Kurlansky's engaging portrait of Clarence Birdseye (1886 - 1956) - adventurer, inventor, entrepreneur, naturalist and omnivore - is important not only because Birdseye changed what we eat, how farmers grow crops, and how we cook our food, but for what Birdseye reveals about the American character: its resourcefulness, its inquisitiveness, and its exploitive relationship to the natural world.
Observant, eccentric, and always trying to make a buck, the young Birdseye immersed himself in nature, collecting, tasting, killing and selling specimens that interested him. At nine he trapped and shipped muskrats to England, and at eleven he launched his own taxidermy school. During his two years at Amherst College, he captured and sold frogs to the Bronx Zoo, and his fellow students nicknamed him "Bugs."
After his family's financial problems forced him to leave Amherst early,...
Beyond the Book
In his preface to Birdseye
, Mark Kurlansky faces the issue of whether or not Clarence Birdseye made what we eat better: "Eating frozen food instead of fresh represents a decline in the quality of food. But very often people are eating frozen food when they would have been eating canned, in which case frozen is an improvement." Kurlansky shows how Birdseye, along with other creators of and manufacturers of new processed foods, transformed sometimes-inferior products into those Americans preferred to eat.
But Americans are re-evaluating their relationship with frozen foods. In 2007 the word "locavore" was the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year. Locavores, who believe in eating foods grown or harvested locally (as opposed to being frozen or canned and...