Food History
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Curating the History of Freshness

In Fresh: A Perishable History, Susanne Freidberg chronicles the fascinating history of how refrigeration expanded the reach of the industrial food system, forever altering not only the world’s food supply, but also how consumers view freshness and conceptualize its meaning. She tells this story through a series of mini-histories focusing on specific foods: beef, eggs, fruit, vegetables, milk, and fish. In doing so, she reveals the many meanings of “fresh,” five of which are discussed in the following five images.

1. The Refrigerator

Consumers once got along without refrigeration, shopping frequently and preserving food by canning, drying, and pickling. In fact, consumers were at first wary of refrigeration, though World War I marked a turning point.

While meat and wheat were shipped to the warfront, American civilians were encouraged to consume fresh foods, unsuitable for shipment to soldiers. Consuming fresh produce, eggs, and dairy products were considered acts of both patriotism (as seen in this WWI food poster) and scientifically based health promotion, confirming the new place of these foods in the American diet and the role of the refrigerator to keep them fresh, safe, and tasty.

Refrigerators thus evolved to play a dual role: supplying nature (“the garden in a machine”) at a housewife’s fingertips, but also capable of defeating nature, providing technological protection from decay.

2. Fresh Eggs

While consumers initially questioned the refrigerator itself, they questioned no refrigerated food product more than eggs. Always obscured by protective shells, consumers distrusted claims that refrigerated eggs were indeed fresh, a quality unobservable with the naked eye.

Refrigerated eggs also embodied the transformations occurring within an increasingly industrialized food system. Consumer distrust was rooted in more traditional views of freshness, views formed by consumers’ direct interactions with farmers. For example, this sign depicts “fresh farm eggs” available at the “next right,” implying the consumer’s journey to physically and personally visit the farmer and his or her hens.

Refrigeration dramatically rewrote this understanding of freshness, expanding it in new ways and largely disassociating it from the farmer and the land, and giving it a mechanical coldness. Interestingly, the bucolic imagery of early years would remain part of food packaging and advertising, tapping into a nostalgia for the natural that never went away.

3. Fresh Express Salad

In the early twentieth century, American views on health, physical beauty, and eating habits changed, a transformation told through a fresh vegetable — lettuce.

Then and now, consumers desire lettuce for a variety of reasons from its high nutrient density to its relatively convenient preparation. This consumer demand fueled the industrialization of of lettuce growing, picking, shipping, and packaging. (You can see modern day Ocean Mist Farms workers picking, shrink-wrapping, and sealing iceberg lettuce in this video.)

Starting in the mid-1930s, growers began pre-packaging produce, ushering in yet another definition of freshness that was clean, neat, and long lasting. Bagged lettuce remains popular today, from high status organic mesclun (AKA “yuppie chow”) to the comparatively nutritionally empty iceberg lettuce pictured here.

4. Fresh Fish

The story of fish provides yet another definition of freshness, one related to nature’s wild vitality, an ever diminishing resource. Fish has been preserved in a variety of ways, such as drying, salting, canning, or packing it in ice. Consumers have also desired fish that is fresh, wild, and just-caught, leading to high demands, overfishing, and fish farming.

While fruits and vegetables grow on farms, farmed fish draws an entirely different consumer reaction. Compared to the powerful, rustic vitality of wild fish, environmentalists, fisherman, an consumers alike view farmed fish as “toxic” and distasteful. The politics of the sea continue to write the next chapter in the freshness and wild nature of fish.

5. Buy Fresh Buy Local

As Friedberg so eloquently states in her history of freshness, “Consumers stopped expecting fresh food to be just-picked or just-caught or just-killed. Instead, they expected to find and keep it in the refrigerator.” The industrial food system that developed over the course of the twentieth century defied geography, defeated seasonality, and redefined freshness.

Consumers now resist the expectations formed by the industrial food system, as endorsed by Buy Fresh Buy Local campaigns, in effect redefining freshness, as more nostalgic and more local. These aims are reflected in the campaign logos, customized and localized to regions, states, and cities, depicting images in a style not unlike early twentieth century fruit and vegetable marketing, such as these produce crate labels.

Freshness has been defined differently throughout time, varying by product. What will “fresh” mean in the future?

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