John Clayton: There's nothing fishy about this invention By JOHN CLAYTON Union Leader Staff
AS A CHILD, I always felt bad when we had fish for supper.
It seemed so unfair.
Looking down at my plate, I couldn't help but wonder what chance the poor creature had. How could this
little rectangular portion of protein - no head, no tail, no fins - possibly win when pitted against a wily fisherman like
my dad, who, come to think of it, always caught his limit just in time for supper every Friday night?
Surely other children experienced this same moral quandary, but that's only because we weren't as enlightened
- fish-wise - as Rich Maher.
His dad invented the fish stick.
Ordinarily, the proof is on the wall of the Maher family cottage on the shores of Crystal Lake in Gilmanton
The document in question is from the U.S. Patent Office. It's Patent #2,724,651, and it was issued
to Edward Maher for "producing a pre-cooked fish product, and more particularly, a frozen pre-cooked fish product of the deep-fat
In the grand scheme of food-related things, that piece of parchment may be bigger than the credit card
receipt for the Last Supper, although, come to think of it, a Biblical meal of loaves and fishes isn't far removed from the
formula for fish sticks.
And Ed Maher fed the multitudes. His kids included.
"There isn't a family in America that ate more fish sticks than ours," laughed Rich, as he proudly
displayed his father's landmark patent in the kitchen of his home in Bow. "There were seven of us and my dad would bring home
cases and cases of frozen fish - factory seconds, mostly - which we ate several times a week."
For us, it was mostly Fridays. And then . . . "It was a very bad day when the Catholic Church decided
that Catholics could eat meat on Friday," Rich added. "My father was understandably devastated when that came out, since Friday's
were big days for eating fish."
>And yes, there was actual fish in Mr. Maher's fish stick.
"After World War II, my father ended up working for General Foods as a chemist in their food labs in
Woburn, Mass.," Rich explained. "In the early 1950s, my father and his boss developed a method for pressing filets of white
fish, such as cod and haddock, into large blocks, which they would quick freeze, and then slice up into shapes to be battered,
breaded, deep-fried, re-frozen and sold for consumers to re-heat."
(The key to the process was discovered by Mr. Maher - he had a chemistry degree from Harvard, after
all - who realized that fish contained a certain chemical enzyme that made them particularly receptive to freezing. The fact
that he made this discovery while working on a recipe for cat food is probably best forgotten.)
"Anyway," Rich added, "ïï¿¿½½General Foods wasn't interested in developing the fish stick product back
then" - (personally, I would have said that General Foods had bigger fish to fry) - "but my dad saw a great future in frozen
fish products, so he left General Foods in '52 or '53."
Like a lot of great inventors, Ed Maher had his quirks.
One of them was great pride in his World War II service with the United States Navy. It had always
rankled him a bit that he, a Navy man, would wind up working for a company called "General" Foods, so when it was time to
come up with a name for his new firm - a fish-based firm at that - he was only entertaining nautical thoughts.
"He wanted to call it Admiral Foods, but that was taken," Rich said, "so he settled for the next rank
down and called it Commodore Foods."
Although the Maher family divided its time equally between Gilmanton Iron Works and Ed Maher's work
base in Massachusetts, it was decided that Commodore Foods would set up shop in Lowell, Mass., and that all-important patent
- which will turn 50 next month - was the operating Bible.
"The fish pieces, preferably filets, are placed in metal pans and covered with metal covers so that
a uniform block or slab will be created," it states.
"Generally, it is preferred that the pan be of such a depth that a frozen slab of about 3/4s of an
inch in thickness is obtained.
"The slabs are cut into sticks of any suitable size, one ounce sticks being judged preferable from
a consumer standpoint. Sticks cut into 3 and 3/4 inches, by 3/4 inches by 1/2 inch will usually provided the desired one ounce
"Any suitable method may be employed for the cutting of the sticks, a series of multiple circular saws
being preferred from the standpoint of operating efficiency, particularly loss of fish as 'sawdust'."
We haven't even reached the portions of the patent relating to the battering or breading process, let
alone the deep-frying and re-freezing, but I think you get the sense of the NASA-like effort that went into every single fish
stick you ever ate.
And I'm guessing that Ed Maher eventually found a use for that so-called "sawdust" - ever hear of fish
cakes? -ïï¿¿½½ because the best thing about visionaries is that they're always trying to expand their business and their field
For all of his hard work? Ed Maher envisioned retirement in Gilmanton.
"Before my dad was through, Commodore Foods employed hundreds of workers, and they sold their foods
under private labels to a lot of the big grocery chains like First National, A&P, Grand Union and Demoulas," Rich said.
"He'd travel all over the world looking for fish - South America, Asia, North Sea countries - because
when sales were up, they'd be short of fish. He hated that."
He also hated canned food.
"As a food chemist, he had a real aversion to canned food because of the fear of botulism," Rich explained.
"Freezing had a lot of advantages."
And Ed Maher took advantage of his good fortune by feeding the kids at Camp Fatima in Gilmanton Iron
Works, where campers - much like the Mahers and Claytons - got to enjoy fish sticks, all free, for their Friday night supper.
"My father summered there his entire life," Rich said, "and his parents had spent their summers in
Gilmanton Iron Works even before he was born in 1920. He met my mother there and eventually, he retired there. He gave lectures
for the Gilmanton Historical Society and he restored several old homes that were falling down in town."
And Ed Maher died there in 1999.
He died while walking the shores of Crystal Lake, but his legacy lives on in his beloved Gilmanton
Iron Works, where the patent that launched a billion fish sticks still hangs on the wall of the Maher family cottage.
John Clayton is the author of several books on Manchester and New Hampshire, including the newly released
"You Know You're In New Hampshire When..." His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org