Fresh: A Perishable History
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That rosy tomato perched on your plate in December is at the end of a great journey―not just over land and sea, but across a vast and varied cultural history. This is the territory charted in Fresh. Opening the door of an ordinary refrigerator, it tells the curious story of the quality stored inside: freshness.
We want fresh foods to keep us healthy, and to connect us to nature and community. We also want them convenient, pretty, and cheap. Fresh traces our paradoxical hunger to its roots in the rise of mass consumption, when freshness seemed both proof of and an antidote to progress. Susanne Freidberg begins with refrigeration, a trend as controversial at the turn of the twentieth century as genetically modified crops are today. Consumers blamed cold storage for high prices and rotten eggs but, ultimately, aggressive marketing, advances in technology, and new ideas about health and hygiene overcame this distrust.
Freidberg then takes six common foods from the refrigerator to discover what each has to say about our notions of freshness. Fruit, for instance, shows why beauty trumped taste at a surprisingly early date. In the case of fish, we see how the value of a living, quivering catch has ironically hastened the death of species. And of all supermarket staples, why has milk remained the most stubbornly local? Local livelihoods; global trade; the politics of taste, community, and environmental change: all enter into this lively, surprising, yet sobering tale about the nature and cost of our hunger for freshness.
Doing so certainly Â�didn’t improve their taste. Differences in the geÂ�ogÂ�raÂ�phy of food shopping also shaped people’s ideas about the merits of the icebox. As H.Â€D. Renner notes in The Origin of Food Habits, cities in Britain and the United States traditionally concentrated commerce in the “High Street” or shopping center, whereas cities in continental Europe layered apartmentsÂ€atop shops. In Europe, freshness was never far. “It makes a vast difference to the housewife whether she has
beneÂ�fits. When the newspaper Le Matin ran a letter in 1911 calling for the mandatory labeling of cold-Â� stored fruit “because it is almost always uneatable and always harmful to the health,” the trade journal Revue Générale de Froid mocked the letter-Â�writer’s “phobia.” If refrigerated fruits were specially labeled, the journal predicted, “we are conÂ�fiÂ�dent that they would soon command a premium.”35 Another newspaper letter-Â� writer argued that fruit producers should turn their surpluses
of meat “dressed a thousand miles away,” encouraged impulse purchases, and speeded up sales of less popular cuts.55 If such retailing strategies now seem elementary, they were not simple. The very capacity to offer shoppers an appealing, competitively priced fresh-Â�meat selection depended on the packers’ less visible power over people, nature, and markets. This power extended well beyond Chicago itself, where hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants depended on packhouse jobs. Efficient use
that its own burgers are “fresh, never frozen”). It seems this way only because, at least in the industrialized world, we are so far distant from the days when most people’s red meat was salted, spoiled, or just scarce. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser points out the irony “that a business so dedicated to conformity was founded by iconoclasts and self-Â�made men.”100 But an even more profound irony deÂ�fines the industry that supplies McDonald’s with its meat. Now infamous for its
Primitive man spent practically all his time getting, caring for and preparing food. In a real sense, the aim of human progÂ�ress has been to make these proÂ�cesses ever easier and easier. The less time we are forced to spend thinking about food, the more we have for higher things, so called. The modern refrigerator, which makes it vastly easier to care for food, may help to produce love songs—we hope. —Gove Hambidge, “This Age of Refrigeration,” Ladies’ Home Journal (August 1929): 103 Unlike