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.
“I use the history of six foods commonly kept in the fridge to explore particular dimensions of freshness.”
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.
The chapter on eggs shows how and why refrigeration used to be controversial, which these days many people will find hard to imagine. It also contains a good story about the ironic consequences of consumer demand for genuine freshness. I don’t want to give away the punch line, but it starts from the basic fact that the egg used to be a highly seasonal “crop.” Who knew? I certainly didn’t before I wrote this book. An egg can also under certain conditions last a really long time, which made it an attractive commodity to the early 20th century cold storage industry. The problem with the egg, of course, is that it’s impossible to tell a fresh one from a stale one just by looking at it. This led to all kinds of marketplace deception and resulting controversies. These faded once more-or-less fresh eggs were available year-round—the chapter also tells how that happened—but not without a cost to both consumer and producer (namely the hen).
“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. Food sold as fresh appeals to both appetites.”
My book offers no rules about what to eat or buy. Many, many books already do that. In fact one of the bigger points of writing the book was to show how faith in such rules—about what’s really fresh or natural or healthy—has often blinded us (as consumers) to the larger causes of the problems we hope to solve by buying and eating the right foods. The current enthusiasm for local food is an example of this, I think. It’s not hard to see why local food is appealing at many levels; I find it appealing myself. It’s nice to think that buying this food might help local economies, preserve farmland and the environment more generally. It’s reassuring to know where one’s food comes from and who grows it, especially given all the recent scares related to “global” food. But if everybody’s going to have access to decent food, fresh and otherwise, we aren’t going to get there just by shopping at the farmers’ market. For many readers this might be an obvious point. Yet it still seems worth making, given that we are so besieged by messages telling us that the route to happiness and a better world runs through the market. I don’t buy it.
Susanne Freidberg is Associate Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College. Besides Fresh and her previous book, French Beans and Food Scares (Oxford, 2004), she has published articles in numerous journals and opinion pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times. She has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the American Council for Learned Societies, and the Mellon Foundation.