May 16, 2012
In a local supermarket, a frozen food section is a matter of course, but have you ever wondered who had the idea to make a business out of preserving food this way? The short answer is right there in the freezer aisle when you pick up a package of Birsdeye frozen vegetables. For the long answer, consult the latest book by Mark Kurlansky. The author who gave us biographies of everyday objects such as salt and cod now delves into the entertaining history of Clarence Birdseye, an adventurer and entrepreneur who revolutionized the way we eat. I spoke with Kurlansky by phone about the mastermind behind frozen food and the place these products have in a culture that increasingly prefers food that’s fresh and local.
People had been freezing foods well before Clarence Birdseye, so why write a book about this one person?
He did not invent frozen food but he clearly invented the modern frozen food industry. Before Birdseye, hardly anybody ate frozen food because it was awful. New York State banned it from their prison system as inhumane. It was mushy and terrible because it was frozen just at the freezing point so it took a day or so to freeze. Also you couldn’t commercialize it because they would freeze a whole side of beef or something. Nobody figured out how to put it in a packagable, marketable form. On a number of levels he truly was the creator of the frozen food industry.
How did Birdseye make frozen food a desirable product?
In history, most of the inventors aren’t the ones who invented the thing. They’re the ones who figured out how to make it profitable. (Robert Fulton didn’t invent steam ships, he just had the first profitable steam ship.) You see a lot of that. Birdseye first of all had to figure out how to make frozen food a good product, which he did by realizing that when he lived in Labrador the food he froze for his family was really good—not like the frozen food that was available everywhere. He realized that that was because it froze instantly because it was so cold—that was the key to making frozen food good. An old principle that salt makers know is that the quicker crystals form, the smaller they are. So if you get really small crystals the ice doesn’t deform the tissue. So that was the first important thing. But then he had to figure out a way to package it so it could be frozen in packages that were saleable size that people in the stores could deal with and did a lot of experimenting with packaging and packaging material. He actually got the DuPont Company to invent cellophane for cellophane wrappers. Then there were all these things like transportation, getting trucking companies and trains to have freezer cars and getting stores to carry freezers. There was absolutely no infrastructure for frozen food. He had to do all of that and it took more than a decade.
Was this a difficult book to research and write?
It really was detective work. Birdseye didn’t write an autobiography. Nobody has ever written a biography on him. Almost everything on the internet is wrong and they keep repeating the same mistakes, which shows you that internet articles keep copying each other. So anytime I could really document something was exciting. Just going to Amherst and I found his report cards, it was exciting to see how he did in school. One of his grandsons had—I forget now how many—something like 20 boxes from the family that he somehow inherited and were in his attic and he had never opened them. And by threatening to go to Michigan and go through his attic myself, I got him to go up there and look through the boxes and he found a lot of letters and things that were very interesting. Going to the Peabody Museum and looking at the whale harpoon he built—one of his inventions. It was very illuminating because it was so completely mechanical and kind of simplistic. You could see that this was a 19th century, Industrial Revolution guy who built mechanical things out of household objects and things that he could get in the hardware store. I started off sort of dreading how little there was available, but it became just great fun unearthing things.
In your book, Birdseye comes across as someone who was prone to exaggerating events in his life a bit. How difficult was it to write about someone who embellished his life stories?
I don’t know that Birdseye did that more than other people. What you seem to find when you get into this biography business is that people tend to have an image of themselves that they want to project and they want to color statements by this image. It’s not so much that he was a wild liar. He just had a certain view of himself that he liked, so he would emphasize certain things. He always emphasized himself as an adventurer and a wild guy. He always described his years in the Bitterroot Mountains and talked about the hunting he did there and the incredible amount of animals he shot—over 700 animals one summer—and he loved to talk about that stuff. He never talked very much about the fact that this was a major medical, scientific research project on Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and that he played an important role in this research, which is an important chapter in medical history. What they learned about controlling that disease later had an impact on dealing with malaria and even later in Lyme disease. It was important scientific work, but typical of Birdseye, he mainly talked about himself as the mighty hunter. Fortunately that was the chapter of his life that was easy to document.
And in certain ways he didn’t talk about himself very much. When he was in Labrador, he kept a daily diary, and this was during the period that he courted and married he wife, and he barely ever mentioned her. There’s a letterhead clipped to a page in his diary without any comment. Well there’s a description of staying in a hotel and the things he did but what he didn’t mention was that it was his honeymoon. So there are lots of gaps. I could never find out if he was a Republican or a Democrat. And interestingly, his family doesn’t know. Even his daughter-in-law, who’s still alive and was quite close to him, didn’t really know what he was.
Was there an especially fun moment you had while working on the book?
The New York Public Library has every directory ever printed of New York, so it took me about five minutes to find out which house he grew up in in Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill, and I went there and it didn’t seem to have changed much. It was still a single family dwelling, it had chandeliers and a lot of late 19th century décor and a kind of elegance. It solved a mystery for me because everybody who’s ever met Birdseye talked about what an unpretentious, easygoing guy he was, and yet in Gloucester he built this pompous mansion with pillars up on a hill. And I always wondered: If he really was so unpretentious, why did he build such a pretentious house? Seeing the house he was born in, I realized that this was the way he was raised.
In your book, Birdseye’s frozen food products are desirable, but over time attitudes have changed. Our modern culture is placing a lot of emphasis on fresh foods and eating locally.
I don’t think that we are really going to go back to that world. To begin with, there were drawbacks to that world that nobody in the foodie world thinks about. Like most places where you live, there isn’t much fresh food available for a number of months of the year. So unless you use frozen food or canned food, which is what they used to do, you can’t be a locavore all year round except for a few climates. You could be a locavore in Florida or southern California. But I tried that. It was really limiting.
So does Birdseye’s frozen food innovations still have a place in our modern culture?
Oh, it has a huge place—bigger than ever. And now you see more and more sophisticated versions of frozen food—frozen gourmet food. Places like Trader Joe’s, where you can get frozen truffle pizza and things like that–that’s one of the things that has changed public perception.
To us, frozen food isn’t like fresh food. We know the difference. But when somebody in Birdseye’s day tasted frozen food, they weren’t comparing it to fresh food; they were comparing it to canned food or dried, salted food. And by that standard, it was so like fresh food. But today we tend to compare it to actual fresh food. While it comes a lot closer than canned food, it’s not really as good as fresh food. One of the things that has happened with that market is that they have figured out how to make frozen food a middle priced or even inexpensive product so that’s one of its selling points is that it’s easily affordable and it’s often cheaper than really good fresh food. So it has taken a completely different place than where it started off.
Check in tomorrow for Part II of our interview with Mark Kurlansky about his masterpiece on the history of salt, the only edible rock on the planet.
April 18, 2012
Colonel Sanders was a real guy, an unemployed one who was forced out of his highway-side restaurant at the age of 65. He started selling the rights to make his pressure-cooker fried chicken, with a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, from the back seat of a white Oldsmobile. He originally wore a black suit rather than a white one, and his pressure cooker was as much a part of the pitch as his proprietary spice blend.
By 1975, Sanders had sold the franchise, Kentucky Fried Chicken, to a liquor and food conglomerate. He stayed on as a goodwill brand ambassador, raking in an annual salary of $70,000 a year. He put on a white linen suit every morning and rode around in a company-chauffeured Cadillac, visiting the company’s white-columned headquarters. But the colonel was bitter: The quality of his chicken had “slipped mightily” and the whole culture of fast food appeared to disgust him.
“Drive out of any town now and everyone is selling his piece of chicken or hamburger up and down the highway,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t get a decent meal anymore.”
So the Colonel did what he did best: He started a new restaurant and called it the Colonel’s Lady Dinner House. It had fewer frills and was intended to resemble the average dinner table. Then Sanders launched a vocal campaign against the new owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken. As the Los Angeles Times wrote:
He said he has been disappointed and that the conglomerate has treated him like “the saloon bums they’re used to dealing with rather than a sophisticated Southern businessman.”
In the past, he has insulted KFC’s gravy, called the men he first sold out to in 1964 “the biggest bunch of sharpies you ever saw” and labeled Heblein executive a “bunch of booze hounds.”
Company executives have long ignored such comments. Realizing that the colonel is one the nation’s best known trade names, they’ve handled him with kid gloves.
“He has been doing this forever,” said John Cox, the firm’s vice president for franchising and public affairs. “It comes and goes. The colonel is just a very independent minded individual.”
But there is a more serious issue involved in the current dispute: who controls the use of Sander’s familiar face and Southern gentlemen image.
Sanders is anxious to settle the case. “I only want to find how much of my body and soul they own.”
Once the colonel and the company settled, for a reported $1 million, Sanders promised not to attack the company. “He started to do so practically before the ink was dry on the agreement,” Josh Ozersky writes in the new book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. Unlike the malleable Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Ronald McDonald—advertising characters concocted in corporate boardrooms—Kentucky Fried Chicken had a real live spokesman, who stood his ground as a corporation reduced his recipes to poor imitations of their former selves.
Ozersky believes the company’s closely guarded “Original Recipe” was probably not the one invented by Sanders. Take this quote he unearths from 1970: A company executive says, “Let’s face it the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it.” The superhuman grandiosity that gave birth to the colonel’s image, meant to conjure up the magnolia-scented myth of the Deep South, proved to be a double bind. As Ozersky writes, “Oh to have a nice fictional mascot instead!”
Book cover design by Derek George/Colonel Sanders and the American Dream/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.
April 9, 2012
Constantine Rafinesque, a young French botanist, came to Philadelphia in 1802 and soon set off for Appalachia, walking at least 8,000 miles on foot in search of previously unclassified flora. He would name 6,700 species in a manic quest for fame, an exuberance that would ultimately undermine his reputation among his peers (Harvard’s Ava Gray would mock him for finding twelve species of lightning). As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in “La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist,” an essay collected in Pulphead, the French polymath also advanced ideas far ahead of their time. He proposed a deviation of species, which preceded Darwin’s theory of evolution. And, as Sullivan writes, “Rafinesque was the first person ever to deny in print the very existence of race as a meaningful social construct.”
He also published books on North America fauna, ancient Mayan hieroglyphics, and the Walam Olum, an apparent hoax about origin of North American Indians. Rafineseque established himself as an expert in medicinal plants. His Medical Flora; Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States was sort of Merck Manual of its day. In 1829, the self-taught naturalist and self-proclaimed lung expert wrote The Pulmist; or, Introduction to the Art to Cure and to Prevent the Consumption and began selling a sweet-smelling herbal concoction as a cure for tuberculosis.
Rafineque’s concoction leaves us with something of a cautionary tale about a fleeting taste of early spring: the furled pinnae of the wild, fiddlehead fern*, one of the first wild edible plants to emerge.
Rafinesque did not patent his Pulmel concoction to avoid revealing its contents, so the exact recipe is a mystery. Elsewhere he named the plants in the auxiliaries—“Syrup of Lycopus, Pectoral Syrups of Lanthois, medicated oak bark”—and Charles Ambrose, a scholar at the University of Kentucky, writes in the Journal of Medical Biography that Rafinesque may have added two native ferns:
Both ferns were abundant in Pennsylvania where Rafinesque likely collected plants used in Pulmel. He was especially familiar with Adiantum (maidenhair fern) because of its common usage in France in a beverage and a medicinal syrup. He extolled its virtues as “a popular pectoral remedy throughout Europe, although little known in America” and wrote, “My own experience has tested the value of this plant and its syrup.”
But the long-term self-medication may have taken its toll. Gastric cancers have since been linked to eating bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) or drinking milk from bracken-fed cows. Ferns are one of the few, if only, edible plants known to cause cancer in animals. While Rafinesque’s dose, despite unknowns about the recipe and the carcinogenicity, appears to have taken its toll: He died of stomach cancer at the age of 57. Until researchers assess the dregs of a bottle, yet to be unearthed, we’re left to wonder: Did the wild ferns do him in?
Portrait courtesy of the New York Public Library. Drawing of the American Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), from Medical Flora, vol. 1. Thumbnail image of ostrich fern courtesy (cc) of Flickr user LexnGer.
* To botanists, fiddlehead is the descriptive terminology for the rolled-up frond, also known as crozier. Confusingly, it’s also the common name cooks use to refer to many different edible wild fern species. The species discussed here—Adiantum pedatum and Polypodium vulgare—do not appear to be eaten as commonly as the furled tips of the bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) or ostrich (Matteuccia struthiopteris) ferns. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether repeated boiling and cooking reduces the level of carcinogens.
March 14, 2012
Henry D. Perky is best remembered as the inventor of Shredded Wheat, one of the first ready-to-eat cereals and a food that’s changed the way Americans think about breakfast. Perky was a devout vegetarian who believed that good health came from simple, wholesome foods. His whole-wheat biscuits were not intended exclusively as a breakfast cereal—the biscuits were a health food that could be paired with mushrooms, or even sardines. Despite claims that the Shredded Wheat Biscuit was “the Wonder of the Age,” a cure-all for societal and personal woes, the little edible brown pillows did not immediately take off.
In order to get grocery stores to stock Shredded Wheat, Perky began publishing booklets—millions of booklets. And by emphasizing the link between health food and industrial efficiency, he accomplished something else: Perky published the earliest images of American ships in the Spanish American war—in a cookbook.
His 1898 book, The Vital Question and Our Navy, featured recipes for shredded wheat along with an addendum about the U.S. Naval exercises in the Philippines and Cuba. The photos “have nothing to do with the rest of the book,” Andrew F. Smith, a culinary historian and author of Eating History, said at the recent Cookbook Conference. “As far as I know, they’re the first pictures that appear of these battle cruisers and destroyers that are public.” To think, health foods and war once went hand in hand.
March 7, 2012
If you were to point to the most marvelous product kicking around in your pantry right now, would it be your loaf of bread? It is one of the most mundane staple foods, but as Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows in his book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the lowly loaf is so much more than the sum of its simple parts. In American culture, bread is a status symbol, and the book provides a fascinating look at how store-bought white bread rose and fell in prominence. The book also answers the big question: Why do we have pre-sliced bread, and why it was the greatest thing to hit grocery store shelves?
To understand sliced bread, one must first understand the dramatic shift in bread making habits in America. In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker. Considering that bread making had been a part of domestic life for millennia, this is a fairly rapid change. In the early 20th century, Americans were highly concerned with the purity of their food supply. In the case of bread, hand-kneading was suddenly seen as a possible source of contamination, and yeast—those mystical, microscopic organisms that causes dough to rise—were viewed with suspicion. “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ because millions of these little worms have been born and have died,” Eugene Christian wrote in his 1904 book Raw Foods and How to Use Them. “And from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog of any other animal.” Images like this hardly make someone want to do business with the local baker.
Mass-produced bread, on the other hand, seemed safe. It was made in shining factories, mechanically mixed, government regulated. It was individually wrapped. It was a product of modern science that left nothing to chance. It was also convenient, sparing women hours in the kitchen to prepare a daily staple. Factory loaves also had an attractive, streamlined aesthetic, dispensing with the “unsightly” irregularities of homemade bread. Americans fed on factory bread because the bread companies were able to feed on consumer fear.
But factory breads were also incredibly soft. Buying pre-wrapped bread, consumers were forced to evaluate a product under sensory deprivation—it’s next to impossible to effectively see, touch and smell bread through a wrapper. “Softness,” Borrow-Strain writes, “had become customers’ proxy for freshness, and savvy bakery scientists turned their minds to engineering even more squeezable loaves. As a result of the drive toward softer bread, industry observers noted that modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.” The solution had to be mechanical slicing.
Factory-sliced bread was born on July 6, 1928 at Missouri’s Chillicothe Baking Company. While retailers would slice bread at the point of sale, the idea of pre-sliced bread was a novelty. “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows,” a reporter said of the sliced bread. “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” The bakery saw a 2,000 percent increase in sales, and mechanical slicing quickly swept the nation. With Americans all agog at the wonders of the mechanical age, sliced bread was a beacon of the amazing things the future might hold. At least that was the mindset. “Technology,” Bobrow-Strain says, “would usher in good society by conquering and taming the fickle nature of food provisioning.”