History Book: The Father of Frozen Foods


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, October 31. Good morning! This is The world and all in it of WORLD Radio supported by the listeners. I am Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next, the world history book. Today, the 20th anniversary of a financial scandal, we will meet the father of the frozen food industry. But first, more than 500 years ago, the first public presentation of a painted masterpiece. This is Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, JOURNALIST: We begin with All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1512. The Vatican unveils Michelangelo’s painted masterpiece: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Nine scenes from the book of Genesis span the 58 hundred square foot ceiling…more than 60 feet above the chapel floor. On one side: God’s outstretched arms seem almost outstretched as he separates light from darkness. At the other end of the line, an inebriated Noah falls asleep under the gaze of his sons.

Around these scenes, 24 additional panels with biblical prophets and ancestors from the genealogy of Jesus.

From 1508, Michelangelo painted the entire ceiling single-handedly, although over the four years of the project he had more than a dozen assistants mixing paints, plastering and delivering supplies from up and down on the tall scaffolding. For hours, the great artist stood with his arms above his head, working the pigment into wet plaster.

Michelangelo was above all a sculptor, a great connoisseur of the human form. He brought this sensitivity to his painted art. Michelangelo’s masterpiece features very few backgrounds or nature scenes – instead it relies on striking human forms in dynamic poses. More than 300 figures adorn the ceiling.

Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel 25 years later to begin painting the Last Judgment scene on the west wall of the chapel. Both works had their early critics due to Michelangelo’s use of nudes. Over the years many have been concealed or adapted, although more and more restoration projects over the years have returned many to the way Michelangelo had originally painted them.

Millions of people visit the chapel each year. American art historian and tour guide Elizabeth Lev at a 2016 TED talk:

LEVY: Think how amazing it is, that a painted plaster cast from 500 years ago could still attract all these people standing side by side, looking up with their jaws lowered. It’s a great statement about how beauty can really speak to us across time and across geographic space.

Then, a food preservation innovation becomes a household product.

COMMERCIAL: Birdeye Peas, sweet like the time the pod went pop…

On November 3, 1952, Clarence Birdseye began marketing frozen peas to the general public.

40 years earlier, Birdseye had been on a fur trapping expedition in Labrador, Canada. While there, he noticed how the Inuit quickly froze food to preserve it. He returned home and started tinkering in his workshop, figuring out how to freeze food on his own.

In 1929 Birdseye Foods began selling frozen fish and a few other items. The problem was that most people didn’t own freezers back then, but that all changed after WWII. As coolers have given way to refrigerators with personal freezers, frozen foods have grown in popularity.

COMMERCIAL: In your FrigidAir cold air pantry, there is room for all your food, fresh or frozen…

Clarence Birdseye wasn’t the first to freeze food, but his inventions made the process and mass distribution possible. He is considered the father of the frozen food industry. The National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted Birdseye into the Hall of Great Inventors in 2005.

COMMERCIAL: Pop, pop, pop in your Birdseye shop, for fresh green Birdseye peas, fresh as the pod went pop. Birdseye fresh green peas. [POP!]

And finally, October 31, 20 years ago today. A federal grand jury indicts former Enron Corp. chief financial officer Andrew Fastow.

NEWSCAST: Andrew Fastow faces 78 counts of fraud, money laundering and other crimes, for his involvement in the Enron scandal…

A humiliating end for an executive of a Fortune Top 10 company.

ENRON COMMERCIAL: You will be able to choose your neighbors and soon you will be able to choose your energy supplier…

Enron started as a Houston-based gas pipeline company in the 1990s, but quickly became one of the nation’s largest energy traders. In 2000, Enron shares topped $90, but by the end of 2001 fell to less than 50 cents per share after the company filed for bankruptcy. Thousands have lost their jobs. And many have lost their company retirement savings in the process.

Andrew Fastow was at the center of the scandal. He had used loopholes and off-balance sheet special purpose entities to hide the company’s true debt from shareholders and regulators.

A few months after Enron filed for bankruptcy, the US House Financial Services Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee subpoenaed Fastow. He appeared before the committee on February 7, 2002.

HEARING: What do you answer sir? FASTOW: Mr President. I would like to answer questions from the committee but on the advice of my lawyer, I respectfully decline to answer the question…

Fastow not only hid the truth from shareholders, but he personally benefited from the practice. He entered into a plea bargain and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He also had to give up nearly $24 million in assets. But due to his cooperation in cases against other executives and auditors, a U.S. District Judge eventually reduced Fastow’s sentence and he ended up serving five years.

Since then, Fastow has become a sought-after speaker on business ethics and the problem of “legal fraud.”

FASTOW: When I was CFO of Enron…I was never invited to speak anywhere, not once. Now I’m invited to speak somewhere in the world every week if I wanted to. But only because I went to jail…

The dramatic fall of Enron has led to some accounting reforms, but there is still a long way to go. 20 years later, Fastow is not shy about admitting the pain he caused Enron employees and investors and his role in the company’s distrust of financial markets and institutions. In a 2021 interview, he spoke with Quinton Mathews for Real Vision…

FASTOW: I believe what I did was wrong. I believe what I did was unethical. I believe what I did was illegal. I take full responsibility for my actions. And probably, if there’s one person most responsible for Enron’s failure, it’s me…

It’s this week’s world history book, I’m Paul Butler.

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