Author Interviews
6:06 am
Sun May 6, 2012

'Birdseye': The Frozen Food Revolution

Originally published on Sun May 6, 2012 11:38 am

You may not have heard of Clarence Birdseye, but odds are you've eaten the results of his culinary innovation.

Birdseye is the man credited with inventing frozen food. Everything you see in supermarket freezers today, from vegetables to pizzas to frozen dinners, can be traced back to Birdseye's work. His name would come to symbolize a veritable frozen food movement in the United States.

Mark Kurlansky, known for his histories on eclectic topics such as Salt and Cod, has written a new biography about Clarence Birdseye. He joins Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin to talk about the book, called Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.


Interview Highlights

On Clarence Birdseye's outsized curiosity

"He was somebody who just wanted to know about everything. He wanted to know why people did things the way they did, and couldn't they be done better. He was very interested in processes. He was very curious about nature. He had a nickname for a while — other kids called him 'Bugs.' He was interested in all these slimy little things."

On his time living in Newfoundland, the setting for his great inspiration

"This was just really the wilds. There wasn't fresh food, and so he became concerned about his wife and baby. He noticed that the Inuits would catch fish and they would freeze as soon as they were out of the water. And what he had discovered was that if you freeze very quickly, you don't destroy the texture of food. It's something salt makers knew for centuries — that in crystallization, the faster the crystals are formed, the smaller they are. And the problem with frozen food is that they were frozen barely at the freezing point, and they took days to freeze, and they get huge crystals and they just became mush."

On Birdseye's entrepreneurial mindset

"He set up a company in Gloucester, Mass., but he wasn't so much interested in having a seafood company; he understood perfectly well that there wasn't much of a market for it. What this company was to do was to develop machinery and ideas and patent them, and sell the patents to people with big money. ... The decade before he was born, Bell invented the telephone and Edison the phonograph and the light bulb was invented, and [Birdseye] very much had that idea in his head, that that's what you did — you came up with an idea and you started a company based on it."

On the source of Birdseye's passion

"One thing that was very clear about him was that, in his way, he was a real foodie. ... He would go out to farms and talk to farmers about how they could make their processes and their product better suited for industry. Just the reverse of what food lovers think about today ... [in] the locavore movement. He was trying to correct the locavore movement."

On Birdseye's personality

"He was a very garrulous, likable person and an absolutely brilliant salesman. When he was trying to get investors, he would send entire dinners of frozen food to their Manhattan apartments. He really had a confidence in this product that if people just tried it, they would love it."

On the lessons Kurlansky learned from Birdseye

"I learned, first of all, how much a person is shaped by the times they live in. I think that if Birdseye lived today, he would see a lot of things very differently. And I also learned that possibilities are limitless if you have the brains and the curiosity and, you know, the chutzpah, to go out there and sell them."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You may not have heard of Clarence Birdseye, but odds are you've eaten the results of his culinary innovation. Mr. Birdseye, after all, is the man credited with inventing frozen food. You know, the stuff you see in the grocery store freezers today - everything from vegetables and pizzas, full-on frozen dinners even. All of those convenient delights can be traced back to Birdseye's work and the name that would come to symbolize a frozen food movement in the United States. Author Mark Kurlansky has written a new biography about Clarence Birdseye. It's called "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man." Mark Kurlansky joins me now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MARK KURLANSKY: My pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, in the subtitle, you say Clarence Birdseye was a curious man. How did that curiosity manifest itself, especially in his younger years?

KURLANSKY: He was somebody who just wanted to know about everything. He wanted to know why people did things the way they did and couldn't they be done better? He was very interested in processes and he was very curious about nature. He, as a boy, wanted this shotgun, and his parents had this place out in Long Island. And in the marshes, there were these muskrats. And he wondered if there were some market for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KURLANSKY: I mean, right there. Is that how unusual a person, you know, a 10-year-old looks at muskrats and says, hmm, is there a market for this? And he contacts the director of the Bronx Zoo. And the director says I know this Englishman who's stocking an estate and he would be interested. And so for a dollar each, he traps and ships live to England muskrats to buy a single-gauge shotgun.

MARTIN: Man. Beats my lemonade stand when I was 10, I'll tell you that. He was also interested in traveling. I mean, when a lot of his peers were kind of settling into stable jobs in their 20s, he moved to Canada. And that was the move that really changed everything for him, right?

KURLANSKY: Right. It was part of Newfoundland, which was a separate entity. I mean, this was just really the wilds. And there wasn't fresh food, and so he became concerned about his wife and baby. And he noticed that the Inuits would catch fish and they would freeze as soon as they were out of the water. And what he had discovered was that if you freeze very quickly you don't destroy the texture of food. It's something salt-makers knew for centuries, that in crystallization, the faster the crystals are formed the smaller they are. And the problem with frozen food is that they were frozen barely at the freezing point and they took days to freeze and they got huge crystals and they just became mush.

MARTIN: When does he start to think of this really as the beginning of some kind of food revolution in the way people think about food?

KURLANSKY: Yeah. In 1923, he stared thinking about this as a way of launching an entirely new food industry. And then after a few years, he set up a company in Gloucester, Massachusetts. But he wasn't so much interested in having a seafood company. He understood perfectly well that there wasn't much of a market for it. What this company was to do was to develop machinery and ideas and patent them and sell the patents to people with big money.

MARTIN: Because we should point out, he was enamored with these ideas but at the end of the day, this was the kind of really American brand of innovation that he was pursuing. He wanted to make money.

KURLANSKY: Absolutely. I mean, the decade before he was born, Bell invented the telephone and Edison the phonograph and the light bulb was invented and he very much had that idea in his head that that's what you did, that you came up with an idea and you started a company based on it.

MARTIN: Did you get a sense of who he was as a person, what inspired him, what frustrated him?

KURLANSKY: One thing that was very clear about him was that in his way, he was a real foodie. I mean, he didn't write a letter that he didn't talk about what he'd been eating. You know, dear mom and dad, guess what I had for breakfast? And they say that he was a foodie in reverse. He would even go out to farms and talk to farmers about how they could make their processes and their product better suited for industry. Just the reverse of what food lovers think about today.

MARTIN: Yeah, we think about the slow food movement.

KURLANSKY: Right, and the locavore movement. He was trying to correct the locavore movement. And he was a very garrulous, likeable person and an absolutely brilliant salesman. When he was trying to get investors, he would send entire dinners of frozen food to their Manhattan apartment. I mean, he really had a confidence in this product, that if people just tried it, they would love it.

MARTIN: What did you learn from him when you were done with this project, done with spending time with him and writing about him?

KURLANSKY: I learned a couple of things. I learned, first of all, how much a person is shaped by the times they lived in. I think that if Birdseye lived today, he would see a lot of things very differently. And I also learned that possibilities are limitless if you have the brains and the curiosity and, you know, the chutzpah to go out there and sell them.

MARTIN: Mark Kurlansky. His new book is "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man." Thanks so much for talking with us, Mark. We appreciate it.

KURLANSKY: My pleasure, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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