Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Birdseye" by Mark Kurlansky (2012)

There really was a man named Birdseye; and he is the man who founded the food company which bears his name; although it is now owned by a larger corporation. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1854, one hundred years from my own birth year; passing away only one day before my second birthday in October of 1956; but what a difference he made in his 102 years of living; largely through the efforts of his own, limitless imagination.
I picked this book up knowing that it would be well written, and even somewhat rambling in its nature. I have read 2 of Mark Kurlansky’s books before; “1968: The Year That Changed the World”; and also his fascinating history of something we all take for granted; “Salt: A World History”. Those books were; just as this book is; wide ranging in the authors exploration of his subject, so I expected no less from this book. And I was not disappointed in my expectations.
In the very first chapter of this book, Mr. Kurlanksky covers the history of New York City’s love affair with ice; which, during the 1800’s; was supplied by floating large chunks of ice downriver from upstate in the spring, supplying the fishing vessels, as well as cooling the drinks of the thirsty New Yorkers.
Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, in the Cobble Hill section, adjacent to the waterfront. Amidst all of that hustle and bustle, some of his earliest dreams of adventure must have been born. I was born and raised in Brooklyn; less than one mile from the ocean; and it had the same effect upon me. And though I did roam the world 3 times over, I never made as much of an impact as Mr. Birdseye did during his remarkable life.
Before embarking on the adventure which would change the lives of so many with frozen foods, Mr. Birdseye was an early entrepreneur, catching, and selling muskrats to museums, netting enough money to purchase his first gun. From there he began a true interest in nature, and by 12 years old was an accomplished taxidermist.
After school was finished, he took a job with the Bureau of Public Health, traveling to Arizona and New Mexico in 1908 and 1909, cataloging ticks and other insects. His work would pave the way for understanding “Spotted Fever”, as well as provide the clues necessary to combat Legionnaire’s Disease in the 1970’s. Talk about leaving a mark upon the world! 
To say that he invented frozen foods would be a bit misleading. To say that he perfected the process would be more accurate. Like so many of the inventors of the time, Mr. Birdseye relied heavily upon things which were already discovered, and then improving upon them. The author uses the example of Fulton’s steamboat as an example. He didn’t invent it; that was done in France in 1690 with the invention of the steam piston, and then the steamboat, which had no applicable use in Paris, a city with many roads and streets. Fulton merely found the right market for it on the Hudson River, making the run between New York City and Albany, delivering fresh produce to the citizens of the city. In a way, Clarence Birdseye was no different. Ice existed, as did vegetables. It was only when he made a trip to Labrador in 1912 that he realized the need for “flash freezing” foods. Up until then, the residents of Labrador, mostly fishermen and some native Inuits existed on a diet of fish, and salted pork which the fisherman brought with them each year.
When Birdseye arrived upon the scene in 1912 he was fascinated with all that he saw. But, he did miss his vegetables. He saw that if vegetables were left in the fierce artic winds, they would freeze rapidly, preserving their freshness and nutrition. Thus began a remarkable journey to perfect the process of freezing foods in mass quantities. With his unlimited imagination, he left a legacy which has had a mostly positive impact upon the world in which we live.
But he was so much more than the name Birdseye conjures up. This man held over 300 patents at the time of his death! Among his inventions were a light bulb better than Edison’s; a method to manufacture paper from waste material (way ahead of his time on that one); and so many others that you will have to read this book to keep them all straight.
Married for decades to the same woman, he continued to perfect his flash freezing process while working for the U.S. Fisheries Association. He invented a method known as double plating; or placing the item to be frozen, between two plates, freezing them twice as quickly, and without changing the cellular structure of the food. This was revolutionary. He later formed the “Birdseye Frozen Food Corp.”, and by the early 1930’s his foods were on the tables, or in the iceboxes of many Americans.
What makes this book so worthwhile is the author’s enthusiasm for his subject. It is clear that he likes Mr. Birdseye, and through his own remarkable skill as a writer, brings all of Birdseye’s adventures to life. Pick this one up and hang on; you will be traveling from the streets of Brooklyn, to Long Island and then out west, and then up into the Rockies, before returning east to Gloucester and then Labrador. There are even some side trips to Peru and parts of Canada. Chalk up another winner for the always entertaining Mr. Kurlansky.

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