Chilling out: A review of “Fresh: A Perishable History”

freshLocavores like me live for the local farmers market, not just for the conversations with the farmers, but also for the wide variety of fresh, colorful foods. We know that a farmer’s produce was nestled in the soil only a few hours before, and we know that the food we purchase is still full of nutrients and flavor.

Our desire for the highest standards of freshness is not unique to the SOLE food movement, though. For well over a century, advertisers have gone beyond the biological meaning of “fresh” to sell food to urbanites a generation or more removed from the farm, using a variety of technologies over the years to preserve or mimic freshness. Susanne Freidberg explores this history in her new book “Fresh: A Perishable History” (Belknap Press, April 2009) and demonstrates that even the back-to-the-land romanticism sometimes found in the touting of local foods relies upon the technologies we may so disdain in grocery stores.

fruitFreidberg explores the question of freshness through six kinds of perishable foods: beef, eggs, fruit, vegetables, milk, and fish. For centuries, these foods were limited to local consumption because each decomposed or soured so rapidly from the peak of ripeness. In chapters devoted to each of these categories, Freidberg explains how people discovered ways of preserving these foods for later consumption — mostly drying, though milk preserved reasonably well as cheese and fermented dairy products — before explaining the more modern technologies that preserve foods in a seemingly fresher state.

The key technology, of course, has been refrigeration: from the refrigerated rail cars and steamers used to transport fresh food to the grocery, to household refrigeration and freezer units that brought those “fresh” foods home. Freidberg notes that the use of refrigeration found particular favor first among businesses and later among consumers in the United States, “where the pursuit of freshness as an ideal has produced all kinds of technological and commercial innovations — some of which have shaped how not only Americans but also the rest of the world eats.”

Freidberg echoes the history of refrigeration found in “Kitchen Literacy” (see my review here) and reminds the reader that this new technology had a troubled beginning. Because early refrigeration units depended on ice, food often thawed and deteriorated in transit, ending up in a spoiled product that kept consumers from embracing the technology until years later, when more reliable units were developed. Still, though refrigerated transport and market storage became more dependable, few people had more than an icebox at home, and spoilage still occurred. It took a great deal of persuasion on the part of advertisers, playing up the ideals of “convenience” for the housewife and overcoming the distrust in claims that refrigerated foods would still manage to be tasty and wholesome for weeks or even months beyond than their natural lifespan. But persuade they did, and in the wake of increased acceptance of refrigeration within the home, consumers soon found the convenience of freezers (for longer-term storage that allowed for a near-fresh product when thawed) compelling as well.

Fruit proved to be much more complex. Because its peak of ripeness is so ephemeral, fruit had long been seen as simply a seasonal treat. However, once settlers in California discovered the perfect climate for growing good fruit, Freidberg writes, they planted orchards and launched a long-term business trend of supplying fresh fruit across the country, “transforming the American diet” with food of beauty, exotic flavor, and good nutrition.

Vegetables also took longer to become part of this process. Fresh vegetables were easily grown and harvested at home based on need, but they didn’t provide enough additional calories and nutrition — and spoiled too quickly — to warrant being grown on a larger scale and shipped across country. With a little work, crops such as iceberg lettuce were bred to ship well, and advertising aided the acceptance of these crops in everyday meals. By the 1980s and 1990s, the growing interest in healthy eating encouraged the marketing of vegetables as well as the development of new technologies to keep vegetables fresh, like the Keep Crisp bag (filled with nitrogen to prevent browning) used for prepackaged “fresh-cut” foods to make the home cook’s work even easier.

In reviewing each of the food categories covered in the book, Freidberg points out the cultural and culinary impacts of traditional and modern methods of preserving and eating these foods; the economic factors behind the push for technology that promoted freshness; the political influence and support of various food industries; the social changes resulting from the new technologies; and the environmental cost of scaling up production and shipping. She also highlights several times the fact that as more consumers become detached from any understanding of how food is grown, raised, or produced, the less they see or understand the hidden costs. As she explains, in regard to vegetables,

[I]t’s worth considering how our very ideal of freshness in vegetables — as a natural, even evanescent quality — has contributed to the historic undervaluing of the human labor that produces them. It’s an ideal encouraged by supermarkets and other dealers in fresh produce, because it permits them healthy mark-ups for qualities that cost them little or nothing. The real cost has always been borne by the people whose work we don’t see.

Freidberg concludes by returning to the ideals of the local foods movement. The point of limiting one’s food to a defined local area is a good one, she indicates, though incomplete and not possible everywhere without an understanding of how we’ve come to this point:

The health of a local food economy depends to a large degree on its wealth — not only in terms of household spending power, but also (and arguably more importantly) in the public resources available for everything from road maintenance to irrigation to community gardens. The basic infrastructure of locavorism, in other words, can’t be taken for granted.

Fresh: A Perishable History” proved to be a surprisingly intriguing companion piece to “Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back,” offering a look at the business and technology of creating and meeting consumer demand of certain food qualities. It serves as a reminder that no matter how much we may want to emphasize local foods’ proximity to the farm and superiority over supermarket purchases, both food sources rely on the same technologies and bring us a wide variety to enjoy. “Nothing is as pure or natural as we’d like,” cautions Freidberg, “but there’s no shutting the door on this world. Anyone who owns a fridge knows that ignoring the contents for too long is never a good idea.”

One Responseto “Chilling out: A review of “Fresh: A Perishable History””

  1. Sasha says:

    Thanks for highlighting this wonderful book. Friedberg is a fantastic scholar. Her previous book, French Beans and Food Scares is also a really important book for people trying to understand some of intricacies of how particular food economies get put together historically, although it’s focus is on trade between Europe and Africa.

    I think that the last two points you make re: local food infrastructure and the notion that nothing is as pure as we want it to be are both incredibly important to consider and keep in mind. On the one hand, one of the issues that most disturbs me about the current “local” food movement is the extent to which it is so dependent upon a mass of wealthy, largely urban consumers. However it’s easy to get cynical and disqualify the impact just because of this and these two point I think speak to some of the messy contradictions that we need to deal with. It might be the case, at this particular historical moment, that a local food economy based primarily on wealth is the only really viable model. But if we can build off the current success to find ways to reshape the infrastructure of local food, so that it can expand in scope and reach those who are currently largely excluded, while also continuing to provide a viable livlihood opportunity for farmers, well then we’re really onto something. In any case, it’s important to always keep in mind that no matter how much progress we make, we should be willing to take a critical eye when we look at our own assumptions and principles. Friedberg’s work is an excellent reminder of some of the reasons why.