Book Review: 'Birdseye,' by Mark Kurlansky
Birdseye: The Adventures
of a Curious Man
By Mark Kurlansky
Doubleday; 272 pp; $25.95
Wherever he went, be it Montana, Peru, or remotest Newfoundland, Clarence Birdseye sampled the fare at hand. There were few limits to what he would eat—porcupine, the front half of a skunk, and “a lynx that had marinated for over a month in sherry and was then stewed and served with a sauce made from the marinade.” Although described in Mark Kurlansky’s new biography as a “nineteenth century man,” Birdseye was, in his tastes, surprisingly in sync with today’s ethos of locavorism and nose-to-tail eating. Delectably ironic, then, that his name is associated with the product that most symbolizes the homogeneity of the suburban dinner table: frozen peas.
The master of the food monograph (he’s the author of Cod and Salt, but not Salt Cod—at least, not yet) Kurlansky typically begins with a single natural resource and studies its broad impact on humankind. This book flips that model on its head by studying one extraordinary man and the effect of his innovations on a host of commodities.
Birdseye led a peripatetic early life, including stints at Amherst College, assessing the economic opportunities around coyote fur in New Mexico, and researching ticks in the Montana wilderness. He was seeking a calling, a way to marshal his curiosity in a sustained direction. As Birdseye himself put it, he “wanted to get into some field where I could apply scientific knowledge to an economic opportunity.” To Kurlansky, this mindset is a particularly American stripe of industriousness, and indeed Birdseye seems to have been as much entrepreneur as inventor.
In 1912 Birdseye ended up in Labrador—then, even more than now, a forbidding place to live—where he worked on a strategy for breeding foxes for their pelts. He had modest success in this endeavor, but it was there that he found the inspiration for his true life’s work. He was fastidious in his study of local eating habits; Labrador was a desperately poor place, beset by disease, and while its inhabitants had as much seal meat and cod as they could handle, vegetables in particular were scarce. After his wife joined him in 1916 and the two had a child, Birdseye envisioned making fresh-tasting food available in places it otherwise wouldn’t be—pineapple in Pennsylvania—and in seasons it didn’t grow—sweet corn in February. His instinct was that freezing was the answer.
Birdseye did not invent frozen food. It already existed, but it was abhorred for its poor taste and poorer texture. It was so bad that in New York State it was deemed unsuitable for prisoners. Yet up north in Labrador, Birdseye noticed, “The Inuit traditionally enjoyed high-quality frozen food. They fished in holes in the ice and pulled out a trout, and it instantly froze in the 30-below air. When they cooked it, it tasted like fresh fish. In fact, sometimes the Inuit would put the frozen fish in water and thaw it, and the fish would start swimming … still live.” Now there’s an advertising campaign.
Birdseye figured out that the size of the crystals formed in frozen food were the determining factor in its palatability upon thawing—the smaller the crystals, the better. And the faster the freeze, the smaller the crystals. This was an insight, though again not a new one: The first patent for freezing food was granted in 1862, and even fast-freezing had been known by 1915. Birdseye invented nearly nothing, per se. What he did was understand the freezing process and its uses holistically. As Birds-eye later put it, “I set out to develop a method which would permit the removal of inedible waste from perishable foods at production points, packing them in compact and convenient containers and distributing them to the housewife with the intrinsic freshness intact.”
After tweaking the process and securing funding—and staking his family’s entire bankroll—Birds-eye established a factory in Gloucester, Mass. He would start by freezing fish, abetted by the recently invented filleting machine. He named his new company General Seafood. (The automobile industry had its General Motors, the power industry its General Electric, and Birdseye had similarly scaled aspirations.) As Kurlansky points out, “He was not as interested in founding a company as in launching a whole new industry.”
Once he had perfected the freezing, Birdseye turned to marketing, shrewdly rebranding his food as “frosted.” He also faced the problem of infrastructure. Everything from shipping containers to refrigerated train cars to supplying mom-and-pop stores with suitable freezers had to be contended with, and it was in this area that many of Birdseye’s innovations came. General Seafood’s growing portfolio of patents showed such potential that in 1929 Post purchased the company for $23.5 million. Post eventually changed its name to General Foods, keeping Bird’s Eye as a frozen food brand.
Although he became a multimillionaire, Birds-eye continued to tinker until his death in 1956, securing patents for everything from light bulbs to a harpoon designed for tagging whales, but it was at the dinner table where he made his monumental impact. “Frozen peas,” Kurlansky writes, “became one of the most successful Bird’s Eye frosted foods because they were such a brilliant green.” Which may be part of the appeal. However, to British chef Fergus Henderson, the flavor of the peas is superior because they are frozen so quickly after harvesting. “A wise old chef once told me,” Henderson quipped, “Wait till peas are in season, then use frozen.”