Friday, January 27, 2012

An Interview with Susanne Freidberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History

Whether a devout vegan or hardcore carnivore, almost all of us want to know how fresh our food is (or was).  But what does it mean for food to be fresh?  How does food stay- or in some cases, become- fresh?  And what, exactly, does freshness do for us?

Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History takes on those questions.  The reader will discover quickly that there are few definitive answers.  So how did freshness become so important?  

Ms. Friedberg kindly agreed to speak with me about some of the early history of modern fresh food, the local food movement and how much our quest for freshness has altered our food system and even our food.

Would it be fair to say that your book documents part of the story of the creation of our modern food system?

In a word, yes. But many books have told that story. My point in Fresh was to show that freshness—a food quality that we tend to consider natural and naturally appealing—is in fact a product of this modern food system. I also wanted to show how freshness came to be valued as an antidote to the ills and downsides of modern industrial life. I don’t just mean antidote in the nutritional sense, though I think it’s significant that in the 1920s fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products were called “protective” foods. Freshness also became associated with other qualities that early 20th century consumers felt nostalgia for, such as purity and vitality.

What were some of the concerns about the healthiness of refrigerated and frozen food?  Once refrigeration and freezing became acceptable technologies, what were some of the supposed health benefits of shipped foods?

In the early days of refrigeration—meaning the 1870s and ‘80s—consumers often had good reason to distrust the foods it touched. For starters, the technology itself was not very reliable, due to erratic temperature control and poor insulation in cold storage warehouses. But the bigger problem was how merchants used the technology to store goods that were already bad, such as rotten eggs, or fish unsold at the end of a market day. It was easy enough to blame cold storage itself for the poor quality of whatever came out of it. The problem with this kind of scapegoating was that consumers came to believe that refrigeration really was the source of harm. They thought that even if the food looked, smelled and possibly even tasted fine, it might actually be somehow spoiled. This notion faded after the first decade of the 20th century, but even then consumers were suspicious of merchants that used refrigeration to manipulate the availability (and price) of seasonal foods.

Eventually shipped fresh foods came to be valued for the variety and vitamins they added to the middle class daily diet. The popularization of vitamin science in the 1920s provided support for the idea that consumers needed fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products everyday and ideally all year round. So did consumers’ growing preoccupation with calorie-counting and staying slender.

You write the story of a number of different foods: beef, milk, eggs, fish, lettuce and fruits- even, in a way, the story of ice.  I'm guessing a lot of people reading this will be as surprised as I was to learn that eggs used to be a seasonal food.  Which food yielded the most surprises for you?

The history of eggs contained the most surprises, because I also didn’t know they used to be seasonal. Nor, it turns out, did most people I told about this, including those of older generations. But if you think about it, other birds lay eggs seasonally, so why wouldn’t chickens?  It certainly makes evolutionary sense, in that chicks hatched in spring would be more likely to survive than those hatched in fall or winter. Similarly, many of the ways that people used to procure fresh foods—walking beef cattle hundreds of miles to market, keeping dairy cows in the middle of cities, transporting live fish by barge (still practiced, by the way, in East Asia)—might now seem surprising to us, or at least extreme. But they were in fact practical adaptations to the highly perishable nature of highly desirable foods. Given the constraints, in other words, they made sense. Refrigeration and rapid transportation have changed what we consider commonsensical about freshness.

There are things that make locally grown food attractive (particularly supporting local businesses in a weakened economy), but is that a realistic option for everyone?  Can everyone afford that? If they could, is that going to provide sufficient food for everyone?

As a geographer, one of my first questions is always: what scale? If local means 50 or 100 miles from market, then no, an entirely local food supply is not a realistic option for New England, among other places. Alongside the climatic limitations (even many ardent locavores would prefer not to give up coffee and olive oil!) are spatial ones, especially if the average American diet continues to include a lot of livestock products. That said, increasing the proportion of fresh foods sourced locally would be viable, given adequate infrastructure and support for farmers. Such support might include government loans or subsidies to make farmland more affordable in densely populated regions, because this is currently a big obstacle (and one of the reasons local food sometimes costs more).

So some re-localizing and re-regionalizing of food supply is certainly possible and— if fuel prices continue to rise—likely. But I don’t think it should be a top priority for food system transformation (and I say that as a longtime farmers’ market shopper). For one, there’s now abundant evidence that local food does not always have a smaller environmental impact. For another, while it’s appealing to support local businesses—especially businesses run by people we come to know and care about—it’s not entirely clear why their proximity makes them automatically more deserving of our support than businesses elsewhere. The idea that nearby farmers treat their land and workers better than do farmers elsewhere—well, it may often be true, but it also reflects what we like to think about an imagined local community, and what we fear about the distant and unknown. We often hear these days how important it is to know where your food comes from. Well, I’d prefer to know that I could trust my food regardless of where it comes from. Or, to put it in less pie-in-the-sky terms: Getting to know food producers can be educational and socially satisfying. But the health and wellbeing of people, animals and the environment—wherever they are—should be protected by laws; they should not depend on our figuring out who seems like the most trustworthy farmer at the market.

Along the same lines, measures to promote local food will not by themselves do anything about the sharp geographic inequalities even within our own country, not to mention across the world.  Would a more just food system be one in which the immense disposable food income of New York City only flowed into the Hudson River Valley? That’s an extreme example, but the point is, I think it’s dangerous to assume without questioning that “local” means greener, fairer, healthier, or better, period.

What would you like to see readers do with what they learn from your work?

Question their assumptions about what they think is fresh, and why that matters.

For more on food, globalization and nostalgia, please see my interviews with Charles Mann and Pankaj Ghemawat.