Although the name Clarence Birdseye immediately conjures up images of frozen vegetables, the subject of historian Mark Kurlansky’s Birdseye:The Adventures of a Curious Man accomplished so much more. This fascinating biography shows the man as a curious problem solver and opportunist, always quick to devise inventive solutions while making money along the way. Birdseye was a naturalist from an early age, as well as an avid hunter. At the age of ten, young Clarence earned his first shotgun with the profits he made by shipping live muskrat to an English aristocrat who was stocking an estate. He promptly taught himself the art of taxidermy, even attempting to teach others for money.
As a student at Amherst studying the sciences, Birdseye spent his free time “wandering the fields with a shotgun on his shoulder.” He was forced to drop out due to lack of money. His job as an assistant naturalist with the U.S. Biological Survey stoked his interest in cooking such exotic meats as chipmunk, mice, and rattlesnake. A later job with the Department of Agriculture sent him packing to the Bitterroot Valley of Montana as part of a group looking to study Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Birdseye put his hunting skills and enthusiasm to good use, killing a variety of mammals that host the carrier of the disease, the wood tick. His contribution to the study was notable.
Luckily his wife, Eleanor, was a patient woman who didn’t seem to mind her husband’s frequent absences. A later adventure saw him in the frozen land of Labrador where his interests turned to fox farming. His journal and letters to his family (which eventually included six children) were full of descriptions of food, especially recipes featuring unusual provisions like seal meat and porcupine. A deep interest in food preservation led him to begin experimenting with various freezing techniques, beginning with snow pack. Birdseye realized that freezing food is far from a straightforward process if one desires a palatable thawed product. Eventually his determination and sharp sense of observation paid off, leading to innovations that revolutionized the way people eat.
Birdseye:The Adventures of a Curious Man, holds wide appeal for anyone who enjoys intriguing nonfiction. The self-made man comes alive through Kurlansky’s evocative descriptions and choice details. Readers who enjoyed his previous classic titles (which included mentions of Birdseye) Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and Salt: A World History, will find much to like here.