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Clarence Birdseye: A fresh-frozen foodie's passion

His food ideas were about producing more food less expensively that could be more easily transported.

June 10, 2012|By Mark Kurlansky
  • Clarence Birdseye, born in Brooklyn in 1886 and remembered as the father of frozen food, was one of the leading foodies of his generation. His leading food ideas -- freezing and dehydrating -- were about producing more food less expensively that could be more easily transported over long distances.
Clarence Birdseye, born in Brooklyn in 1886 and remembered as the father… (Los Angeles Times )

Every generation has its own foodies. Clarence Birdseye, born in Brooklyn in 1886 and remembered as the father of frozen food, was one of the leading foodies of his generation.

He loved food, talked about it constantly and mentioned what he was eating in almost every letter he wrote. In a 1915 letter to his family from Labrador, where he was a fur trader, Birdseye wrote: "Every letter has to begin with something about food. These are the two items of principal interest today," and proceeded to describe the butter he had acquired from a neighbor and the fresh seal meat he had eaten.

When he encountered a new plant or animal, he immediately wondered what it would taste like. He would kill it, cook it and eat it. He also loved to cook. Among the treats he wrote home about from Labrador were polar bear, snipe, skunk (he claimed the front end was the tastiest), horned owl, beaver and hawk. Later the process became more sophisticated. He would kill it, freeze it, then cook it.

Birdseye was born into a time some have labeled "the age of extermination," in which buffalo, whales, coyotes, wolves, passenger pigeons and many other species were slaughtered by the thousands without a second thought. The most famous man living in New York during that era — the most famous man in the world, according to some historians — was "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was celebrated for having shot 4,280 wild bison in a 1 1/2-year hunting spree.

But it also was the height of the Industrial Revolution. New life-changing mechanical devices were being invented and mass produced. The decade before Birdseye was born, the phonograph, the telephone and the electric light bulb were invented. Soon after his birth, we got portable cameras,Coca-Cola, drinking straws, matchbooks, escalators and the electric washing machine.

Not unlike today with electronic gadgets, young people then eagerly awaited each invention, and there was much talk about how these new devices were going to alter everything.

And because of that excitement, combined with his love of food, Birdseye believed that industry was going to do wonderful things with food. Industry would free the consumer from the small local farm and, with the help of the fast-freezing process he devised, would bring everyone food from around the world, any time of year, free from seasonal restrictions. He even visited farms and instructed farmers on how to make their products more suitable for industry. In short, Birdseye was Alice Waters' and Michael Pollan's nightmare.

However, Birdseye grew up in a locavore world. Farming was local and artisanal, yields were small and the process was organic, or at least lacking in chemicals. The result was that most people had very limited food options, almost no fresh food in the winter and many shortages caused by insect blights. Birdseye imagined something better.

In Labrador, he had often noticed that when the Inuits fished, their catch would freeze almost instantly in the 40-degree-below-zero winter. Unlike the dreaded frozen food known at the time, this fish tasted remarkably fresh. Sometimes he insisted it even swam away when thawed, though in years of trying he never accomplished this feat. He began freezing food for the health of his wife and infant son because there was no other source of fresh food in the eight-month Labrador winter.

Today, many of us don't think his ideas were better, and we don't believe his argument that frozen is as good as fresh — or that food, ideally, should be always available, no matter the season. We have to remember that when he talked about how fresh his frozen food was, he was comparing it with the other off-season food that was available: salt-cured, canned or slow frozen and mushy.

It is also important to remember that we tend to want what we can't have. This always reminds me of my father growing up in Boston, the son of a tailor. My grandfather made all of my father's clothes, so he grew up with hand-tailored shirts, pants, jackets and suits. But what was my father's dream? That someday he would own a factory-made suit.

This thinking may also explain why so much of the modern locavore movement comes out of California. The state historically had a weak tradition of small family farms. Today, the $34 billion in products California family farms are bringing to market every year is probably the highest yield from family farming the state has ever known. California was the birthplace of American agribusiness, and when small family farms around the nation failed, the farmers packed up and went to California to work for agribusiness. In John Steinbeck's memorable 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," the Joads and the other farmers were not migrating to California to work on family farms. They were looking for jobs as laborers in an industry, journeying to a world Birdseye had been working toward for almost 20 years.

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