American inventors are a unique and a uniquely fascinating species. One of our greatest, Steve Jobs, has been atop the bestseller lists since late last year with an extraordinary authorized biography published shortly after his untimely death. But once you’ve read his story, you may want to know more about the history of American ingenuity. Enter Clarence Birdseye, one of our most original inventors and the pioneer of frozen food. His story is chronicled by Mark Kurlansky (author of Salt and Cod) in the brand-new Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.
Birdseye was an inspired and inspiring explorer, and his adventurous spirit lead to many episodes that Kurlansky delights in retelling. From founding a correspondence taxidermy school when he was a teenager to dropping out of Amherst to catch ticks in Idaho, Birdseye always followed a unique course in life. But when he moved to Newfoundland to farm foxes for their furs, he became interested in the substance that would change his life: frozen food. He eventually worked out the best way to keep frozen food tasty and sanitary, and made his fortune selling the rights to General Foods.
Even though the record on Birdseye’s life is less than reliable, Kurlanksy does a fantastic job stitching what we have together into an amusing and inspiring story. Ultimately, he concludes that it was Birdseye’s curiosity that made his unusual life possible. He could never know enough about the world around him, and his need to understand gave him the materials he required to create. He was, in many ways, one of the “crazy ones” that Steve Jobs praised for their willingness to try things no one else would.
The “After You’ve Read…” series of articles will appear every two weeks on KnopfDoubleday.com.