Clarence Birdseye, the Man Behind Modern Frozen Food
I spoke with author Mark Kurlansky about the quirky inventor who changed the way we eat
In a local supermarket, a frozen food section is a matter of course, but have you ever wondered who had the idea to make a business out of preserving food this way? The short answer is right there in the freezer aisle when you pick up a package of Birsdeye frozen vegetables. For the long answer, consult the latest book by Mark Kurlansky. The author who gave us biographies of everyday objects such as salt and cod now delves into the entertaining history of Clarence Birdseye, an adventurer and entrepreneur who revolutionized the way we eat. I spoke with Kurlansky by phone about the mastermind behind frozen food and the place these products have in a culture that increasingly prefers food that’s fresh and local.
People had been freezing foods well before Clarence Birdseye, so why write a book about this one person?
He did not invent frozen food but he clearly invented the modern frozen food industry. Before Birdseye, hardly anybody ate frozen food because it was awful. New York State banned it from their prison system as inhumane. It was mushy and terrible because it was frozen just at the freezing point so it took a day or so to freeze. Also you couldn’t commercialize it because they would freeze a whole side of beef or something. Nobody figured out how to put it in a packagable, marketable form. On a number of levels he truly was the creator of the frozen food industry.
How did Birdseye make frozen food a desirable product?
In history, most of the inventors aren’t the ones who invented the thing. They’re the ones who figured out how to make it profitable. (Robert Fulton didn’t invent steam ships, he just had the first profitable steam ship.) You see a lot of that. Birdseye first of all had to figure out how to make frozen food a good product, which he did by realizing that when he lived in Labrador the food he froze for his family was really good—not like the frozen food that was available everywhere. He realized that that was because it froze instantly because it was so cold—that was the key to making frozen food good. An old principle that salt makers know is that the quicker crystals form, the smaller they are. So if you get really small crystals the ice doesn’t deform the tissue. So that was the first important thing. But then he had to figure out a way to package it so it could be frozen in packages that were saleable size that people in the stores could deal with and did a lot of experimenting with packaging and packaging material. He actually got the DuPont Company to invent cellophane for cellophane wrappers. Then there were all these things like transportation, getting trucking companies and trains to have freezer cars and getting stores to carry freezers. There was absolutely no infrastructure for frozen food. He had to do all of that and it took more than a decade.
Was this a difficult book to research and write?
It really was detective work. Birdseye didn’t write an autobiography. Nobody has ever written a biography on him. Almost everything on the internet is wrong and they keep repeating the same mistakes, which shows you that internet articles keep copying each other. So anytime I could really document something was exciting. Just going to Amherst and I found his report cards, it was exciting to see how he did in school. One of his grandsons had—I forget now how many—something like 20 boxes from the family that he somehow inherited and were in his attic and he had never opened them. And by threatening to go to Michigan and go through his attic myself, I got him to go up there and look through the boxes and he found a lot of letters and things that were very interesting. Going to the Peabody Museum and looking at the whale harpoon he built—one of his inventions. It was very illuminating because it was so completely mechanical and kind of simplistic. You could see that this was a 19th century, Industrial Revolution guy who built mechanical things out of household objects and things that he could get in the hardware store. I started off sort of dreading how little there was available, but it became just great fun unearthing things.
In your book, Birdseye comes across as someone who was prone to exaggerating events in his life a bit. How difficult was it to write about someone who embellished his life stories?
I don’t know that Birdseye did that more than other people. What you seem to find when you get into this biography business is that people tend to have an image of themselves that they want to project and they want to color statements by this image. It’s not so much that he was a wild liar. He just had a certain view of himself that he liked, so he would emphasize certain things. He always emphasized himself as an adventurer and a wild guy. He always described his years in the Bitterroot Mountains and talked about the hunting he did there and the incredible amount of animals he shot—over 700 animals one summer—and he loved to talk about that stuff. He never talked very much about the fact that this was a major medical, scientific research project on Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and that he played an important role in this research, which is an important chapter in medical history. What they learned about controlling that disease later had an impact on dealing with malaria and even later in Lyme disease. It was important scientific work, but typical of Birdseye, he mainly talked about himself as the mighty hunter. Fortunately that was the chapter of his life that was easy to document.
And in certain ways he didn’t talk about himself very much. When he was in Labrador, he kept a daily diary, and this was during the period that he courted and married he wife, and he barely ever mentioned her. There’s a letterhead clipped to a page in his diary without any comment. Well there’s a description of staying in a hotel and the things he did but what he didn’t mention was that it was his honeymoon. So there are lots of gaps. I could never find out if he was a Republican or a Democrat. And interestingly, his family doesn’t know. Even his daughter-in-law, who’s still alive and was quite close to him, didn’t really know what he was.
Was there an especially fun moment you had while working on the book?
The New York Public Library has every directory ever printed of New York, so it took me about five minutes to find out which house he grew up in in Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill, and I went there and it didn’t seem to have changed much. It was still a single family dwelling, it had chandeliers and a lot of late 19th century décor and a kind of elegance. It solved a mystery for me because everybody who’s ever met Birdseye talked about what an unpretentious, easygoing guy he was, and yet in Gloucester he built this pompous mansion with pillars up on a hill. And I always wondered: If he really was so unpretentious, why did he build such a pretentious house? Seeing the house he was born in, I realized that this was the way he was raised.
In your book, Birdseye’s frozen food products are desirable, but over time attitudes have changed. Our modern culture is placing a lot of emphasis on fresh foods and eating locally.
I don’t think that we are really going to go back to that world. To begin with, there were drawbacks to that world that nobody in the foodie world thinks about. Like most places where you live, there isn’t much fresh food available for a number of months of the year. So unless you use frozen food or canned food, which is what they used to do, you can’t be a locavore all year round except for a few climates. You could be a locavore in Florida or southern California. But I tried that. It was really limiting.
So does Birdseye’s frozen food innovations still have a place in our modern culture?
Oh, it has a huge place—bigger than ever. And now you see more and more sophisticated versions of frozen food—frozen gourmet food. Places like Trader Joe’s, where you can get frozen truffle pizza and things like that–that’s one of the things that has changed public perception.
To us, frozen food isn’t like fresh food. We know the difference. But when somebody in Birdseye’s day tasted frozen food, they weren’t comparing it to fresh food; they were comparing it to canned food or dried, salted food. And by that standard, it was so like fresh food. But today we tend to compare it to actual fresh food. While it comes a lot closer than canned food, it’s not really as good as fresh food. One of the things that has happened with that market is that they have figured out how to make frozen food a middle priced or even inexpensive product so that’s one of its selling points is that it’s easily affordable and it’s often cheaper than really good fresh food. So it has taken a completely different place than where it started off.
Check in tomorrow for Part II of our interview with Mark Kurlansky about his masterpiece on the history of salt, the only edible rock on the planet.