Fresh – the paradoxical story of seemingly natural food

Why were salads in aspic fashionable in the early part of the 20th century? Because of the recent spread of refrigerators in middle class homes. In the late 1920s, cookbooks published by the makers of Frigidaire and Kelvinator refrigerators promoted “refrigeration cookery”, while the Ladies Home Journal, the leading advertising vehicle for household technology, “ran recipes for pigs feet aspic and egg-and-asparagus modes, and urged readers to keep their fridges well-stocked with olives, capers, pimentos, and other colorful garnishes for luncheon salads and “jellied things.” Why did San Francisco become a center for graphic design, a role that’s continued into the 21st century with web design? It was the place where fruit crate labels were designed, when California’s fruit growers banded together to expand the market for oranges shipped long distance.

Fresh: A Perishable History, Susan Freidberg’s book on the social history of the concept of freshness, is chock-full of amusing and telling little details that illustrate stories of the definition of the concept of freshness in the modern age. The story is always more complex than it appears. The “fresh” salads that appear in grocery stores are delivered in high-tech polymer bags, variably permeable in response to temperature changes, and filled with nitrogen. The live fish that swim around the fishtanks of Hong Kong and mainland China are imported from the Phillippines and Indonesia, caught by shipped by air, anesthetized. The “fresh” milk that is purchased in supermarkets is the product of a system of regulation originally intended to preserve local markets but now a convoluted tangle; and a labor system dependent on migrant workers from Mexico who fearful to leave the farm and face capture and deportation. The concept of fresh food, which on its surface appears like the most natural and uncomplicated of attributes, is the product of complex webs of technologies, transport systems, legal structures and labor markets. The colorful, shiny surface of the consumer marketing of food is designed to hide the technological sophistication and the messy and often cruel realities of the production process.

This is a wonderful book that is entertaining even as it informs about aspects of life that many of us take for granted. My one quibble with the book is that the author attempts to maintain a scholarly equanimity about the unsavory and unsustainable aspects of the food system. The chapter on fish, for example, tells story after story of a given fishery stripped of its population, and the industry’s moving on to the next shoals. Unlike, say, the environmental tragedy told in Mike Kurlansky’s Cod, Freidberg’s matter-of-fact narration fails to consider the obvious and well-reported inferences about the ultimate conclusion of increasing consumption and declining fish stocks. Nor does Freidberg draw strong conclusions like long-form journalist Michael Pollan, whose Omnivore’s Dilemma offers a well-researched indictment of the health and environmental failures of the industrial food production system.

The chapter on the locavore movement, which is attempting to reconstitute markets and practices for locally produced food, doesn’t quite go to the false-equivalence depths of newspaper articles that dismiss the environmental value of local because some people produce hothouse tomatoes in Vermont in January. The environmental intent of the locavore movement is to reduce the fossil fuel cost of food trucked and shipped and flown around the world, not just to produce food as closely as possible to the eater regardless of environmental cost. But Freidberg is extremely skeptical of any efforts to improve the situation. Looking at previous failed efforts, ranging from Upton Sinclair’s slaughterhouse exposes to attempts to preserve local milksheds with counterproductive results, Freidberg concludes that any efforts to improve matters are likely as not to have negative unintended consequences, so by implication why bother trying? And since all systems have mixed natures, why try to evaluate what is better or worse?

I’m not wishing that Freidberg had written a manifesto, that would be a different book entirely. My ideal for the genre is Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother, which by the way Freidberg quotes in places, a brilliant book on the social history of household technology with a steel skeleton of the history of technology adoption in the 20th century US. Without diverging into prescriptive politics out of place in a work of history, Cowan nevertheless has an underlying well-supported argument that household technology has served, for reasons of ideology and marketing, to maintain housework at a consistent level beyond need and value.

Even though Freidberg refrains from drawing seemingly obvious conclusions and making potentially supportable judgements, the robust material of her history provides a good foundation for those who may wish to follow the facts further toward reasonable conclusions, and who have less skepticism about the value of action in an imperfect world. And the counterintuitive tales of the unintended consequences of idealistic action, and the complex roots of seemingly simple things are good cautionary warnings about any simple story, whether it be the promise of a pretty supermarket package or the promise of any simple sustainable solution.

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