Saturday 18 November 2017

Business: Captain birdseye had an eye for solving problems

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man By Mark Kurlansky

John Mulligan

John Mulligan

FROZEN food is such an ubiquitous part of our everyday lives that few of us are prone to give it much thought. Clarence Birdseye did, however. Were it not for his inexhaustible curiosity about the matter, it may have taken much longer for frozen food to become a staple in homes throughout the western world.

Author Mark Kurlansky, with access to Birdseye's journals largely written during his twenties, reveals an intriguing tale of a man intent on solving problems and discovering why things are the way they are. A committed naturalist, he was also a committed hunter, relishing in tales during his earlier years of western legends such as Buffalo Bill.

But it was his years spent in the frozen coastal territory of Labrador (he first visited in 1912) where his interest in frozen food flourished. He had spent many years there developing a successful fox breeding business to harvest pelts. When his new wife moved there with him, she craved fresh meat and other food. The intense winter cold allowed Birdseye to freeze food that would taste as if it were fresh.

He later applied his knowledge when he established his first frozen food company in New York. But it was a bust. No one wanted to eat frozen food, which had a terrible reputation. So, with his young family, in 1925 he headed to Massachusetts to be close to a fresh fish supply. He experimented with freezing processes, perfecting them. In 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash, the company that's now known as General Foods bought the Birdseye firm for $23.5m, leaving Clarence, or Bob as he called himself, with a $1m fortune just as the Depression began.

Kurlansky's book provides an engaging insight into Birdseye's formative years and the doggedness that characterises all great innovators. He experimented with freezing with anything that caught his fancy, such as porpoises. He ate anything. During his various ramblings around North America he ate lynx, beaver, mice, porcupine and owl.

But it's for frozen peas and vegetables that he'll always be most closely associated. They seem innocuous now, but Clarence Birdseye revolutionised the food industry. Mark Kurlansky does him justice.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091-709350.

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