“Freshness: An Easily-manipulated
and Always-Changing Concept?”
A Review of
A Perishible History.
by Susanne Freidberg.
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.
Fresh food is in. With Michelle Obama’s organic garden on the White House Lawn, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food on the New York Times Best Seller Lists, and a major documentary Food, Inc making its way across the country this weekend, it is easy to feel like the moment for a new food revolution has arrived at last. And in many ways it has—what has been a rising protest against the culture of fast food and TV dinners seems to be coming to a head, even as global corporations try to rebrand their genetically modified seeds as “sustainability solutions” for “local food systems” to fit in with the new sentiments.
Of course things are never as simple as they appear, and the calls by people like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to eat local, sustainably produced food are wrought with complexities. Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History goes a long way in illustrating those complexities and the many ways in which the movement toward local, sustainably produced food is tied up in much of the same global food system as the “corporate” food it intended to oppose.
What Freidberg, a professor of geography at Dartmouth, shows us is that our desire for “fresh” food is guided by our ideas of what “fresh” means and that those ideas are always changing with our technologies of preservation. Freshness meant something very different to a person living in 1909 with an ice box than it does to us today. What we now consider fresh food, even much of our locally produced food, would not have been considered fresh over a century ago. Yet the concept of freshness appeals to us now more than ever.
That appeal, Freidberg writes, “lies in the anxieties and dilemmas borne of industrial capitalism and the culture of mass consumption…It surrounds us with great abundance, but not with much that feels authentic or healthful. It leaves many people yearning to connect to nature and community but too busy to spend much time in either. Above all, it’s a culture that encourages us to consume both as often as possible and in ever better, more enlightened ways.” In other words, the push toward local, sustainably raised, seasonal, and natural foods is a new market preying on our desires, not unlike the health food pushes that built empires like Kellogg’s and fueled the adoption of refrigeration.
Freidberg’s book is based on two basic premises that seem simple, but soon turn into complex social histories as they are unpacked. The first premise is that “freshness means different things in different foods.” For instance the freshness of vegetables varies greatly from the freshness of eggs, which can be kept “fresh” for months with refrigeration. Here Freidberg is speaking of the pure biological idea of freshness in which a food’s integrity is maintained.
The second premise is that “biology alone can’t explain what ‘fresh’ means to people.” Here we meet the idea of freshness as it is illustrated in everything from home economics text and women’s magazines to trade journals and cookbooks. It is exploring this premise that leads Freidberg to explore, for instance, the reasons why refrigeration was more quickly adopted in the United States than it was in certain European countries. Often times these differences came from unlikely sources such as city planning. In France, for example, many urban dwellers lived in second floor apartments just above shops that sold food just-delivered from the country side. It was easy for French cooks to buy only the food they needed for the day. In Anglo-American cities however most shops tended to be located on a “high street” that meant that cooks would have to walk up to half an hour to buy groceries, making the daily food shopping a hassle that was gladly reduced with the ice box and eventually the refrigerator.
It is these small differences that resulted in major consequences that gave me the feeling, throughout reading Fresh that Freidberg had created an almost perfect combination of fascinating social history in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell and a critique of our food system in the way of Michael Pollan.
Freidberg begins this history with that appliance we take for granted until it breaks—the refrigerator. It is almost incredible to imagine that there was a time without it, but there certainly was, even within some of our grandparent’s lifetimes. Of course, prior too the refrigerator there were ice boxes, but these too were an innovation that were not always so.
It was through the marketing of northern merchants who saw profits in their frozen lakes that ice first began to flow and it was the civil war that jump started the production of artificial ice in Southern states that had come accustomed to cold beverages but were left lukewarm by an ice blockade. When refrigerators began to find their ways into homes they soon found a patriotic service as home front tables were encouraged to eat perishable foods so that other staples could be sent to the front during WWI. By the 1930s one magazine proclaimed that, “It is not extravagant to say that our present form of civilization is dependent upon refrigeration.”
It was in the 1930s after Frigidaire (owned by General Motors) and GE had made significant inroads into homes that the end of local eating began. As Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “Refrigeration wipes out seasons and distances.” This was a celebrated arrival of technology at the time, long before the effects of that wiping out had changed the landscape of a still rural country that embraced its own demise.
The chapters that follow Freidberg’s brief history of the refrigerator itself cover particular items within it: Beef, Eggs, Fruit, Vegetables, Milk, and Fish. Each of these chapters explores in detail the ways in which refrigeration changed a traditional view of freshness and also the way certain industries capitalized on refrigeration to create new markets for themselves.
In the chapter on beef for instance, Freidberg traces the fascinating journey of Charles Tellier, who had a dream of shipping beef from cattle rich South America to a French public hungry for meat. In the chapter on fruit Freidberg shows how California orange growers hired New York advertising agencies to solve their glut of oranges by prodding the American public to “eat more fruits and vegetables.” These early ads, before modern laws on health claims, promised amazing powers to those who ate fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the many ads that illustrate the book, from a 1930 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal, promises that “the mystery vitamin in iceberg lettuce preserves youthful vigor.” Who would’ve known?
What Freidberg’s history of freshness leads us to is a realization that the story of “good food” is far more complex than corn subsidy policy in the Nixon administration or even the rise of global food conglomerates like Tyson and ConAgra. It shows us that the movement toward organic or local food is not as simple as we might have imagined. “On the contrary,” she writes, “[the history freshness] suggests that any route that seems perfectly simple is probably no solution at all, especially if it proposes going back to an imagined past…Nothing is as pure or naturals as we’d like, but there’s no shutting the door on this world.”
This is an important warning towards caution for those of us who desire a more natural and sustainable food system, a system that is largely dependent on the same technology that brought us McDonalds and the frozen food aisles of grocery stores. As we work towards a better way of eating we should know our history and be assured that freshness is an easily manipulated and always-changing concept. Getting back to the land might be harder than we thought.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com