Susanne Freidberg


On her book A Perishable History

Cover Interview of April 17, 2009

The wide angle

Beneath the stories of individual foods lies a larger story about the ambivalent appetites borne of life in a modern industrial society.  This is less abstract than it sounds.  As consumers, we’re hungry for the new and improved, but also nostalgic for all that was supposedly simple, wholesome and natural about the past.  (At the risk of giant overgeneralization, “we” here refers to consumers in the world’s richest, most industrialized countries, and above all to Americans.)  Food sold as fresh appeals to both appetites.  My wording here is intentional: the book is not about what is “really” fresh, but rather about how marketing, among other influences, has helped to make real freshness seem important.

The book turned out differently than I first expected.  In fact the entire book was unexpected.  I spent years studying the history of fresh food trades before it occurred to me that freshness itself might have one.  My earliest research focused on local and regional vegetable trades in Burkina Faso, in francophone West Africa.  In that context, freshness added value to crops just as it added taste and nutrition to the daily meals.  Freshness—or rather, perishability—also added risk, which growers and traders dealt with partly through their relations with each other.  Many studies of “traditional” fresh produce markets highlight the importance of these trust-based commercial relationships, but tend to take for granted (as I did) the food quality that helps bind them together.

My next project compared the two transnational fresh vegetable trades, one anglophone and one francophone, between Africa and Europe.  While great geographic, socioeconomic and cultural distances separated many of the participants in these trades from each other, all knew what kind of freshness their respective markets wanted: green, clean, and perfectly pretty.  It was towards the end of this project that I dug into the colonial history of African fresh food exports to Europe.  Initially I just wanted to find out who produced what for which markets.  But what soon caught my attention was all the late 19th century opposition to refrigerated food transport and storage.  Some of it came from European farmers concerned about their own markets, but many consumers also distrusted this new technology as well as the merchants who used it.  Basically they didn’t believe that refrigerated foods were fresh, and didn’t think it was fair or honest to sell them as though they were fresh.  This opposition reminded me a lot of contemporary concerns about genetic engineering.  French engineers called it “frigoriphobie,” but it wasn’t a uniquely French syndrome.  It was found even in the United States, historically the most fridge-friendly society.