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Powell’s Q&A: Mark Kurlansky

Describe your latest book.
It is titled Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, and it is coming out in May from Doubleday. This is the first ever autobiography of Clarence Birdseye, the man who developed the frozen food industry. Birdseye could be called a foodie in that he thought about food constantly. Every letter he wrote was describing a meal he had recently enjoyed or an interesting dish he had sampled. But, born in 1886, he was a 19th-century foodie. Born at the height of the industrial revolution, he believed that industry would make food wonderful. He constantly thought of ways to industrialize food. He even worked with farmers to make their products more suitable to industry. His dream was for high quality fresh food to be made available to everyone. He saw this as a growing movement in the world. He imagined his native New York food self-sufficient, growing its produce hydroponically on roof tops and freezing it to have throughout the year.

He was a curious man in both senses of the word, interested in absolutely everything, and in how to improve it. But he was also unusual, a bald, five-foot-seven-inch, bespeckled adventurer, he hunted on horseback in the Wild West, trapped foxes by dogsled in frozen Labrador, and harpooned whales off of Massachusettsa bald, five-foot-seven-inch, bespeckled adventurer, he hunted on horseback in the Wild West, trapped foxes by dogsled in frozen Labrador, and harpooned whales off of Massachusetts. All the while, he was asking people how they did things and wasn't there a better way. He held more than 300 patents on everything from light bulbs to fishing reels.

But his most famous inventions were for frozen food. When he started, there was little frozen food available, and it was barely edible. After learning how to make frozen food appetizing, he had to figure out how to package it, how to convince people to try it, how to get stores to install freezers, how to transport it. Along the way, lots of new things such as cellophane wrappers and portable freezers were invented.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Kurlansky: The Adventures of a Curious Man

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
It's hard to choose between all the voluptuous, passionate, strong-willed and disastrous women of 19th-century literature. Writers like Flaubert, Hugo, Zola, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy — what was it about these men that they imagined such sexy woman. Actually, not just men. Brontë's Catherine Earnshaw was pretty hot, too. That's why Heathcliff had to come back. Who wouldn't?

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
The most interesting job I ever had was working as a commercial fisherman, but the strangest was dressing up as a very large dog and being driven around Indianapolis in a van equipped with a well-stocked bar and being dropped off at supermarkets to run around woofing praise for a brand of dog food.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
They should be good at it because a writer understand that the secret of effective lying is to make it as close as possible to the truth. Still, actors might be even better. Good acting has that truth thing too.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
My favorite opening line is Hemingway's, from the short story "In Another Country": "In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore."

How do you relax?
I play the cello. It is not easy, but it feels great when it's working, especially Bach. That or going fishing.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
The best breakfast is in Jamaica with the air smelling tropical but still cool. Ackee and salt fish, bamie, callaloo, Johnny Cakes. What could be better than Jamaican morning?

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Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times-bestselling author of many books, including Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man is his latest book.

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