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The real Mr Freeze

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man
by Mark Kurlansky
Doubleday

The setting was unlikely, as world-changing events go: a frozen lake in Labrador, a group of Inuit fishermen hauling startled fish through a hole in the ice into the impossibly frigid, minus 40 degrees Celsius air.

The Inuit had a guest on that January day in 1913, a sharp-eyed young American named Clarence Birdseye, a man blessed with a broad streak of curiosity and inventiveness. He watched, fascinated, as the wriggling fish stiffened and flash-froze solid within seconds, in the perishing air.

Days, weeks and months later, Birdseye marvelled at the flavour of the fish when thawed and cooked. He immediately began experiments in his Labrador cabin, freezing cabbage, berries, moose and fish. But it would take well more than a decade before this unlikely man - small, bespectacled, meek-looking - would set up the ultimately happy marriage between a doubting and suspicious American populace and frozen food.

'Undeniably Clarence Birdseye changed our civilisation,' writes Mark Kurlansky in his colourful book about this adventurous and generally admirable fellow with an odd surname. Try to imagine Hong Kong's sushi bars without the flash-frozen tuna. So thanks, Mr Birdseye.

Kurlansky had previously tackled subjects as unpromising as salt and codfish and turned them into successful books. In Birdseye, he found a subject who symbolises the American zeal for finding ingenious mechanical solutions to problems, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when inventors were the icons of the day. The telephone, phonograph and photographic film were just a few of the breakthroughs around the time of Birdseye's birth in 1886 in Brooklyn, New York. 'Many Europeans were content in the world of the theoretical, whereas Americans had a Puritan belief that anyone who invented something had a moral obligation to put it to useful service,' writes Kurlansky. 'The press would criticise inventors who failed to do this ... Inventors were founders of industries, not intellectuals.'

The young Birdseye caught that spirit full-blast. By age 10, the lad was already trapping and shipping live muskrats to England for a profit. The next year he set up his own taxidermy school, although there is no record of any students.

He established a pattern to which he adhered for the rest of his life: he followed a relentless curiosity to learn something new, then turned that knowledge to practical and profitable uses. By the time he died, he was a multimillionaire. He had more than 200 patents to his name, including the self-reflecting electric light bulb, and paper made from sugar cane husks.

Birdseye did not invent frozen food. A dreadful substance by that name had been on the market for decades before he was born. That was long enough for the smelly, withered product to gain a terrible reputation. It was so bad New York's prisons were banned from serving frozen food to inmates.

The problem was that early freezing was done too slowly. This allowed ice crystals in the food to grow large and damage its cell structure. When thawed, the food released cellular liquids that left it mushy and smelly. Commercial freezing was done at minus four degrees Celsius, just below the freezing point. Birdseye wanted to invent a machine that would freeze meat rapidly at minus 71 degrees.

He was a gambler. In 1922, married and with a third child on the way, he quit a good job with the US Fisheries Association to pursue his freezing experiments, borrowing space from an ice cream company in New Jersey. The next few years were a blur of mechanical inventions and patents, and financial setbacks.

Moving the family to New York and then the fishing seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Birdseye scrambled to find financial backers and even sold the family's life insurance policy for US$2,500.

By the mid-1920s he had his key patent, a 50-metre-long freezing machine that weighed 20 tonnes. He also had a stockpile of 1.6 million tonnes of flash-frozen fish that nobody wanted.

Birdseye faced 'the daunting problem of getting the consumer to accept the product ... people laughed at the idea of frozen food,' writes Kurlansky.

Those opposed to his vision included the Department of Agriculture, organised labour, railways, retailers and shoppers. Birdseye was running out of money again, just when the fledgling industry needed a marketing genius with deep pockets to bring the market around.

But a marketing force with a lot of money arrived to save him. That was the Postum Cereal Company, soon to become General Foods. Birdseye sold his company and patents for what was then a jaw-dropping US$23.5 million. When the Great Depression struck a few months later, he was happily building his 17-room mansion in Gloucester after personally pocketing US$1 million - about US$13.5 million today.

Birdseye stayed on as a senior executive with General Foods, and helped to create the fledgling industry with an avalanche of advertising and marketing. 'Today's discerning palate knows that frozen and fresh are considerably different, but to people who were accustomed to canned or slow-frozen food, the new 'frosted food' did seem miraculous,' Kurlansky writes. By the mid-1950s there were more than 500 brands of frozen food.

'Today frozen food is, much the way Birdseye imagined it becoming in the 1920s, a major international business,' Kurlansky writes. 'Asian frozen seafood exports alone account for billions of dollars in sales ... It is an essential part of modern living.'

In this age of easy-to-hate Wall Street millionaires, Kurlansky makes it fun to read about a college dropout who invented gadgets with desk fans and coffee grinders, and seemingly charmed everyone he met with his genial ways.

But Birdseye would seem less charming today. He found it acceptable to slaughter vast numbers of animals, and was happy to harpoon scores of whales from his Gloucester fishing boat.

His lifelong passion for biology and nature - family pets included a penguin, fox and deer - was balanced with a deeply ingrained marksman's instinct.

Eleanor, his wife, matched him for adventurousness throughout their happy life together, although she drew the line at keeping fish for experiments in the family bathtub. Birdseye's lively mind kept producing gadgets - including a whaling harpoon - until his death at age 69 from heart failure.

His name carries on today in General Foods' famed Birds Eye brand of frozen food.

Kurlansky throws his net wide, drawing in the history of iced food and drink - Roman philosopher Pliny invented the iced wine bucket - and much else. We learn gems such as the fact the early US ice market was hampered by the religious conviction that using 'ice out of season was tampering with God's design'. Occasionally the reader suspects Kurlansky of running short on research. Why else would there be so many pages on the history of Labrador?

In a minor aesthetic crime, a beautiful line from Tennyson's Ulysses is unaccountably butchered to make a chapter heading: '... beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars ...' makes little sense when you cut off five words: 'To sail' and 'until I die'.

Kurlansky tells an interesting story well. He finds colourful stepping stones around the problems of describing dull industrial processes, although he does end with a pat line: 'Isn't an original life one of the great inventions?'

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