Birdseye was forced to drop out of Amherst when his parents fell into financial distress around 1908, during one of the worst banking and economic crises in U.S. history. He took a job with the U.S. Biological Survey counting coyotes in New Mexico and Arizona and hunted the ticks that caused Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but eventually his commercial instincts led him into fur trading. After collecting bobcat and coyote skins in the western U.S., he moved north to search for fox and ermine pelts by dogsled in Labrador.
Birdseye entertains readers with stories of its subject’s consumption of delicacies as varied as skunks and horned owls, a particular favorite being fried rabbit livers. Birdseye was omnivorous and obsessed with food, and in the frozen North, a “hunger for the taste of freshness had a lasting effect,” Kurlansky writes.
It was in Labrador that Birdseye discovered the flash-freezing process that would transform food production. Kurlansky keeps the story moving, although the second half of the book, which details how Birdseye invented the freezing equipment and brought his product to market, is necessarily dry compared to the account of the early years in Labrador. A highlight is Birdseye’s aptitude as a promoter, which was essential to winning over resisters, whether culinary conservatives or people suspicious that the new technology was tampering with God’s intentions. By the mid-1940s, U.S. households were convinced: In 1945 and 1946, they bought 800 million pounds of frozen food.
Birdseye’s success came from a marriage of two qualities. He needed his business skills to make his scientific ambitions a reality, just as Jobs needed his aesthetic sense to ignite his technological visions and Eisenhower needed his political genius to lever his executive ability. Birdseye died at age 69 in 1956, a year after Jobs was born. The business he built had become so ubiquitous that the man himself was forgotten. It took 50 more years for Kurlansky to arrive and recognize the need for a biography.
To be great, a biography must do more than tell us an interesting life story; it must teach us something new and worthwhile about ourselves or the world. This year’s best biographies do just that: They illuminate realms forgotten and unknown, and contain lessons that range from inspirational to cautionary. Above all, the lives of Eisenhower, Jobs, and Birdseye give us a collective portrait of the enormous potential that can be unleashed when two fundamental, and even opposing, skills are combined in a single human being.
- Alice Schroeder is an investor, journalist, and best-selling author of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Bantam Books, 2008), selected as a 2009 s+b best business book.