May 2012

Frozen food’s eccentric genius

By Mark Kurlansky
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Yes, Virginia, there really was a man named Birdseye behind the Birds Eye® frozen food brand.

Clarence Birdseye, who was born in Brooklyn at the end of 1886, did not originate the idea of fast-freezing food—he always credited the Inuit for the concept. But as Mark Kurlansky points out in this charming biography, Birdseye “changed our civilization. He created an industry by modernizing the process of food preservation and in so doing nationalized and then internationalized food distribution.”

Locavores certainly won’t think that’s such a great legacy. Fresh food is definitely better than frozen, but Kurlansky notes that at the time, many people, especially the urban poor and middle classes, were eating canned food of inferior quality. Before Birdseye began tinkering with food-freezing processes in 1923, attempts to freeze fish, meat and vegetables often turned to rancid mush. As a result, consumers were extremely skeptical about frozen foods. So Birdseye pushed relentlessly for a high-quality product, which he marketed with energetic creativity. Just before the 1929 stock market crash, Birdseye sold his company to what would soon become General Foods for the astonishing sum of $23.5 million. He stayed on with the new company as an executive, and later as a consultant, continuing to invent new products and processes.

Birdseye was 37 years old when he began trying to preserve food by freezing it. Before that his life seemed to be an almost random assortment of efforts, beset by failure. He liked to tinker and invent. He liked to hunt and was always interested in food. He was insatiably curious and eager for adventure—first in the territories of the western U.S. (where he often worked in life-threatening circumstances as a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher) and later in the iced-in reaches of Labrador (where he tried and eventually failed to build a fox-farming business). He believed in taking risks; rather than being defeated by failures, he culled from them the lessons he needed to bring his grandest project to fruition.

In Kurlansky’s telling, Birdseye was both ahead of and a product of his era. A prodigious inventor/marketer, he rarely recorded anything about his personal thoughts or inner life. He wore a necktie while gardening, for heaven’s sake. But the prolific Kurlansky, whose marvelous bestsellers Salt and Cod demonstrate a knack for discovering the vibrant details that bring a subject to life, manages to correct many of the myths that have accreted to the Birdseye story. And while he does not solve all the mysteries of Clarence Birdseye’s personality, he offers an account of his life and accomplishments that is sympathetic, informative and eye-opening.

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By Mark Kurlansky
ISBN 9780385527057

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