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Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man Hardcover – May 8, 2012

4 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for Birdseye:

"In the shadow of America’s great inventors—Edison, Ford and Bell, to name a few—stands an unheralded giant: Clarence Birdseye, the father of the modern “fresh frozen” pea. Wander any supermarket and you’ll find Birdseye’s legacy.... [Kurlansky's] book is a delight—and a quiz bowl team’s treasure-trove. Fabulous factoids abound."—Abigail Meisel, New York Times Book Review

"The first book-length biography of Clarence Birdseye…. [An] intriguing book that…coaxes readers to re-examine everyday miracles like frozen food, and to imagine where places with no indigenous produce would be without them."—Janet Maslin, New York Times 

"There's a particular pleasure in being reminded that the most ordinary things can still be full of magic. Frogs may turn into princes. Lumps of dirt can hide sparkling gems. And having just read Mark Kurlansky's new biography of Clarence Birdseye, I now see the humble fish fillet in a whole new light. For as Kurlansky tells it, when Clarence Birdseye figured out how to pack and freeze haddock...he essentially changed the way we produce, preserve and distribute food forever."NPR's The Salt

"Piecing together the first book-length biography of Birdseye was not easy. It's not just the episodic quality of Birdseye's life but the sparse and spotty nature of the surviving information about him. And there are many myths that surround his life, some perpetuated by the man himself.... [Yet] Kurlansky has pieced together a lively and readable biography about one of America's most unusual innovators."—Andrew F. Smith, Newsday

"Best known for his deliciously knowledgeable food histories (Cod, Salt, The Big Oyster), Kurlansky['s]...wide-ranging curiosity matches his subject’s, and his narrative of Birdseye’s life displays great feeling for a fellow adventurer.... [R]eaders will emerge from this breezy book with a fondness for its engagingly eccentric protagonist—and a much better understanding of the intricate interconnection of traditional practices, technical breakthroughs, business deals, and social change that put those frozen peas in our refrigerators."—Wendy Smith, Daily Beast

"Kurlansky brings Birdseye to life.... Covering the science behind Birdseye's... inventions along with intimate details of his family life, [he] skillfully weaves a fluid narrative of facts on products, packaging, and marketing into this rags-to-riches portrait of the man whose ingenuity brought revolutionary changes to 20th-century life."—Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Yes, the frozen-food guy really was named Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956), and the story of his adventures is another satisfying dish from the remarkable menu of the author of Cod (1997), Salt (2002) and other treats.

Kurlansky...places Birdseye in the same category as Thomas Edison: amateurs who got curious about a problem, played around with it (sometimes for years) and eventually figured it out. Birdseye had many more interests than frozen foods, writes the author; he invented, among other things, a kind of light bulb and even a whaling harpoon. He also grew up in a world that seemed to have limitless resources—no worries about plundering the planet. He killed creatures with abandon for decades, many of which he enjoyed eating, including field mice, chipmunks and porcupine. His curiosity also made him fearless. He conducted field research on Rocky Mountain spotted fever (collecting thousands of ticks), and he lived in the frigid Labrador region of Canada (and took his equally fearless wife and their infant). It was in the North that he began to wonder why foods frozen there—naturally—tasted so much better than the frozen foods back home. He discovered, of course, that it was quick-freezing at very cold temperatures that did the trick. He eventually invented the process that produced vast amounts of good frozen food, but then had to wait for the supporting infrastructure (transportation, storage, etc.). Kurlansky tells the exciting tale of Birdseye’s adventures, failures and successes (he became a multi-millionaire) and his family, and he also offers engaging snippets about Velveeta, dehydration and Grape-Nuts.

The author notes that Birdseye knew that curiosity is “one essential ingredient” in a fulfilling life; it is a quality that grateful readers also discover in each of Kurlansky’s books."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Kurlansky’s narrative gifts shine through every chapter."—Booklist

Praise for Mark Kurlansky:

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell
“Part treatise, part miscellany, unfailingly entertaining.”
—William Grimes, The New York Times

“Fascinating stuff . . . Kurlansky has a keen eye for odd facts and natural detail.”
The Wall Street Journal

1968: The Year That Rocked the World
“Splendid . . . Evocative . . . No one before Kurlansky has managed to evoke so rich a set of experiences in so many different places—and to keep the story humming.”
—Michael Kazin, Chicago Tribune

“Highly readable . . . A rich perspective . . . Kurlansky is a writer of remarkable talents and interests.”
—Walter Truett Anderson, San Francisco Chronicle

“Kurlansky finds the world in a grain of salt . . . Fascination and surprise regularly erupt from the detail.”
—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times Book Review

“Kurlansky continues to prove himself remarkably adept at taking a most unlikely candidate and telling its tale with epic grandeur.”
—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
“Every once in a while a writer of particular skill takes a fresh, seemingly improbable idea and turns out a book of pure delight. Such is the case of Mark Kurlansky and the codfish.”
—David McCullough

“An elegant brief history . . . Related with fast brio and wit.”
—Anne Mendelson, Los Angeles Times

About the Author

MARK KURLANSKY is the New York Times bestselling author of many books, including The Food of a Younger Land, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (May 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385527055
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385527057
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #768,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mark Kurlansky is a New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award-winning author. He is the recipient of a Bon Appétit American Food and Entertaining Award for Food Writer of the Year, and the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award for Food Book of the year.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a child growing up in the 1960s, I distinctly remember packages of Birds Eye frozen food in the grocer's freezer. I always wondered about the name of the product as it seemed a somewhat unusual name. I didn't realize at that time that the name of the product was derived from the name of the individual that invented the process for freezing food. I do know it was a premium brand, and my mother used to buy cheaper brands for everyday use. The only time we get Birds Eye food was when we were having company or my mother was cooking a dinner for celebration.

Clarence "Bob" Birdseye was a distinctly unique individual. The author follows his life from the time he was a young boy interested in hunting and nature and on to his time at Amherst College. He details the Birdseye family and Clarence's time in the desert Southwest working as a naturalist and how he had to drop out of college due to financial hardship in the family. He then describes Birdseye's work in the Rocky mountains investigating outbreaks of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. From there, Birdseye went to Labrador where he lived for a number of years eking out a living as a fur trader. It was during this time that Birdseye began to wonder why food frozen Labrador was so much better than food frozen in the United States.

Birdseye was obviously a very talented man with running credible imagination and a thirst for knowledge of how things operated. If he didn't understand them, he would study them until he did understand them. It appears he had an incredible memory and an ability to think outside the box. Birdseye is famous for a number of inventions and it amazes me that he is not better known for the work he did, not only in frozen food, but in numerous other fields.
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By A. Guy on September 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
First off, let me say that this is not a bad book. However, it is not a real good book either.

Part of the problem is that Kurlansky covers ground that he as covered before. So, if you've read "Salt", "Cod" or "The Last Fish Tale" large swaths of the book will be seem quite familiar. The other problem is that Kurlansky tries, and fails, to use Birdseye as a launching pad for a more far ranging view on innovation in early 20th century America. By the end of the book, it feels as if Kurlansky has lost interest in Birdseye altogether. The section on Birdseye's time in Peru feels tired and tacked on as an afterthought.

What you end up with is book that is neither fish nor fowl, it's not a strong biography of a man and its not a great charting of a time period.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Who would have thought about writing a book on Clarence Birdseye? Thankfully, Mark Kurlansky did, and his book is a gem. What's remarkable is that there is more unknown than known about Birdseye yet the author fills in the gaps with aplomb.

We do know that Birdseye had his finger in many a pie (sometimes literally) when it came to experimenting, inventing and producing things that we take for granted today. He seemed also to have married the right partner...one who shared in, or at least believed in, his risk-taking abilities. But what makes this book so rich is Kurlansky's own history with products like salt and cod. He's terrific at explaining methods of freezing, drying and the like and this complements Birdseye's own personal story.

"Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man" is informative, with a nice narrative style for which the author is well regarded. I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
It only takes a generation or two for someone famous in his time to slip into the history books, if at all, and out of the American mind. Mr. Birdseye has that "only in America" story, not exactly rags to riches but pretty close to a self-made man, thanks to the unrelenting innovation that Americans like to believe we do best.

I had already associated the man with frozen food, especially veggies, yet the amazing breadth of his curiosity and inventiveness was certainly new to me. The perspective on life and times was helpful, given that a history oriented toward food certainly runs on another track from standard American history of the first half of the 20th century.

The author's challenge was that Mr. Birdseye in the end was not that interesting, or perhaps the author could not quite capture a spark. Birdseye did all these wonderful things, and somehow the story never gets exciting or compelling. I credit the author for his honest commentary about some of Birdseye's views and actions that today seem wrong, such as his eager and careless excessive hunting.
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Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn in 1886. Before he died in 1956 he had more than 200 patents and was called the "father of frozen food". According to this author, a few of his inventions changed the course of the twentieth century.

There is so much information in this engrossing book, so many facts about inventions during the above time period by numerous curious people; so much information about Birdseye, his insatiable curiousity, inventions, travels, life in the west, home in Peru, Labrador, numerous jobs, his eccentricity, love of family, humor,fishing, - well, you just can't read the book all at once - it took me longer than expected to read and enjoy all this new-found knowledge!

Mark Kurlansky had to dig for all this information and he has written an exceptionally interesting book. Altho refrigeration and the manufacturing of frozen foods is not fully addressed until the second half of this book, the other subjects are absolutely amazing!

I well remember helping my parents take food to the large ice house in town in the 1940's, walking into the freezing room, opening "our" rented drawer and depositing asparagus, carrots, etc. from our small farm. (Brrrr it was so cold in there!)With the help of Clarence Birdseye and others, freezers were invented and installed in supermarkets, and the rest of the story is all in the book! Trial and error, disappointments, finally success! The book is rich with information on this and many other aspects on manufacturing.

There is much more to the book than freezing food. This man, Birdseye is one of a kind! He must have had an iron stomach.
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