Book Report: Tracing the history of Birdseye products

Mark Kurlansky astounded the reading world several years ago when he wrote “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.” Later he did the same thing with “Salt: A World History.”

Now he’s out with another food book; or, more specifically a book about a man who tinkered with food and gave his name to an iconic product.

When I was a kid, I thought Birdseye was a brand name. Then I read in my hometown weekly that the banker’s wife had a visitor from out east, an old classmate. Her name was Eleanor Birdseye and she was the wife of the frozen food magnate, Clarence Birdseye.

Now I know more about Eleanor and her innovative husband because of Kurlansky’s new book, “Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.” (Doubleday, $25.95)

These days we hear a lot about the locavore movement. Clarence Birdseye set old-time locavorism on its ear and revolutionized the food industry by finding out as a young man in Labrador that you could freeze food and ship it a long way.

Since Birdseye patented his process for freezing fish after experimenting with a bucket of brine and a fan, Kurlansky writes, “our dinner tables have never been the same.

So what fascinates me about this book is the character of Clarence Birdseye, whom Kurlansky calls an archetypal Yankee tinkerer, the sort of inventor who develops something out of nothing but his imagination, as did Edison in his early years.

Birdseye didn’t stop with his patented freezing process, but went on to invent an improved incandescent light bulb, a harpoon gun to tag finback whales, and a method for making paper from the leftover pulp of sugar plants that is still in use today.

Years ago when my boss invited me to take dinner with her at the iconic vegetarian restaurant called “Café Brenda” in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District, I ate a hamburger just before I embarked, just to be on the safe side.

So I was shocked to find very edible legumes, greens, and even fish and chicken served by Brenda Langton, the self-described “old hippie” who has been serving counter culture food for 40 years. Since then Café Brenda, Langton has moved on to Spoonriver Café adjacent to the new Guthrie Theatre.

She celebrates her newest restaurant in “The Spoonriver Cookbook, by  Langton and chef/horticulturist Margaret Stuart (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95)

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 

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