Clarence Birdseye: An Unsung Hero Gets His Due

Modernity is amazing. We are surrounded by innovations, gadgets, and ideas that make life better. And just as a fish doesn’t notice the water he swims through, we are often oblivious to the incredible things that surround us. For example, we used to only be able to eat certain foods when they were in season. If your grandparents had a hankering for asparagus when they were young, they could only satisfy it if it was April or May. If they wanted a tomato, they’d have to wait until summertime.

Today, we can eat whatever we want, when we want. People don’t really appreciate it, but for most of human history, that just wasn’t possible. It takes all kinds of technologies to make that happen. Faster transportation is one of them. Trains, planes, automobiles, and boats with engines rather than oars make it possible to ship fresh food from all over the world to supermarkets.

Think about that for a minute. Julius Caesar and Napoleon’s armies may have lived nearly two millennia apart, but they moved at the same speed limit: no faster than a horse. Just two centuries after Napoleon — one tenth the temporal distance between him and Caesar — people can cross oceans in a matter of hours. So can their food.

Refrigeration is another key technology. By preventing food from spoiling, people need to grow less of it to stay fed, and it extends the useful life of food. The sanitary and culinary benefits are incalculable.

Which brings us to Clarence Birdseye. He’s the fellow who invented fast-freezing, and before today I hadn’t heard of him, either. Most people admire politicians or athletes, or entertainers. Many athletes and entertainers have their virtues, but more people should look up to unsung heroes like Clarence Birdseye. After all, he changed the world for the better.

Refrigerators can keep food fresh for a week or two longer than in the open air. But to enjoy fresh food out of season, it takes more than refrigeration. It even takes more than regular old freezing. It takes fast-freezing, done in a very particular way.

Birdseye spent a long time perfecting the process. But when he founded Bird’s Eye Frosted Foods in 1930, it was a revelation. Abigail Meisel writes in her review of a new Birdseye biography by Mark Kurlansky, “For the first time, June sweet peas and summer blueberries could be savored, in close-to-fresh form, in the dead of winter. By the mid-1940s, Americans were eating over 800 million pounds of fast-frozen food a year.”

People talk a lot about helping other people and making their lives better. Clarence Birdseye actually went out and did it.

Hopefully people will pick up Kurlansky’s book and learn how remarkable are the little things are that we take for granted every day. There are a lot of people like Clarence Birdseye in the world. They deserve a round of applause.