Serious Reads: Birdseye, by Mark Kurlansky
Mark Kurlansky has written several of the more widely-read and well-researched food history books that have come out in the last ten years. Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster are all accessible reads that convey wealth of information. In Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, Kurlansky takes us through the life of Clarence "Bob" Birdseye, an inventor who revolutionized the food industry by developing and marketing frozen foods.
Birdseye didn't originally intend to enter into the food industry; in fact, his first entrepreneurial venture was selling animal pelts. Birdseye's talent was for spotting an unanswered question or problem and figuring out an achievable solution. Like many entrepreneurs, he was very confident and a little obsessive about his projects. But more often than not, Birdseye was successful in his ventures. By the time of his death, he had over 2,000 patents to his name on products ranging from lightbulbs to freezers. He didn't fancy himself an inventor; rather, he found life to be an unending adventure, and was always curious to learn more.
When Birdseye became interested in frozen foods in the early 1920s, the industry was already developing. Frozen fish was available in markets, but was often the leftover catch after a long day of sales. Consequently, frozen food had a less-than-stellar reputation. Birdseye's first frozen food venture was fish fillets. His business was backed by J.P Morgan, and eventually was sold in 1929—along with many patents—to the Post family.
After this sale, Birdseye was rich, but his job was not yet finished. Americans had still not accepted frozen foods into their pantries. At the time, fresh foods were consumed by the middle class, canned foods by the lower class, and frozen food—with its promise of year-round seasonality and flavor—was reserved for the upper class. But the end of World War II brought a cultural shift. More women were working, creating opportunities for convenience foods, and a boom in industry brought competition to the frozen foods industry and lowered costs. Bird's Eye became a very successful subsidiary company of General Foods.
Bird's Eye is very much still in business. Clarence Birdseye revolutionized the frozen foods industry by seeing an opportunity, doing the necessary—and constant—testing to get his products on the market, and seeing his company through to success. His is a model story of entrepreneurship, and a fascinating case study in how one small segment of the food industry can hold so much importance in the greater American context.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.