I am always pleased to read a new Mark Kurlansky book: back in the day he wrote the masterly and engrossing Cod and Salt, two of the best of what was then a new genre of biographies of ‘things’, encompassing travel writing, history, popular science, biography, anthropology, psychology and sociolgy, written so engagingly that readers became fascinated despite themselves in things they had never paid any attention to. They are still in print and on our shelves and once you read one, you end up reading all his other books.
It is interesting to read the books as he writes from subject to subject – as he is writing about one thing, he discovers something utterly fascinating that the world must know about, about another thing, which thus becomes the subject of his next book.
From cod fishing to the salt that preserved them to the lack of fish in the seas now, to the history of New York from the oyster perspective (they fed, employed and surrounded the city) to his latest: a vibrant and lively biography of the man who figured out how to freeze food so it was edible when thawed.
Who doesn’t love frozen peas? and frozen raspberries – such a boon in the winter…
New in paperback, Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man (Broadway Books) is about Clarence Birdseye (a household name in the US, less so here, but this is the ur-frozen vegetable man). Birdseye was a bit of a polymath, did all sorts of things and was interested in an eclectic range of subjects. As a fur-trapper in Labrador, Canada, he got very, very fed up with the stodgy, unhealthy, only-just-staving-off-scurvy diet. Then, eureka! He noticed that wet vegetables left outside in the Arctic wind froze quickly, and then when you thawed them, the produce was still fresh. He patented the technology quick-smart and changed the way we eat.
He actually patented a few things, Kurlansky suggesting this is a reflection not just of a clever, canny and curious man but also a time in US history that encouraged innovation and invention.
Kurlansky’s affection and admiration for this unusual and not always easy man is evident. As with his other books, Kurlansky’s clear prose, real sense of the world-changing effects of seemingly small innovations and mix of anecdote, science and biography makes this an engaging and interesting read.