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Birdseye
Cover of Birdseye
Birdseye
The Adventures of a Curious Man
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Break out the TV dinners! From the author who gave us Cod, Salt, and other informative bestsellers, the first biography of Clarence Birdseye, the eccentric genius inventor whose fast-freezing process revolutionized the food industry and American agriculture.

From the Hardcover edition.

Break out the TV dinners! From the author who gave us Cod, Salt, and other informative bestsellers, the first biography of Clarence Birdseye, the eccentric genius inventor whose fast-freezing process revolutionized the food industry and American agriculture.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1

    A Nineteenth-­Century Man

    Clarence Frank Birdseye II was born in Brooklyn on December 9, 1886. Both the year and the place are significant. In 1886, Brooklyn was a separate city from Manhattan and, in fact, was the third-­largest city in America and one of the fastest growing. Between 1880 and 1890 the population grew by more than a third to 806,343 people.

    One of the forces that made this dramatic growth possible in Brooklyn and neighboring Manhattan was refrigeration. Because of this new technology a large population could live in an area that produced no food but rather brought it in and stored it. Natural ice, collected in large blocks from the frozen lakes of New England and upstate New York, was stored in sawdust-­insulated icehouses built along the Hudson that shipped all year long. New York City used more than one million tons of natural ice every year for food and drink. While the pleasure of iced drinks in the summer had been a luxury of the wealthy ever since Roman times, in New York at the time of Birdseye's birth it had become commonplace. Almost half of all New Yorkers, Manhattanites and Brooklynites, kept food in their homes in iceboxes--­insulated boxes chilled by blocks of natural ice. A few even had artificially chilled refrigerators, dangerous, clumsy electric machines with unpredictable motors and leaking fluids.

    No place else in the world was using this much ice. Birdseye was born into a world of refrigeration and would find it lacking when he left the New York City area. It was one of those things that New Yorkers took for granted.

    People are mostly formed over their first dozen years; Birdseye, having been born in 1886, was a nineteenth-­century man, even though he lived most of his life in the twentieth century. This, of course, was not unusual. For the first half of the twentieth century, people shaped in the nineteenth century dominated most fields. John Kennedy, elected in 1960, was the first twentieth-­century U.S. president. Historians have often commented on how historical centuries do not fit neatly between year 1 and year 99, and quite a few have thought the historical nineteenth century to be an unusually long one, lingering well into the twentieth, whereas the twentieth century to some appears to have been a short one, transitioning even before the year 2000 into a new age that would be associated with the twenty-­first century.

    Clearly, Birdseye was shaped by the nineteenth century. Even as an inventor, he used nineteenth-­century industrial technology for nineteenth-­century goals, as opposed to someone like his fellow Gloucester inventor John Hays Hammond, who harnessed radio impulses into such devices as remote control and was very much a twentieth-­century inventor. Birdseye's inventions, from freezers to lightbulbs, were all mechanical and never electronic. Yet his impact on how people lived in the twentieth century was enormous.

    The nineteenth century, the time of the Industrial Revolution, was an age of inventions, and inventors were iconic heroes. Ten years before Birdseye's birth, Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone. The following year Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. The year after that, 1878, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, a British inventor, patented the first incandescent lightbulb and lit his house with it. The year before Birdseye was born, a German engineer named Karl Benz patented the first automobile that was practical to use, a three-­wheeled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine and fueled by periodically filling a tank with gasoline. The same year another German, Gottlieb Daimler, built the first...

About the Author-
  • MARK KURLANSKY is the New York Times bestselling author of many books, including The Food of a Younger Land, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. He lives in New York City.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 12, 2012
    Although frozen foods made Birds Eye a household name, few were familiar with Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956), developer of the fast-freezing process that became a multibillion-dollar international industry. In the first biography of the eccentric Brooklyn-born inventor, award-winning food author Kurlansky (Cod) brings Birdseye to life as he outlines the twists and turns of his unusual career. In a 1945 interview Birdseye stated that G.A. Henty’s 1891 novel Redskin and Cowboy “first influenced him to live the outdoor life.” Yearning for adventure, he dropped out of Amherst College in 1908 and worked in the southwest as a U.S. Biological Survey naturalist, collected ticks in Montana to research Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and became interested in food preservation in the frozen wilderness of Labrador. Experiments with freezing led to his 1927 patent, which “truly began the frozen food industry,” yet he had to deal with the same problems Adam Trask faced in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—distrust, since “frozen vegetables were an unheard-of idea,” and “no trucks or train cars for frozen food,” Birdseye became a millionaire when Post bought his company for $23.5 million. Covering the science behind Birdseye’s other inventions along with intimate details of his family life, Kurlansky skillfully weaves a fluid narrative of facts on products, packaging, and marketing into this rags-to-riches portrait of the man whose ingenuity brought revolutionary changes to 20th-century life. Agent, Charlotte Sheedy.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from March 15, 2012
    Yes, the frozen-food guy really was named Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956), and the story of his adventures is another satisfying dish from the remarkable menu of the author of Cod (1997), Salt (2002) and other treats. Kurlansky (The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, 2010, etc.) places Birdseye in the same category as Thomas Edison: amateurs who got curious about a problem, played around with it (sometimes for years) and eventually figured it out. Birdseye had many more interests than frozen foods, writes the author; he invented, among other things, a kind of light bulb and even a whaling harpoon. He also grew up in a world that seemed to have limitless resources--no worries about plundering the planet. He killed creatures with abandon for decades, many of which he enjoyed eating, including field mice, chipmunks and porcupine. His curiosity also made him fearless. He conducted field research on Rocky Mountain spotted fever (collecting thousands of ticks), and he lived in the frigid Labrador region of Canada (and took his equally fearless wife and their infant). It was in the North that he began to wonder why foods frozen there--naturally--tasted so much better than the frozen foods back home. He discovered, of course, that it was quick-freezing at very cold temperatures that did the trick. He eventually invented the process that produced vast amounts of good frozen food, but then had to wait for the supporting infrastructure (transportation, storage, etc.). Kurlansky tells the exciting tale of Birdseye's adventures, failures and successes (he became a multi-millionaire) and his family, and he also offers engaging snippets about Velveeta, dehydration and Grape-Nuts. The author notes that Birdseye knew that curiosity is "one essential ingredient" in a fulfilling life; it is a quality that grateful readers also discover in each of Kurlansky's books.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2012

    There was far more to American inventor Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) than met the eye; he was slight and cheerful but restlessly curious. He was drawn into a life of travel to remote parts of the continent in search of adventure and new experiences. He invented tools and processes, notably that which enabled quick freezing of foodstuffs and revolutionized culinary habits. Birdseye launched not just the frozen-vegetable company that bears his now-famous name but an entire industry. Kurlansky, whose past works include the popular histories Salt and Cod, paints a complete picture of Birdseye's unusual career and accomplishments; however, this is not a gripping portrait of an individual. The lack of connection between the readers and the subject (rather than just his inventions) makes this one of Kurlansky's less-successful outings. VERDICT This is not one of Kurlansky's strongest books, but author and subject name recognition should generate interest.--Peter Hepburn, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Abigail Meisel, New York Times Book Review
    "In the shadow of America's great inventors--Edison, Ford and Bell, to name a few--stands an unheralded giant: Clarence Birdseye, the father of the modern "fresh frozen" pea. Wander any supermarket and you'll find Birdseye's legacy.... [Kurlansky's] book is a delight--and a quiz bowl team's treasure-trove. Fabulous factoids abound."
  • Janet Maslin, New York Times
    "The first book-length biography of Clarence Birdseye.... [An] intriguing book that...coaxes readers to re-examine everyday miracles like frozen food, and to imagine where places with no indigenous produce would be without them."
  • Andrew F. Smith, Newsday
    "Piecing together the first book-length biography of Birdseye was not easy. It's not just the episodic quality of Birdseye's life but the sparse and spotty nature of the surviving information about him. And there are many myths that surround his life, some perpetuated by the man himself.... [Yet] Kurlansky has pieced together a lively and readable biography about one of America's most unusual innovators."
  • Wendy Smith, Daily Beast
    "Best known for his deliciously knowledgeable food histories (Cod, Salt, The Big Oyster), Kurlansky['s]...wide-ranging curiosity matches his subject's, and his narrative of Birdseye's life displays great feeling for a fellow adventurer.... [R]eaders will emerge from this breezy book with a fondness for its engagingly eccentric protagonist--and a much better understanding of the intricate interconnection of traditional practices, technical breakthroughs, business deals, and social change that put those frozen peas in our refrigerators."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred)
    "Kurlansky brings Birdseye to life.... Covering the science behind Birdseye's... inventions along with intimate details of his family life, [he] skillfully weaves a fluid narrative of facts on products, packaging, and marketing into this rags-to-riches portrait of the man whose ingenuity brought revolutionary changes to 20th-century life."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred) The author notes that Birdseye knew that curiosity is "one essential ingredient" in a fulfilling life; it is a quality that grateful readers also discover in each of Kurlansky's books."
  • Booklist
    "Kurlansky's narrative gifts shine through every chapter."
  • William Grimes, The New York Times
    Praise for Mark Kurlansky:

    The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

    "Part treatise, part miscellany, unfailingly entertaining."
  • The Wall Street Journal "Fascinating stuff . . . Kurlansky has a keen eye for odd facts and natural detail."
  • Walter Truett Anderson, San Francisco Chronicle "Highly readable . . . A rich perspective . . . Kurlansky is a writer of remarkable talents and interests."
  • Edward Rothstein, The New York Times Book Review Salt
    "Kurlansky finds the world in a grain of salt . . . Fascination and surprise regularly erupt from the detail."
  • Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times "Kurlansky continues to prove himself remarkably adept at taking a most unlikely candidate and telling its tale with epic grandeur."
  • David McCullough Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
    "Every once in a while a writer of particular skill takes a fresh, seemingly improbable idea and turns out a book of pure delight. Such is the case of Mark Kurlansky and the codfish."
  • Anne Mendelson, Los Angeles Times "An elegant brief history . . . Related with fast brio and wit."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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