Fresh: A Perishable History by Susanne Freidberg

Freidberg sets out two premises that played a large role in directing her inquiry into the changing meaning of freshness. First, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of freshness. Second, people from different backgrounds, cultures, and geographic regions value freshness in ways that are hard to predict or understand. Increasingly, marketing plays a distressing role in this shifting value system, changing that definition of freshness and undermining longstanding habits of preservation and seasonal snacking.

Freidberg starts her exploration of the meaning of freshness with simple blocks of ice. Hewn from frozen lakes, chopped into chunks, and delivered to the doorsteps of well-to-do housewives, ice provided the means of getting food to last just a little bit longer. Ice became big business until various methods of chilling air using gas or electricity were developed. Enter the refrigerator.

Ladies’ Home Journal, eager to promote the ice box replacement, gushed that refrigerators “‘are so completely nifty that to see one is to have a passionate desire for it. Already they are counted among the necessities for happiness.’” Freidberg does an excellent job of including advertisements from the pertinent time periods as well as direct quotations from newspapers and magazines promoting new advances in preserving the fresh qualities of foods. Controversy abounds every step of the way.

Six categories of food are placed under the microscope in this survey of shifting cultural values. Beef, eggs, vegetables, fruit, milk, and fish are each examined in Freidberg’s extensively researched and engagingly written account. Nearly 65 pages of endnotes indicate the sources and context of Freidberg’s research, a solid foundation for this enquiry.

In the 19th century, many believed that red meat was a power food for muscle building, and that helped sell even greater amounts of beef in a time of growing industry. Retrofitted cargo boats began to transport meat from areas of the world with plenty, such as Argentina and the United States, to places where land for cattle ranching was more scarce, like Europe.

A great deal of experimentation was needed to figure out how to make beef last long enough to cross an ocean, with sometimes putrid results. And even once the meat was transported, it was an entirely different matter to convince shoppers that the beef was of the same quality as that they purchased fresh. Enter modern marketing tactics in the grocery arena.

Advertisers started to make claims about the comparability of cold-stored foods to freshly harvested ones. It was critical to the future of refrigerated foods that large markets become convinced that there was an advantage to be had in purchasing cold-stored foods. That advantage might be in saving time, saving money, or gaining some nutritional benefit, and advertisers naturally tried to sell a combination of these ideas.

In 1910 a federal cold storage bill began making the rounds of the US Senate. Many were naturally distrustful about food that was artificially cooled to make it last longer. Refrigerated foods could be stockpiled in warehouses and sold during times of scarcity, which didn’t add to the reputations of warehouse managers, who were accused of benefiting from price fixing.

In the Senate, Freidberg writes, “Physicians discussed digestibility, and lawyers brought lists of consumers willing to go on record as having eaten and even enjoyed cold-stored foods.” Those selling cold-stored foods wanted to convince the skeptics that refrigerated perishables could seem just as fresh as foods more recently harvested and prepared.

Visual attractiveness was crucial in convincing consumers to buy refrigerated foods that had been transported long distances. Where are produce buyers nearly 100 years later? Americans shop at markets where the fruit looks best, no matter how it tastes.

At one time or another we’ve all fallen for the beautiful and the bland. We’ve grown used to disappointing supermarket fruit — mushy waxed apples and giant watery berries, peaches that go straight from rock-hard to rotten — just as we’ve grown used to blaming the supermarkets for our disappointment … It’s their experts who have figured out that we shop for fresh fruit with crow’s eyes, zeroing in on big, bright, shiny objects.

The story of picture-perfect iceberg lettuce serves as a parable for misinformation and even racism in America’s growing perishables trade. Bred for durability and the ability to withstand long transit, early 20th century advertisers glorified the low calorie content of iceberg lettuce. It was seen as ideal for increasing numbers of office workers and city dwellers with a low tolerance for hard labor or even exercise.

Before the 1920s Americans didn’t know what vitamins were, but once word got out that there was something in certain foods that promoted health and vitality, iceberg lettuce growers seized on the concept and reported that their product was chock-full of vitamins. Salads increased exponentially in popularity. Freidberg reminds the reader that, “It’s now well known that iceberg lettuce contains fewer nutrients than most leafy greens.”

Meanwhile in the iceberg lettuce industry, field workers in California and beyond were often Mexican, Japanese, or Filipino, people hired because their wages could be lower as well as for their smaller stature which was seen as ideal for stooping to pick the lettuce in the fields. “Jobs in the packing sheds, by contrast, went primarily to white Americans,” Freidberg writes. Packers commanded higher wages than the field workers, and were seen as “the ‘aristocrats’ of the Wests farmworkers. Advertising that promoted the virtues of iceberg lettuce helped propagate these conditions of inequality. Lettuce was certainly not the only crop to reinforce unequal treatment as fresh produce grew in popularity.

Today we celebrate the concept of the 100 mile diet and locally sourced meals; Freidberg informs the reader of a posh New York restaurant in the 1930s that attached mileage totals to menu items as an indication of exotic origin, as well as a boast about the difficulty of obtaining the ingredients. The elements of a simple fruit cocktail rack up nearly 8,000 miles while those in a vegetable salad combine to cover more than 22,000 miles on their way to the diner’s plate.

Such marketing tactics would be shocking by today’s standards. Freidberg writes, “At the time, such menu options seemed worth boasting about. They demonstrated technology’s conquest of borders, distance, and seasons; they offered customers fresh foods from the places they grew best.”

By the end of the book, it becomes clear that one of Friedberg’s central goals is to promote more thoughtful consumption by today’s grocery shoppers. “The history of freshness offers no simple solutions,” she concludes. Understanding how the production of one crop in a particular region can impact growing patterns and eating habits in other parts of the world is key as well: “A tour of the modern fridge reveals a world of interdependencies and inequalities, forged through trade, conquest, and politics.”

Becoming more aware of the differences we can make as consumers with our eating choices is a natural part of the ongoing conversation about how we can continue to have access to the global fruits of farmers’ labor. It doesn’t hurt to support your local farmers’ market, either.

RATING 8 / 10