Book review: ‘Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man’ by Mark Kurlansky

Sometimes a groundbreaking idea is not enough. Sometimes a brilliant notion slouches along until an innovator with a nose for the entrepreneurial realizes its potential, perfects its contours and gives it mass appeal. For cars, it was Henry Ford. For electric light, it was Thomas Edison. For computers, it was Steve Jobs. And for the global food market, it was Clarence Birdseye.

Birdseye, whose name is synonymous with frozen food, revolutionized the way we eat. Generations of Americans have become familiar with the tidy little packages that bear his name in supermarket refrigerators. By perfecting a flash-freeze method — a technique he learned from Inuit of the North Sea — Birdseye single-handedly transformed the American diet and took the food industry from local to global in the course of a decade.

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"Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man" by Mark Kurlansky

It’s because of Birdseye that Americans expect peach pie in winter, fish fillets in Kansas and TV dinners in a hurry. And it is because of him that whole communities in America left farmlands for urban life.

Birdseye was no scientist or laboratory intellectual. Like Ford, Edison and Jobs, he had no college degree; like them, he depended largely on native intelligence and an irrepressible spirit of can-do. In “Birdseye,” Mark Kurlansky’s brisk account of the man’s galvanic trajectory, we are reminded that American ingenuity has often relied less on a classroom than on insatiable curiosity and a well-lit garage.

Kurlansky is best known for epic portraits of small-scale subjects, among them “Salt,” “Cod” and “The Basque History of the World.” He brings a nimble, no-frills journalism to these tasks, and the result is a series of eye-opening books on worlds we might otherwise never see. “Salt” becomes a history of humankind, complete with explorers and revolutionaries. “Cod” is a rollicking tale of adventure, with a fish as its celebrated star. “The Basque History” ends up being a paean to a highly inventive people: Europe’s earliest explorers, Spain’s first bankers, a race defined by curiosity, ingenuity and grit.

Likewise, “Birdseye” turns out to be less a biography than a glimpse into an exuberantly inventive time in America. Little is known about Birdseye’s personal life, and Kurlansky is quick to admit it. But the impact of the man’s inventions is on full view here: the whaling harpoon, the dipping of livestock to control ticks, the science of crystallization and cryonics, innovations in food packaging, advances in refrigeration, the birth of the sunlamp, the production of dried edibles, the papermaking revolution. We see a tireless tinkerer, a restless mind, a quintessentially American inventor, driven by two questions about the world around him: Why? and Why not?

He was born in the age of the steamboat and died in the age of the satellite. In Kurlansky’s hands, the arc of Birdseye’s life, which spanned from 1886 to 1956, is a history of the American imagination. Birdseye came into the world alongside the telephone, the phonograph and the light bulb, and then rode to manhood on a wave of ingenuity. By the time he was 10, Americans had invented fountain pens, cash registers, Coca-Cola, washing machines, escalators, contact lenses and automobiles. By the time he was 20, factories were churning out a whole host of American products and reaping the riches of the industrial age.

Birdseye was a small, bald, highly energetic man whose enthusiasms were so manifest that he attracted children in every neighborhood he inhabited. He welcomed them into his basement or garage; encouraged them to bring him frogs, insects and rodents; and led them to consider the very questions he was pondering.

I was one of those children. When, at the end of his life, he settled on a sugar plantation in Peru to develop a more efficient way to manufacture paper, his house was a few doors from mine. The Birdseye household was nothing less than an eccentric’s paradise, alive with parrots, deer, guinea pigs and a penguin called Billy. My brother and I brought the great man seeds, flowers and bugs, and every specimen we dropped on his worktable became a ticket to a scintillating lesson, complete with a tour of his marvels and contraptions.

He had been making contraptions since his boyhood in Brooklyn. At 11, he set up a taxidermy practice. He went on to devise clever ways to trap animals, ice their carcasses and convey them to furriers and scientists. At Amherst, he studied biology but dropped out when his family hit hard times. Even as his father was shuttled off to the Pittsburgh penitentiary for massive insurance fraud, Birdseye threw himself into a series of jobs that would lead him to his most prized innovations: A stint at the Department of Agriculture had him gathering data on wildlife; another with the U.S. Biological Survey in Montana led him to document a plague of ticks; a few months on a medical missionary’s ship near Labrador had him pondering the way we eat. In those frigid and desolate waters, where fresh vegetables and fruits were nonexistent, his natural interest in food preservation was piqued to obsession. It was there that he saw the Inuit flash-freeze their catch by holding it up to the Arctic winds.

The rest was history. By tinkering with the process, Birdseye devised a system that froze fish instantly, one by one, thereby preserving freshness. Peas frozen as quickly retained their essential green. In 1926, Birdseye established the General Seafoods Corp. in Gloucester, Mass. He began mass-freezing fish and vegetables, prompting the invention of better systems of refrigeration. He persuaded DuPont to make waterproof cellophane in which to package his wares.

In 1929, Marjorie Merriweather Post, doyenne of the Post food empire, bought Birdseye’s company for $23.5 million — $3.5 million for the operating facilities and $20 million for the patents. Birdseye had transformed American eating habits forever and, in the process, had become a very rich man. He was 43.

Even so, he continued to press on to refine the process. Eventually, in his fully outfitted stainless-steel basement in Gloucester, he devised a system to quick-dry foods: carrots, potatoes, milk, meats and, in time, entire dinners for U.S. soldiers at war in Europe.

“Birdseye always believed in the central concept of agribusiness,” Kurlansky writes. He was convinced that technology could vanquish hunger. He followed new industrial food ideas with high passion. He believed that microwaves were the way of the future. He placed great stock in hydroponic farming.

One wonders what he would have thought of the current campaign to shrink back the global market he created, to urge people to buy only fresh, local food.

Then again, Birdseye could always be counted on to anticipate the next thing in American appetites. He believed fervidly in change and was convinced that we should constantly update and improve our ideas. “Just because something has always been done in a certain way is never a sufficient reason for continuing to do it in that way,” he once wrote. “Change is the very essence of American life.”

Amen to that. May there be many more Birdseyes to keep us changing. There is little as sweet as an American original.

Marie Arana is a former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. She wrote about meeting Clarence Birdseye in her memoir of her childhood in Peru, “American Chica.”

BIRDSEYE

The Adventures of a Curious Man

By Mark Kurlansky

Doubleday. 251 pp. $25.95

 
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