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391 Topics: Ask an American - Inventing Frozen Foods; prize versus accomplishment versus award versus reward; what the heck?; wholesale

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You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 391.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 391. I'm your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Our website is ESLPod.com. On it, you can visit our ESL Podcast Store, which has some additional courses in business and daily English that I think you will like.

On this Café, were going to have another one of our Ask an American segments, where we listen to other native speakers talking at a normal rate of speech, that is, a normal speed. We listen, and then we explain and then we listen again.

This Ask an American will be about the development of frozen foods. It doesn't sound interesting, but I think you will find it very interesting. I know I did. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Our topic on this Café’s Ask an American segment is frozen foods, which might seem like a somewhat unusual topic, perhaps not the most interesting topic, but in fact the technology for freezing food, which was invented and perfected by an American by the name of Clarence Birdseye, is one of the most important technological advances for food in the last five hundred years. I would say the reason is, of course, that now with the ability to freeze food, we can have food transported long distances. We are able to eat food that is not grown locally. There are many advantages to frozen food and the development of frozen food was certainly an important part of the change in agriculture, not just in the United States, but around the world.

We’re going to listen to a writer by the name of Mark Kurlansky. Kurlansky wrote a book recently called Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. Before listening to the author, a little information about Clarence Birdseye:

He was born in 1886 and lived 69 years, until 1956. Birdseye began his career working in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Agriculture” refers to typically food that is grown for us to eat. Birdseye worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in 1912, he was sent to an area which is now part of Canada called Newfoundland that was a very cold area. He was there doing some research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While he was there, he noticed that the local people, the Inuit people, had this interesting process of freezing foods. Now, it's important to understand that the attempt to freeze food was not a new one. Many people tried to develop processes, especially during the 19th century, of frozen food, but they weren't very successful. Before talking about what Birdseye did, let's listen to Mark Kurlansky talk about what would happen in the 19th century in particular when people tried to develop technology to freeze food, and why it wasn't very successful. We’ll listen then we’lll go back and talk about what Kurlansky says, and then continue our story of Clarence Birdseye. Let’s listen.

[recording]

“Canned food was an attempt at getting something closer to fresh food, but, as you know, it’s not that close. And around the time of the Civil War, they started trying to freeze food. But freezing food was pretty much a disaster. First of all, because they didn’t really get it cold enough so it was just a few degrees below the freezing point. And then, making it worse, they tended to freeze big blocks. Like if they were going to freeze beef, they would freeze a whole side of beef. So, it’d take days and days before it was frozen, rotting all the time. And when you thawed it out, it was kind of mushy and tasted bad. So, everybody hated frozen food. In fact, the State of New York passed a law barring the use of frozen food in the New York State prison system.”

[end of recording]

That was rather a long quote. We’ll go back and explain everything that he said.

He begins by saying that “Canned food was an attempt at getting something close to fresh food.” “Canned food” would be food that you would prepare specially and put into a small metal container, which we call a “can.” “Canned food was an attempt at getting something closer to fresh food,” as a way of saving the food and transporting. But of course, as Kurlansky points out, it's not that close to being fresh food. When you eat food out of a can, it's not like eating the food that had just come from the farm. It's not going to taste as good.

Kurlansky continues by saying that, “At around the time of the Civil War” – meaning approximately during the years of the Civil War in the U.S., which was between 1861 and 1865 – around this time, “people started trying to freeze food.” So, you had a more organized attempt, at least in the United States, at developing the technology to freeze food. He says, “But freezing food was pretty much a disaster.” “Pretty much” means it was mostly a disaster. A “disaster” (disaster) is something that doesn't work at all, something that is a complete failure. The attempt to freeze food was, “pretty much,” according to Kurlansky, “a disaster.” It didn't work.

“First of all,” he explains, “because they didn't really get it cold enough, so it was just a few degrees below the freezing point.” What would happen is they would try to freeze foods but instead of using a very cold temperature, they would use something that was below the freezing point, below zero degrees Celsius or thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, but not very much below that. The problem with that is that the food freezes slowly and this causes problems, a couple of different problems. One problem, especially as when you try to freeze a big piece of food – it’s going to take a long time for the food to freeze and by the time it freezes, the food has gone bad. Kurlansky says, “and then making it worse, they tended” – they usually – “they tended to freeze big blocks.” A “big block” would be a large section.

Here, we hear from the example of Kurlansky what he's talking about. He continues, “Like if they were going to freeze beef” – meat from a cow – “they would freeze a whole side of beef.” “A whole side of beef” would be a whole section of beef. So, they would take this huge piece of meat and try to freeze it. Well, because they weren't freezing at a very low temperature, it took a long time for the food to completely freeze, and after several hours, if the meat is not frozen or otherwise cooked or treated, the food will begin to go bad. It will begin to rot.

And that's in fact, what Kurlansky says. He says, “It’d take days” – it would take days – “and days before the food was frozen, rotting all the time.” “To rot” (rot) is, for food in this case, to go bad, to no longer be food you can eat. “And when you thawed it out,” Kurlansky says, when you took the frozen food and brought it to a higher temperature, so that it was no longer frozen, “it was kind of mushy and tasted bad.” Something that is “mushy” (mushy) is very soft, but it's not a very good taste. Something that is mushy is always something that is bad, something that doesn't have the right, what we would call “texture.” It doesn't have the right feel in the mouth. “Mushy meat,” for example, would not taste very good.

So, because they were unsuccessful in freezing food, both because they didn't use a low enough temperature and because they tried to freeze large pieces of food, everybody hated frozen food. People in the 19th century didn't like frozen food because it wasn't very good tasting and it didn't have that freshness that you could get from food that came from the animal, without being frozen. So, everybody hated frozen food. It tasted bad. It was mushy.

In fact, it was so bad that the state of New York, which is located in the eastern part of the United States, passed a law barring the use of frozen food in the New York State prison system. “To bar” (bar) here means to prevent, to not allow something to happen, even to make something illegal. So, the state of New York said, “You cannot use frozen food even for the prisoners” – even for the people who are in jail. That's how bad it is. It was considered so bad, you couldn't even give it to prisoners in jail.

Let’s listen one more time as Kurlansky explains the early attempts at frozen food in the 19th century.

[recording]

“Canned food was an attempt at getting something closer to fresh food, but, as you know, it’s not that close. And around the time of the Civil War, they started trying to freeze food. But freezing food was pretty much a disaster. First of all, because they didn’t really get it cold enough so it was just a few degrees below the freezing point. And then, making it worse, they tended to freeze big blocks. Like if they were going to freeze beef, they would freeze a whole side of beef. So, it’d take days and days before it was frozen, rotting all the time. And when you thawed it out, it was kind of mushy and tasted bad. So, everybody hated frozen food. In fact, the State of New York passed a law barring the use of frozen food in the New York State prison system.”

[end of recording]

So we know that frozen food wasn't done very successfully in the mid to late 19th century.

Returning now to our story of Clarence Birdseye, we last left him up in Newfoundland, Canada in 1912, and it was there that he discovered the concept, the idea of freezing food at a very low temperature – 40 degrees below zero, minus 40 Celsius. Birdseye realized that he could take smaller pieces of food and freeze them immediately after they were caught. We’re thinking here now especially of fish, of seafood. If you freeze it at a very low temperature quickly, and then thaw it out, then unfreeze it, it tastes much, much better than the food that was frozen in the old way, of not a low temperature and larger pieces of food.

Birdseye took this idea and continued to think about it. In the 1920s, in 1922, he started to do some experiments, and he developed a process for freezing food. Now, what's interesting about Birdseye is that, as an inventor, he wasn't interested in the science of freezing food; he was interested in the commercial or business possibilities of this invention. This was a very common pattern in the United States in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, in many ways it’s still a pattern today, where an inventor would take their invention and form their own company, create their own business in order to sell that invention.

Inventors were very much interested in what we might call “practical applications” of their invention. Think of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. What did Bell do? He went out and started his own telephone company, that in some ways is still around. Thomas Edison, one of the great American inventors of the 19th, early 20th century, himself started companies based upon his inventions. So, that was the spirit of the American inventor in this time period and, I would say, it's still something that inventors do. If you invent a new technology for the Internet, it's often the case that you will take that technology and try to develop a company or create a company so that you can sell it.

That's what Birdseye did. He started his own company. His first company wasn't too successful, but his second company was able to take the process and make it more effective, more efficient, and he eventually was able to create a company that could successfully produce fresh food, fresh tasting food, from frozen food. In 1929, Birdseye sold the rights, the what we would call “patent” for this process, to a couple of other companies for 22 million dollars. This is 22 million dollars in 1929, which is of course a lot of money.

Birdseye continued to work for the company, and there is still a company called “Birdseye Frozen Foods” that you can go to an American store and buy food from this company. I remember my mother buying food from the Birdseye Company when I was growing up.

Now we’ll listen to Kurlansky one more time talk about the importance of the frozen food industry in the United States and how it developed. Let’s listen.

[recording]

“It was a slow process at first, because, you know, there was nothing in place. There was no way of transporting frozen food and stores didn’t have freezers and people didn’t have freezers in their homes. He started this in the mid-1920s and it really wasn’t completely there in the infrastructure until after World War II, but once it was, food from all over the world could be frozen and shipped anywhere and this started a whole other approach to food distribution. Today, transportation has gotten so good that it’s also done with fresh food, but this whole notion of international food really came out of the frozen food industry.”

[end of recording]

Again, that was something of a long quote, but let’s go back and explain what he was saying. He said that developing the frozen food industry was a “slow process” at first because there was nothing “in place,” meaning no one had ever done this before. Kurlansky explains that there was no way of transporting, moving frozen food, and stores of course didn't have freezers, and people didn't have freezers in their homes. So having frozen food wasn't very useful until stores and individual families began to buy effective and efficient freezers.

Birdseye started all of this, Kurlansky says, in the mid-1920s, and it wasn't really completely there in the “infrastructure” until after World War II. The word “infrastructure” (infrastructure) normally refers to buildings, machines, physical parts of a city or a country that contribute to its economic development. Here, we’re talking about modes of transportation as well as the wide availability of freezers in stores and in homes. After this infrastructure was in place, after World War II, Kurlansky says, “Food from all over the world could be frozen and shipped,” or transported anywhere. “And this started all whole other approach to food distribution.”

“Distribution” is the act of making something accessible or available to different people. “Food distribution” refers to moving food and getting it to a lot of different people. The development of modern transportation as well as modern technology for freezing allowed food then to be taken from one part of the world to another through freezing it. Of course, transportation got better and better in the twentieth century so that, as Kurlansky explains today, “Transportation has gotten so good that it's also done with fresh food.” That is, you don't have to freeze the food to move it from one part of the world to the other because you can move it very quickly. But before modern transportation was able to move food quickly, the ability to freeze the food made that distribution possible. “The whole notion,” Kurlansky says, the whole idea of international food, “really came out of the frozen food industry.” When we say “it came out of,” we mean it developed from the frozen food industry. Let’s listen to Kurlansky one more time.

[recording]

“It was a slow process at first, because, you know, there was nothing in place. There was no way of transporting frozen food and stores didn’t have freezers and people didn’t have freezers in their homes. He started this in the mid-1920s and it really wasn’t completely there in the infrastructure until after World War II, but once it was, food from all over the world could be frozen and shipped anywhere and this started a whole other approach to food distribution. Today, transportation has gotten so good that it’s also done with fresh food, but this whole notion of international food really came out of the frozen food industry.”

[end of recording]

Now let’s answer some of the questions that you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Chin (Chin) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, here in the United States. Minneapolis, of course, is next to my hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, both located in the Upper Midwest. Chin wants to know the meaning of four words – “prize,” “accomplishment,” “award,” and “reward.” Let’s start with “prize” (prize). A “prize” usually is something that you win from a contest. It could also be something you get for winning a race, or winning some competition.

“Accomplishment” (accomplishment) is when you reach a goal, when you say to yourself, “I want to lose ten pounds this week.” Well, not this week. Let’s say, this year. When you lose ten pounds, you have reached your goal. That's an accomplishment – to say I'm going to do something and then do it.

“Award” (award) as a noun is similar to prize. It's something that you are given, often to recognize your accomplishments. So, it's not an accomplishment itself, but it's someone saying, “Here's some money” or “Here's a statue” or “Here’s something that you will receive to recognize how well you did at something.” So, for example, you might have a contest in school to determine who's the best writer, and then they give an award for the best writer. We do this all the time for movies, for books. We have the Oscars for the best movies. We have the Nobel Prize for the best writers and so forth. These are all awards. The Nobel Prize is an award.

The last word is “reward” (reward). A “reward” is similar to a prize. It's something that you get as payment for doing something or for achieving something. “Reward” can also be money that you get for, for example, finding a lost dog. Sometimes when people lose their dogs or cats, they put up a sign saying, “$100 reward” – that means if you find this cat or dog and return it to the owner, you will get 100 dollars. That will be your reward. So, reward is a more general word for something given as payment for an achievement, or some service that you give someone else.

There are then some similarities, some similar meanings, among the four words that we discussed here, in particular prize, award and reward. Prize is something that could be money. It could also be something very small, like you would give to the child who cleaned their room first. You might give them, I don't know, a piece of candy. A prize can also be millions of dollars if you win some sort of contest. An award is typically something like what we would call a “trophy,” which is a small little statue that represents you winning this honor, because you did something great or you achieved something. Reward is a more general term that could refer to money that you get for doing something or simply as a benefit for helping someone. Accomplishment is reaching a goal, is doing what you planned on doing, usually something that may be a little difficult to do.

Our second question comes from Leda (Leda) or “Leda,” in Costa Rica. Leda wants to know the use of the expression “What the heck (heck)?” Is it okay to use and in what situations? Well, there are actually two expressions here, one which is a nicer expression, one that is not considered vulgar, one that you could use with children, and that is “What the heck?”

There is another expression, “What the hell?” (hell) which is not considered a polite expression, is not an expression that you would want to use with children or with your boss or, really, with anyone, unless you were very angry at that person and you knew that person very well. So, “What the heck?” is a slang phrase that's used to replace “What the hell?” Instead of saying, “What the hell?” you would say “What the heck?”

Both of these expressions are used to express anger or surprise. They can also be used to express confusion, like you don't understand something. “What the heck does this word mean in French? I don't understand the word.” “What the heck does it mean?” When you say, “What the hell does it mean?” that's being a little bit more vulgar, a little less polite, probably something you should avoid using. “Hell” is not always considered a bad word. In the Christian religion, for example, “Hell” represents a place where you go after you die if you're not a very good person or you haven't acted like a good person.

But in an expression of anger or of frustration, “hell” is usually considered a vulgar word and you should probably avoid it. Now, you’ll hear it on television. You'll hear it in movies. It's become more popular, if you will, in the last 50 years or so, but it's still something that you should avoid using. I don't use the word unless I'm with someone I know very well and perhaps, I'm very angry. Even then, I try to avoid using that particular expression. There’s an even more vulgar expression “What the…” that begins with the letter F, which we won't talk about here today. It's used in the same situations but it's considered very vulgar. Again people have started to use that expression, or an abbreviation for that expression, “WTF.” “WTF” is now something you may see on Facebook or Twitter or someone might text a message with those three letters. I don't think, again, it's something that you should use. I certainly don't use it. It would be considered vulgar by a lot of people, or at least the people who understood what the word “f….” means – and you probably know that word that begins with an “F” – it’s four letters long in English.

Our last question comes from Marcese (Marcese) in Brazil. The question has to do with the word “wholesale” (wholesale). “Wholesale” is when you sell some product, some physical item, to another store, so that they can sell it to the average person, to a “consumer.” When stores buy things wholesale, they get a good price on it. They get a lower price. Then the store raises the price and sells it to you. That's the idea of wholesale. The opposite of wholesale, if you will, is “retail” (retail). “Retail” is when you're selling it to the average person.

So, if I own a store that sells motorcycles, I may buy a hundred motorcycles wholesale. I’ll get a good price on them. Then I’ll raise the price and I'll sell it to you when you walk into my store. When I sell it to you, that would be called “retail.”

Wholesale also has an additional meaning, which means done on a very large scale, or something that is very large in scope, or very extensive. “We’re going to have a wholesale firing of all the employees.” We’re going to fire all of our workers. We’re going to get rid of all of them. That's a large thing. So, we might use “wholesale” there as an adjective describing something that is very large in scope or extensive in its impact.

If you have a question or comment, you can e-mail us. Our e-mail address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I'm Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to is again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2013 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
canned food – a food that is preserved and kept in sealed, metal cans that prevent it from going bad

* We try not to eat very much canned food, but canned beans are so much more convenient than dry beans that take a long time to cook!

disaster – something that doesn’t work at all; something that fails to do what it was supposed to have done

* This project is a total disaster! Can we stop working on it and try something else?

freezing point – the temperature at which a liquid becomes a solid

* The freezing point of alcohol is s -114°C (-173.2°F).

block – a very large piece of something that has not been cut into smaller pieces

* Can I just buy a few slices of cheese? I don’t need a whole block.

to rot – to decay or decompose; to go bad

* If you put fruit in the fridge, it won’t rot as quickly as it will on the counter.

to thaw out – to unfreeze; to put a frozen object in a warmer environment so that its temperature increases and it is no longer frozen

* Ariana likes to thaw out fish before she cooks it, but her mother just bakes the frozen filets.

mushy – with a very soft and unpleasant texture, not chewy or crunchy

* When Edgar’s teeth were removed, the dentist said he should eat only mushy foods like applesauce for a few days.

to bar – to prevent or not allow something to happen; to make something illegal

* Bank employees are barred from accepting gifts from their clients.

freezer – a machine that keeps food very cold, usually part of a refrigerator

* Do you have any ice cream in the freezer?

infrastructure – the buildings, machines, roads, and other things needed for something to operate well

* The city needs to start investing in infrastructure immediately, or else the streets, pipes, and cables will continue to deteriorate.

distribution – the act of making something accessible to many different people, making sure that it can reach many different people

* Our company’s product distribution channels include ships, trucks, and trains, but not airplanes.

notion – idea; concept; understanding

* Some people struggle with the notion that citizens don’t have freedom to do whatever they want to with their own property.

prize – something that is won from a contest, lottery, or victory

* Whoever guesses how many candies are in this jar will win a $100 prize.

accomplishment – fulfillment of a goal; reaching a goal

* Earning two degrees in four years with perfect grades is a major accomplishment. Congratulations!

award – something that is given as payment or to recognize an achievement

* At the Oscar Awards last year, who won the award for best actor?

reward – something given as payment for a service or achievement

* Do you think parents should give their children money as a reward for earning good grades?

what the heck? – an informal phrase used to express surprise, annoyance, or confusion

* What the heck is going on here? No one is allowed in my house when I’m not home!

wholesale – the selling of products in large numbers, usually with the intention of selling them in turn to individual buyers; done on a large scale; extensive

* Our restaurant buys napkins and paper towels wholesale in large quantities to save money.

What Insiders Know
TV Dinners

A “TV dinner” or “frozen dinner” is a “prepackaged” (already put together for convenience) meal that just has to be heated up before it is ready to eat. It is usually a “single portion” (the amount of food for just one person to eat), and requires little or no “preparation” (activities that must be done before something can be eaten). In most cases, the consumer just needs to “peel back” (remove the top layer by pulling) the “plastic film” (a thin piece of plastic covering food) and put the meal in the oven or microwave for a few minutes.

Usually the meal is prepackaged in a tray with two or more “compartments” (sections that keep the food separated). The traditional tray was rectangular, like a “TV screen” (the part of a TV that the image appears on), and some people think that may be why the meals are called “TV dinners.” Other people think the name comes from the fact that people often eat them while sitting down and watching TV.

Today, there are many different types of TV dinners representing many different “world cuisines” (food traditionally eaten in different parts of the world). There are also “vegetarian” (without meat), “vegan” (without meat, eggs, or milk), and “organic” (produced without chemicals) “options” (choices). Some weight-loss programs have their own “line” (brand) of TV dinners designed to help people lose weight.

However, most TV dinners are not as healthy as meals prepared in the home with fresh ingredients. Most TV dinners contain a lot of fat and salt, and they contain many “preservatives” (chemicals that make a food appear and taste fresh for a longer period of time).