Clarence Frank Birdseye II was born 12-01-1886 and died 10-07-1956. During his 69 years, this diminutive dapper dynamo transformed the eating habits of the entire world – and had the time of his life in doing so.
Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky is the biographical equivalent of a page-turning thriller. Perhaps it is Kurlansky’s style or the fact that he so obviously admires his subject, but this book is hard to put down. It is 230 pages chock full of descriptions of early 20th century America, the era of inventions and innovations, when America was shaping up to become the global leader of making things that made life better, healthier, and simpler. To put it in context, Birdseye came of age during a time when explorers reached both the North Pole and South Pole, Ford developed his assembly line, fur trading was still big business, and motion picture makers had just set up camp in Hollywood to escape Thomas Edison’s monopoly of the industry. Kurlansky immerses the reader in these decades of dreams being made into reality, of problems being solved.
He assumed “Bob” as his name for the sake of approachability and it reflected Birdseye’s affable nature more clearly than did Clarence. Descended from a line of prominent lawyers, he had to leave Amherst after his second year due to lack of money. He was literally forced to work for a living as his parents could not support him, and thus began a series of occupations that made up his remarkable life.
One of his first jobs was getting up close and personal with ticks to study their role in Rocky Mountain spotted fever, one of the most dreaded diseases of that time. This led to an encounter with a medical missionary and a stint on a hospital ship that led to an expedition to Labrador, where Birdseye’s fascination with frozen food began. Indeed, this was the pattern of Bob’s life – each occupation built upon the other. This curious (in the good sense) man never did just one thing for long and was constantly finding new puzzles and problems to be tackled.
Probably the wisest thing Bob did was to marry Eleanor Gannett. The daughter and niece of geographers, Eleanor shared Bob’s sense of adventure. More importantly, she had the good sense not to try to change him and recognized that he was ahead of his time. She took their 5-week-old son on the last boat to Labrador in 1916 to reunite with Bob. It was there that Birdseye noticed that fish and meat frozen during the beginning and end of the winter did not retain its texture and taste as well as that frozen during the mid-season. From that simple observation, he began investigations and experiments that in the next decade would make him a multimillionaire and would change the eating habits of the entire world.
The journey from studying ticks to perfecting the “frosted food” process and beyond, is written in a style reflecting the good humor, generosity, and apolitical nature of Bob Birdseye. He was simply a lovely man, who embraced life, wore a dress shirt and tie even when digging in the woods, was curious about everything and took the time to experiment on things that interested him. Not a tortured genius, he was a very happy family man with 4 children of his own whose home was usually full of neighborhood children as well. His life was defined by enthusiasm. Whether pulling ticks off mice, including the neighbor kids in his experiments, or harnessing radar waves, Bob was always intensely interested in his subject.
After reading this book, I felt that I had shared in Bob and Eleanor’s excellent adventures. I wish I had been born a decade earlier (and on the east coast) and could have been one of those neighborhood kids. The Birdseye legacy goes well beyond frozen peas and fish sticks, I learned. Kurlansky immerses the reader in their lives and that era of awe, possibility, and endless invention, a time when America was busy working hard and bringing good things to life.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies, and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Marco Island home. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org