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In praise of Clarence Birdseye's curiosity

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:46 PM

"Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man," by Mark Kurlansky (Doubleday)

The author who told us more than we ever thought there was to know about cod ("Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World") and salt ("Salt: A World History") is back with a more traditional biography.

"Birdseye" is a look at the life of inventor Clarence Birdseye, who died with more than 200 patents in his name. The name sounds familiar because there's a package of vegetables in your freezer with his name on them. Without him there are no Hungry-Man dinners, no fish sticks and no frozen peas to bring the swelling down.

Best known for inventing a process of freezing that made it possible to "fresh freeze" everything from poultry to potatoes, Birdseye's life was marked by an insatiable curiosity and a thirst for adventure. Those are the traits that Kurlansky celebrates throughout the book.

We begin with Birdseye's birth in the New York borough of Brooklyn in 1886 and end with his death from heart failure in 1956. In between we're treated to chapters about his time as a government biologist in the American West, a fox breeder and fur trapper in Labrador, Canada, and finally as an industrial tycoon in Gloucester, Mass. In all three locales, Birdseye is portrayed as a man who always wanted to know how things worked, and when they didn't, he was quick to invent an alternative.

The best parts of the book turn back the clock and make you feel what it was like before every American household had a freezer. The stumbling blocks Birdseye had to overcome — from packaging to consumer distrust — are hard to imagine from the modern perspective. Consider this note the company felt compelled to insert into each box of Birds Eye frozen fish fillets in 1927: "The product in this container is frozen hard as marble by a marvelous new process which seals in every bit of just-from-the-ocean flavor."

One small complaint about the book as a biography: There aren't a lot of outside voices. Most of Birdseye's contemporaries have died, certainly, and it's clear Kurlansky has done meticulous research, but the absence of voices other than the author talking about a man we're told "changed civilization" just feels a little hollow.

Still, what we're left with is much more than we ever thought we needed. Kurlansky's streak continues.

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