.
But it wasn’t really the fish that sold the stick—it was the era. The rise of the postwar American suburb meant supermarkets that could stock the product, tract houses with freezers to keep them and, most importantly, a cultural yen for convenience. At the same time that TV dinners were freeing Mom from the stove, Gorton’s promise of “Just Heat ’N Eat!” made the sale. By 1954, fish stick sales had jumped by 30% at the nation’s supermarkets.
Unfortunately, low-quality competitors—often the choice of school cafeterias—would give fish sticks a bad reputation in the ensuing years, which is probably where fish sticks’ less-than-flattering moniker of “hot dog of the sea” came from.
For its part, Gorton’s has fought the stereotypes by stressing quality—banishing artificial additives, reminding consumers that its fish are caught at sea rather than farmed, and introducing varieties made with haddock and tilapia. And while fish sticks’ main selling point is still convenience, Hussey notes that the healthy reputation of fish is a big help. “Seafood has a huge halo,” she said. “Everyone wants to eat more seafood.”
Even if it’s just the sea’s hot dog they’re eating.