Fresh: A Look at the Meaning of Freshness and the Refrigeration Revolution

FreshA review of Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009)

The debate continues on the local foods argument …

To listen to many food activists talk these days, one would think that for dinner — up until now — most people just simply stepped outside their doors and plucked fresh leaves and herbs and slaughtered one of the many chickens clucking around in the dirt.

Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009) attempts to lay to rest this nostalgic vision via an immense amount of research.

First of all, Dr. Freidberg, associate professor of Geography at Dartmouth College, takes issue with the bandying about of the word “fresh.” What does it really mean for something to be called “fresh?” She also emphasizes the fact that the questions engaging the “antimodern consumer movements,” as she calls them, do not concern most people in the world, for whom enough food is only a dream. The ominovore’s dilemma is not theirs.

This complex book contains two major themes — cold storage with ice and all that that implies, as well as the whole overriding concept of freshness, of which cold storage is only one part of the picture. (Surprisingly, very little about primitive cold storage, as in root cellars, enters into the overall discussion.) In six chapters devoted to specific foods, similar in format to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, Friedberg attempts to weave together the two themes: Beef: Mobile Meat, Eggs: Shell Games, Fruit: Ephemeral Beauty, Vegetables: Hidden Labor, Milk: Border Politics, and Fish: Wild Life. Freidberg fills each chapter with countless examples, anecdotes, and data illustrating the problems of maintaining freshness under varying circumstances.  Freidberg introduces the driven personalities who created refrigeration and used it to perpetuate the demand for what was, and is, perceived as freshness. History and raw facts flow in great, fascinating detail.

Fresh also constantly reminds readers that the so-called new “local food movement” is not new. One of the strongest aspects of this well-researched book, this point cannot be stressed too much. Today’s locavores today ultimately want more control over what goes into their bodies. No one can fault them for this. But people since the days of Upton Sinclair longed for freedom from the “big guys” too, viewing large food companies and their products in a negative light. Take, as example, Grace Aspinwall’s article titled, “The Joys of Raw Food,” published in a familiar place: Good Housekeeping magazine, cited in Freidberg’s extensive bibliography.

Susanne Freidberg
Susanne Freidberg

Unique in being one of the first books for a popular audience on the effects of refrigeration on the concept of freshness, Fresh promises much in the way of commentary on the current state of comestibles. But the end result falls somewhat short, even though commendable text, notes, and bibliography provide invaluable resources and landmarks for other scholars.

While the unifying theme of Fresh ostensibly is the impact of refrigeration on freshness, it’s easy to lose track of that with all the information packed into a book supporting the predominant ideas that 1) freshness depends on who’s defining it and 2) refrigeration changed the world and we still don’t really know what fresh actually means. Freidberg’s picked a difficult attack, so to speak, on a complicated subject.

In Fresh, Freidberg hits all the right notes: migrant labor, workers’ rights, animal rights, local foods, food history, aesthetics, taste, environmental degradation, species extinction, climate change, corporate agriculture. In doing so, she delivers a good overall narrative of the history of mechanical refrigeration, offers some interesting debate on the concept of freshness, and invites further research and certainly more discussion.

But, and this conclusion is difficult to voice, there’s no real clout, no strong ending, no earth-shattering emphatic conclusion, no brain-scratching argument. Reading Fresh at times feels like delving into  sheer newspaper reportage: ”This happened and then this.”

Beginning on page 276 (out of 283 pages of text), Freidberg’s seven-page-long Epilogue tantalizingly throws out hints of a conclusion in statements like: “The basic infrastructure of locavorism, in other words, can’t be taken for granted everywhere” and  “… the utopian vision of an unchanging local food economy really is a fiction.”[1] Another statement from the Epilogue should have been featured prominently at the ending of the introduction, propelling the rest of the book: “A tour of the modern fridge reveals a world of interdependence and inequalities, forged through trade, conquest, and politics.”[2] And best of all, this: “But the local food movement does not yet spell good news for the world’s small farmers.” [3]

Yes! That’s it! The essence of the book, the reason to keep reading.

But a final, conclusive chapter analyzing the material deeply, putting the local foods movement and all it entails into perspective, goes mysteriously missing. After that statement about “Utopian vision,” only three paragraphs remain to tie up all that research, all that information regarding freshness and coldness and ice. And that’s just not enough. Unfortunately.

[1] p. 282

[2] p. 283

[3] p. 10

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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