The father of frozen food worked in Labrador

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When Sherry’s at work and I’m too busy to cook, I more often than not take a dinner entree from the freezer and zap it in the microwave.

Frozen foods

It’s not as satisfying as Jigg’s Dinner, of course, but at least it fills the hole.

I rarely microwave entrees without thinking about an eccentric inventor, whose fast-freezing method revolutionized the diet of North Americans. What’s more, this individual worked as a fur trapper in Labrador in the early years of the twentieth century.

His biography is told in "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man," written by Mark Kurlansky.

Kurlanksy is the author of such critically-acclaimed books as "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World," "Salt: A World History" and "The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town."

According to David McCullough, "Every once in a while a writer of particular skill takes a fresh, seemingly improbable idea and turns out a book of pure delight. Such is the case of Mark Kurlansky."

The subject of Kurlansky’s recent book, Clarence Frank Birsdeye II, was rather unassuming. "To be perfectly honest," he wrote in The American Magazine, "I am best described as just a guy with a very large bump of curiosity and a gambling instinct." His inquisitive mind and penchant for betting paid off.

"Today," Kurlansky writes, "frozen food is, much the way Birdseye imagined it becoming in the 1920s, a major international business."

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on 9 Dec. 1886, Birdseye died in a Manhattan hotel on 7 Oct. 1956. At the time of his passing, he had more than 200 patents to his credit on more than 50 ideas, ranging from a whaling harpoon to an electric lightbulb.

In the spring of 1912, Birdseye was invited to spent six weeks in coastal Labrador aboard Wilfred T. Grenfell’s hospital ship.

Kurlansky explains that Birdseye was "looking for adventure but also opportunity, and he hoped that perhaps Labrador would present an opportunity of some kind."

Birdseye, who became interested in Grenfell’s ideas about fox farming, "had made money in furs before, and animals were something with which he was experienced." His considered conclusion? "There was money to be made in trapping silver foxes and shipping them to the United States as breeding stock."

Back in New York, Birdseye went looking for an investor, successfully enlisting John Hays Hammond, a wealthy mining engineer, resulting in the start-up of the Hammond and Birdseye Fur Company.

Birdseye studied fox farms on Prince Edward Island before buying three pairs of foxes, then an abandoned outpost in Sandwich Bay, Labrador.

He learned many things the hard way just to survive a winter in Labrador. He travelled the expanse by dogsled in his quest for foxes and provisions. Weather conditions proved to be challenging. He regularly suffered from frostbite.

"More is known about Bob Birdseye in this period than at any other time in his life."

While in Labrador, he maintained 12 field journals. His jottings reveal "much about Bob Birdseye, even though one of the things they show is that he did not readily talk about emotions or matters of the heart." His writings evoke "an extremely methodical man," as well as a dog for work.

Kurlansky describes his subject as self-effacing, with a "sometimes corny, but endearing sense of humour," referring to himself as "the prodigal son" or "Labrador Bob."

His Labrador writings reveal "some early signs of the inventor, the man who, faced with a problem, invents a device to solve it."

He was obsessed with food which, for him, was nothing more and nothing less than a matter of survival.

"For dinner today," he wrote, "we had my first molasses pie — and it was really mighty good. It was between two crusts. No other flavouring than molasses was used but Mrs. Lewis says that boiling the molasses and adding a few spices improve the flavour of the pie."

While working on the Labrador, Birdseye reflected on the interrelationship between "the science of freezing and the laws of crystallization" which, he declared, he tucked away in his mind for another time.

His Labrador journeys forever changed the man. Later, he exclaimed, "My subconscious suddenly told me that perishable foods could be kept perfectly preserved in the same way I had kept them in Labrador — by quick freezing!" And the rest, as they say, is history.

An afterthought: I wonder who’s going to take on the task of publishing Birdseye’s Labrador journals?

"Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man" is published by Doubleday.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: American Magazine, Manhattan hotel, Birdseye Fur Company The Compass

Geographic location: Labrador, United States, New York Gloucester Brooklyn Prince Edward Island Sandwich Bay Bay Roberts

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