Susanne Freidberg


On her book A Perishable History

Cover Interview of April 16, 2009

In a nutshell

I don’t ordinarily pay much attention to online advertising, but in recent weeks one ad has been hard to miss.  When I check the weather page in the morning, out leaps a bright green, screen-filling plug for “freshly picked” Mentos gum.  Devoid of ad copy, it features only a pack of gum nestled between a strawberry and a wedge of lime.  Clearly the gum isn’t really fresh in the way that the fruit supposedly is; it doesn’t even claim to be new and improved.  Yet by evoking freshness, even in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the ad appeals to the many positive associations we have with this singular food quality.  How and why did they come about, and with what broader consequences?  Fresh: A Perishable History tries to answer these questions.  It traces the history of freshness, and how its meanings have changed along with the technologies and industries that bring it to us.

I start from the premise that freshness means many things, depending on the context and the food in question.  So the book takes the form of a refrigerator tour, beginning with the history of refrigeration itself.  Beginning in the late 19th century, this now taken-for-granted technology didn’t just keep perishables edible longer, as many other preservation techniques did; it transformed the very physics of freshness.  It threw into question old understandings of how food quality related to time, season, place, and nature.  For all these reasons, early refrigeration caused a great deal of controversy.

In the rest of the chapters, I use the history of six foods commonly kept in the fridge to explore particular dimensions of freshness.  In the chapter on vegetables, for example, I examine the notion that fresh foods are natural—an assumption, I argue, that has historically helped to obscure and undervalue the human labor that produces them.  The fish chapter focuses on the value we attach to the presumed vitality of freshness and how, ironically, this value has hastened the death of fisheries.

Together these individual stories show how, since the advent of consumer capitalism in the late 19th century, freshness has become an increasingly desirable, accessible, yet also questionable quality in food.  Then as now, it is a quality with paradoxical appeal: on one hand freshness seems to offer proof that we are “modern” in our tastes and lifestyles; on the other it promises to protect us from modern life’s ill effects.