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Book Report: 'Birdseye' look at frozen food, more

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Mark Kurlansky astounded the reading world several years ago when he wrote "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World."

Later he did the same thing with "Salt: A World History."

Now he's out with another food book -- or, more specifically a book about a man who tinkered with food and gave his name to an iconic product.

When I was a kid, I thought Birdseye was a brand name. Like Green Giant. Or Spam.

Then I read in my hometown weekly that the banker's wife had a visitor from out east, an old classmate. Her name was Eleanor Birdseye and she was the wife of the frozen food magnate, Clarence Birdseye.

Now I know more about Eleanor and her innovative husband because of Kurlansky's new book, "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man." (Doubleday, $25.95)

These days we hear a lot about the locavore movement (see the Review of Brenda Langton's new book below).

Clarence Birdseye set old-time locavorism on its ear and revolutionized the food industry by finding out as a young man in Labrador that you could freeze food and ship it a long way.

Since Birdseye patented his process for freezing fish after experimenting with a bucket of brine and a fan, Kurlansky writes, "Our dinner tables have never been the same.

I'm no fan of frozen vegetables, especially those bright green peas the size of small cannonballs, but I can admit that frozen sweet corn is more than edible as is a flash frozen cod loin.

So what fascinates me about this book is the character of Clarence Birdseye, whom Kurlansky calls an archetypal Yankee tinkerer, the sort of inventor who develops something out of nothing but his imagination, as did Edison in his early years.

Birdseye didn't stop with his patented freezing process, but went on to invent an improved incandescent light bulb, a harpoon gun to tag finback whales, and a method for making paper from the leftover pulp of sugar plants that is still in use today.

And now we move on from cardboard peas to fresh vegetables.

I'm about as far from being classified as being vegetarian as a sabre-toothed tiger.

So years ago when my boss invited me to take dinner with her at the iconic vegetarian restaurant called "Café Brenda" in Minneapolis's Warehouse District, I ate a hamburger just before I embarked, just to be on the safe side.

So I was shocked to find very edible legumes, greens, and even fish and chicken served by Brenda Langton, the self-described "old hippie" who has been serving counter-culture food for 40 years.

Since Café Brenda, Langton has moved on to Spoonriver Café adjacent to the new Guthrie Theatre, were she continues her quest for protein from other than feedlots, but actually serves stuff like ribeye steak and, for a time, one of my favorite meals in Minneapolis, a charcuterie of various sausages and veggies.

She celebrates her newest restaurant in "The Spoonriver Cookbook," by Langton and chef/horticulturist Margaret Stuart (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95)

Until I read this handsome history cum recipes did I realize that my Grandma Wood, for all her fried sidepork and Swedish meatballs, was actually a vegan pioneer.

Every spring, she'd feed the neighbor kids homemade bread smeared with chive-flecked butter and sliced radishes.

So what's the first recipe in Langton's new cookbook?

Radish and Herb Butter Canapés

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or parsley

4 tablespoons butter, softened

1 bunch red, Easter or French breakfast radishes

Thinly sliced multigrain bread cut into bite size pieces.

Fold the chopped herbs into the soften butter.

Wash and thinly slice radishes. Put them in a bowl of cold water.

Spread about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of butter onto a piece of bread and top it with a radish slice or two. Just before serving, sprinkle with a little sea salt.

Reviewer's Comment: Grandma wasn't close enough to an ocean to find sea salt and she would have preferred homemade white bread to course "peasant" bread.