"Any youth who makes security his goal shackles himself at the very start of life's race."
"Following one's curiosity is much more fun than taking things easy."
“Just because something has always been done in a certain way is never a sufficient reason for continuing to do it that way."
"Change is the very essence of American life."
- Clarence Birdseye
I have been a fan of Mark Kurlansky's writing for many years---The Basque History of the World; Salt: A World History; and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World--are a few of his books that have entertained and educated me. I originally thought to use Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, as a sidebar for a review on books about food and the food industry. But by Chapter 4, I was discovering that there was far more to Clarence Birdseye than met the eye.
Most of us only know Birdseye as the man that launched the frozen-vegetable company that bears his name. But he was relentlessly curious. He was drawn into a life of travel to remote parts of the continent in search of adventure and new experiences. He was a naturalist,fascinated by very mammal, reptile, insect, and plant he ran across, recording their habits and life cycles. He was perhaps the first foodie--he loved food, loved to cook, and wrote, thought and talked about eating much more than most people.
Early in his life, he went to work for U.S. Biological Survey in Arizona and New Mexico. At the time, the Biological Survey largely engaged in the wholesale extermination of wild animals considered a nuisance by farmers and ranchers. After this job, Birdseye headed to Montana to work on a medical project on Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
"In February 1910, Robert Cooley, Montana's official state entomologist and a man deeply committed to solving the Bitterroot spotted fever problem, went to Washington to ask help from the US Biological Survey in studying the connection between wild animals and the life cycle of the tick. The Biological Survey and the Bureau of Entomology were both housed in the same small brick building in Washington, and Cooley left with three recruits for the Bitterroot. Willard V. King, a gifted entomology student from Montana, had delayed his senior year to work for the Bureau of Entomology. The US Biological Survey sent Arthur H. Howell, a thirty-seven-year-old zoologist who would publish 118 works on birds and mammals by the time he died in 1940, and Clarence Birdseye, a twenty-three-year-old college dropout."
Birdseye and King concluded that spotted fever could be controlled if a campaign against small rodents were combined with a program treating domestic livestock with repellants. This was not what the ranchers wanted to hear. It was expensive to treat livestock and they liked blaming the gopher, a hated destructive pest. The early research that Birdseye participated in led to the second-largest government laboratory in the United Sates being established in Hamilton, Mont. If Birdseye had done nothing else, his fieldwork on spotted fever and ticks would have earned him a footnote in history.
In 1912, Clarence Birdseye was invited to spend six weeks along the Labrador coast on the hospital ship of the celebrated medical missionary Wilfred Grenell. Here he learned many things about surviving a Labrador winter: How to dress--clothes needed to be heavy enough to hold his body heat, light enough to keep him from sweating; how to handle sleds and sled dogs; how to preserve foods for trips--salted food was better than canned which would freeze, be hard to thaw, and was heavy.
He married Eleanor Gannett, daughter of surveyor Samuel Gannett, in 1915. They returned to Labrador together, built a home and started a family. During this time Birdseye experimented with freezing process---why did foods frozen in summer taste better than those frozen in early and late winter? He pondered the science of crystallization in nature, as he longed for fresh food.
As with most inventors, innovators and curious people, Birdseye had successes and failures. He was always looking for a profit, seemed to be in the right place at the right time with his fox farming and early frozen fish processing endeavors. He wanted to develop machinery and processes, patent them and then license them to other companies.
"Of the more than two hundred Birdseye inventions, perhaps the most important was the one he applied to patent on June 18, 1927. It was patent 1,773,079, and it truly began the frozen-food industry. Birdseye begins the application by asserting:
My invention relates to methods of treating food products by refrigerating the same, preferably by "quick" freezing the product into a frozen block, in which the pristine qualities and flavors of the product are retained for a substantial period after the block has been thawed."
Kurlansky adds many historic facts and side stories about the food industry to the biography. Sir Francis Bacon is credited with discovering the frozen food process in 1626-- unfortunately as he packed a chicken with snow he also contracted pneumonia and died several hours after calling the experiment a success.
With innovation came new problems. Birdseye's first frozen food company had to overcome the idea that frozen food was poor quality food. Later labor unions that represented seafood workers, butchers and chicken farmers, said that the industry was destroying the livelihoods of artisans and craftsmen. Railroads imagined huge liability for shipments that accidentally thawed. Plus everything in the packaging process had to be invented. Birdseye convinced the DuPont Company to make cellophane with a waterproof coating--soon cigars and cigarettes widely adopted the new material.
The Marjorie Merriweather Post story, of eating a frozen goose, wanting to know about it, and convincing her father to buy the company---General Seafoods Corporation. This myth has a very different truth, but in 1929, Post did buyout Birdseye for $23.5 million. The deal was for the names, patents, patent applications and all the assets. In May 7, 1929, Postum Company was the majority owner. Postum reorganized its company, going on the New York Stock Exchange on July 25 for the first time under its new name, General Foods.
"Goldman Sachs purchased Postum stock to provide it with the capital for the acquisition. Postum took the$10.5 million it acquired from the stock sale and used it toward a controlling51 percent of General Seafoods. Goldman Sachs spent $12.5 million on the remaining 49 percent.
Goldman Sach's eventual $12 million loss was the subject of a US Senate Banking and Currency Committee investigation in 1932. Why, the committee members wanted to know,would anyone pay $23.5 million for a company valued at $1.75 million. It was pointed out in the hearings that this represented a substantial loss for Goldman Sach's stockholders...The ire of the senators and the stockholders arose from the fact that Goldman Sachs sold the Postum stock at a loss in 1931, selling its 49 percent back to the company for a fraction of its original value."
Indeed it was a great deal for Birdseye. The deal was signed in the spring of 1929, only months before the great market crash. The only loser in the deal was Goldman Sachs. Post and Hutton got their company and with it fulfilled Birdseye's dream of a General Foods giant based on frozen food. Birdseye went into the depression with an extra million dollars.
After that, Birdseye formed a light bulb company, lived in Peru developing paper-making processes, and patented processes for gravity froster, dehydration and suspended animation which led to science of cryonics.
He continued to work for General Foods and suggested new marketing ideas. In 1940 the company placed the first color advertisement in Life magazine and in 1952 they were the first to sponsor a television show Our Miss Brooks.
"If Clarence Birdseye were to come back today...he would probably be perplexed by some of the concepts of the modern world such as endangered species list, the whale hunting ban and marine mammals protection, limits on overfishing, the organic food movement that shuns pesticides and antibiotics, the virtues of eating locally grown food. Many of his ideas about industrialized food are not loved today.
But in many ways he would find the world he imagined and helped build...It is, as he predicted, a world in which food transcends geography and climate; any food is available anywhere at any time of the year. Frozen food is commonplace, a large part of stores and supermarkets and other retail food outlets, and many people keep their food in a home freezer, place it in their home microwave and prepare their dinners in a few minutes.
But perhaps the more important thing about Clarence Birdseye was his ability to live life as an adventure. Curiosity is the one essential ingredient to an adventurous life. Isn't an original life one of the greatest inventions?"