Fans of Kurlansky will recognize the name Birdseye, a man mentioned in three of the author’s earlier works. Clarence Birdseye was an American original—a college dropout and adventurer who died in 1956 with over 200 patents to his name. The advances he made in frozen food processing changed the way we distributed food as society became urbanized. If the history of frozen food doesn’t sound fun, you’ve underestimated Kurlansky. He has a gift for turning dry topics (salt, cod) into narrative gold. This biography is packed with swashbuckling tales of a curious man who made a fortune betting on his own ingenuity.
First, Kurlansky defends Birdseye’s legacy from today’s locavores, who probably view the “father of frozen food” as the Antichrist. Kurlansky does this by explaining that Birdseye’s fast freezing process was welcome in a world of canned, salted, smoked or slow-frozen food. As Birdseye’s life story unfolds, we meet a voracious hunter, an entrepreneurial fur trader and heroic researcher who tried to cure Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Montana. Next, he took his bride and new baby to the wilds of Labrador, where he marvelled at the Inuits’ ability to flash-freeze their fish. In 1924, he perfected and patented a mechanized process called multiplate freezing, then sold it for $23.5 million just before the Depression. Birdseye then turned his attention to improving portable freezers and food dehydration machines. Always juggling several pursuits, he formed a light bulb company, where he designed a brighter filament and created a built-in reflector. Angina slowed him down, but didn’t stop him from inventing a new process for making paper and writing a book about gardening. He died at age 68.
Inside this book lies a wonderful mini-bio of a medical missionary, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, and an impassioned short history of ice. This reader bets ice is the topic of Kurlansky’s next big book. Avid poker player Birdseye would be the first to take that bet.