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ACLS News

Focus on Research: Susanne E. Freidberg F'09, F'03 on the History of Freshness

8/9/2011

ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Susanne E. Freidberg, professor of geography at Dartmouth College.

Susanne FreidbergIn 1880 an enterprising Parisian fruit merchant named Omer Decugis installed a mechanical refrigerator in his shop, making him the first food seller in the city with this new technology. It was a distinction he quickly regretted. When Decugis’ customers discovered that his supposedly fresh produce had not only been stored but also treated with “artificial cold,” they were outraged. Decugis ended up dismantling the refrigerator, and waited nearly a quarter century before building another.

I found the tale of Decugis’ ill-fated innovation buried in the footnotes of a book on the history of Paris’s fresh produce markets. Like many of the most interesting discoveries, it happened while I was looking for something else. But this small story triggered questions that eventually led to a several-year-long research project. First, why were the merchant's clients so upset? A little digging revealed that French distrust of refrigeration in the late nineteenth century was so common that engineers had a name for it: frigoriphobia. It described people’s fears about both what the technology might do to food and how it might be used by merchants to cheat and deceive them. And it turned out that frigoriphobia was not a uniquely French condition. In Britain, refrigerated food was rumored to cause cancer and appendicitis. In the United States in the early 1900s, several states mandated the labeling of cold stored products, so that consumers could distinguish them from what they considered genuinely fresh ones.

Second, what changed? How did a widely feared technology become, at least in the industrialized world, a household necessity? More to the point, how did the refrigerator come to be seen not as technology that transforms fresh food into something qualitatively different—different enough to merit a label—but rather as one that keeps food fresh?

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Freshness appears pre-industrial, yet its wide availability—whether in supermarkets or farmers’ markets—depends on a host of industrial technologies, from refrigeration to the Internet. “Fresh” may connote pure, but it has come at a high price for many humans, animals, and ecosystems.

 
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I had spent years studying the modern history of fresh food trades without considering that freshness itself might have a history. But the controversies surrounding early refrigeration showed that while people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries clearly valued freshness, as we do now, they had quite different ideas about where it could come from, how long it could last, and what could be done to it. How, then, have the meanings of this ephemeral food quality changed along with the technologies that are supposed to protect it? This was the question I aimed to answer in my book, Fresh: A Perishable History.

The plural matters here. Not only has the term “fresh” meant different things in different times, places, and foods; it has also come to connote a range of other qualities generally valued by consumers in modern industrial societies: natural, healthful, pure, youthful, even simply new. In order to highlight this variety, I decided to draw on the histories of several fresh foods. I also used these histories to show how much the varied meanings of freshness owe to marketing as well as broader changes in daily rhythms of work and leisure, especially for women.

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I started by learning about the science of food preservation and spoilage. I wanted to understand why, for example, beef can age for weeks while most kinds of fish degrade within hours. I wanted to understand how cold temperature changes different foods at the molecular level, and how those changes affect (or don’t) taste and texture. And then I wanted to see how and how much the biochemistry of different foods has shaped their role in the larger history of freshness.

The fact that chilled beef lasts for weeks, for instance, partly explains why it was the primary cargo of the refrigerated steamships that first began crossing oceans in the late 1870s. But only partly; red meat’s longtime association with wealth and power was one of the main reasons why these ships were even built. In the mid-nineteenth century, prices for fresh beef were rising in the industrializing cities of Europe and especially Britain, as the working classes aspired to eat more like the elite. Medical opinion was also turning against salted meats, especially as a staple for soldiers. Securing an affordable, reliable fresh beef supply thus became a political and even military concern.

Cattle abounded in the Americas, but animals imported live could bring disease. What was clearly needed was a means to keep a boatload of meat cool for up to a month. Many engineers worked on this problem on both sides of the Atlantic. The first to solve it, the Frenchman Charles Tellier (later known as France’s “père du froid”) received a hero’s welcome in cattle-rich Argentina, which went on to develop the world’s largest chilled meat export trade. In short, as one early historian of the trade wrote in 1908, “the desire to export fresh meats was the father of all ideas of refrigerating transportation, both by land and sea.” By land, of course, it was the iced rail car, popularly known as the “reefer,” that the Chicago meatpackers developed in order to carry their products to coastal markets. 

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I visited farms, markets, and kitchens in several countries. I interviewed New England cheesemakers, Alaskan salmon fishermen, West African green bean farmers, and shoppers and chefs in Hong Kong, where the only seafood that counts as fresh is still alive.

 
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As the story of the fruitseller Omer Decugis illustrates, refrigeration’s invention hardly assured the commercial success of refrigerated food. On the contrary, it took aggressive marketing. Trade journals provided insights into the marketing strategies used by different producers’ groups. The California orange growers who founded Sunkist emphasized the flawless beauty of their fruit—a beauty that ordinary East Coast consumers could now enjoy daily and year round. Advertisements for iceberg lettuce made what would now seem outrageous claims about the vitamin content and fat-melting qualities of this nutritionally vapid vegetable. Many of these ads appeared in women’s magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, as did ads for iceboxes and later electric refrigerators.

Women’s magazines also offered clues about how broader socioeconomic and scientific changes influenced consumers’ food shopping and cooking priorities. Middle class American housewives in the 1920s, for example, were expected to make do with less domestic help than previous generations, while maintaining busier social schedules. For them, an electric fridge offered multiple conveniences: it got rid of the frequent visits from the iceman; it saved on shopping trips; it could even be used to prepare fashionable new dishes, such as Jello salads. Growing popular awareness of first bacteria and later calories and vitamins, similarly, helped sell consumers on the value of both “protective” fresh foods (fruits and vegetables, eggs and dairy products) and the appliance needed to protect their freshness.

Other important primary sources included home economics texts and cookbooks, statistics on fresh food production, trade and consumption patterns, and the archives of fresh food companies, growers’ cooperatives, and social reformers. To give just one example: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “rate of lay” records, which tracked the number of eggs laid monthly per 100 hens, show that egg production used to be intensely seasonal, with the majority laid in springtime (who knew?). A century ago, most eggs sold in January had spent months in cold storage; the rare fresh-laid ones might cost three times as much. But by the 1970s, the rate of lay varied little from one month to the next. Dramatic changes in chicken breeding, feeding, and housing practices—detailed in trade journals such as Hen Coop and Leghorn World—turned the “fresh” egg into a year-round staple. But it also became a thoroughly industrialized one.

Not all of my research took place in libraries and archives. I also visited farms, markets, and kitchens in several countries. I interviewed New England cheesemakers, Alaskan salmon fishermen, West African green bean farmers, and shoppers and chefs in Hong Kong, where the only seafood that counts as fresh is still alive. And, of course, I sampled at every opportunity.

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A Hong Kong wet market, where "fresh" effectively means "alive"

Conducting research for Fresh: A Perishable History was undeniably fun. But the book’s larger point is a serious one. It aims to shed light on current ideas about what is “really” fresh and why this question has become so important, at least in some circles. As in the past, part of the appeal lies in the distinction associated with fresh food, at least in times and places where relatively few people have access to it. But history also shows that freshness is a profoundly paradoxical quality. It appears pre-industrial, yet its wide availability—whether in supermarkets or farmers’ markets—depends on a host of industrial technologies, from refrigeration to the Internet. “Fresh” may connote pure, but it has come at a high price for many humans, animals, and ecosystems. Its history shows, ultimately, that freshness is anything but natural. 


Susanne E. Freidberg F'09, F'03 received a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for her study on "Diet for a Warm Planet: Debating the Future Map of Food" and a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship for her project "Plates Unknown: Encounters with the Borders of the Edible, 1850-1930." The complete series is available here.

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