What ‘fresh’ means in this day and age
The 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has a lavish description of a Christmas feast in King Arthur’s court. The anonymous poet goes into raptures about the splendor and variety of the food, but mentions only one specific item: “Plenty of fresh meat” — so much meat that it was hard to find space on the table. Clearly, it was the highlight of the feast.
Indeed, for many centuries after the poem was written, Christmas was the only season when meat was plentiful. Farmers slaughtered many animals in late fall because they could not easily feed them through the winter. During the rest of the year, meat would have been salted or smoked, or entirely unavailable — certainly to poorer people — so fresh meat was greeted rapturously.
Seven centuries later the adjective “fresh” still signals good things about food. What menu doesn’t note that its breakfast includes fresh juice and farm-fresh eggs; its salad is composed of fresh greens; its fish is fresh from the ocean?
At Thanksgiving, supermarkets warn us that fresh turkeys are better than frozen (and pricier). We’re told children need fresh milk and that eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables is the way to health and slimness.
The assumption is that we know what fresh means. However, as Susanne Freidberg points out in the introduction to her book “Fresh: A Perishable History,” the Food and Drug Administration discovered it could not easily define it. Some of the problems it encountered when trying to regulate its application to food is that pasteurized milk is considered fresh because we expect milk to be pasteurized (and it is difficult to buy raw milk), but pasteurized juice is not considered fresh. Waxed or irradiated fruit is still considered fresh, even though waxing and irradiation extend its life span by months. Weeks-old food can be called fresh if it has been constantly refrigerated. Even canned crabmeat can legally be called fresh because many people have no access to fresh crabmeat.
Despite these varied uses, “fresh” remains a potent word in our current phase of culinary history. For excellent reasons, cooks and food experts are emphasizing the taste and healthfulness of locally grown and, therefore, fresh foods. Their advice is the more appealing because economists and environmentalists point to the vast expense of energy involved in shipping food thousands of miles from where it’s grown to where it is pur- chased and consumed. All this has led to a new word, “locavore,” to describe those who chose to eat only foods from local producers — often defined as those within a 100 miles.
Ironically, though, the foods from distant places that locavores shun reach us courtesy of technologies developed to get fresh food to people who would not otherwise have it — notably town dwellers of 19th-and early 20th-century America and Europe. Refrigeration was the earliest of all these technologies.
Charles Tellier, the French engineer who invented the first use- ful refrigeration procedures, had immense trouble persuading his countrymen and other Europeans that refrigeration was even faintly useful, since most of them shopped for food daily, usually buying no more than they would eat that day.
But in America, and especially in Britain, his efforts were welcomed. One reason is that, historically, the British had been great meat eaters — as that feast in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” shows. Britain had also been the first country to industrialize, so its large population mostly lived in towns and had lit- tle opportunity to buy meat from local farms. Refrigerated meat was soon accepted by the working class, and vast fleets of refrigerated ships kept them supplied with beef from the United States, Argentina and Australia. Similarly, in America, refrigeration railroad cars were bringing beef from the plains to the cities. Eventually, refrigeration made it possible to preserve eggs, fruit and vegetables for months at a time. Fish is more perishable and must be kept chilled the old way — on ice.
Numerous new technologies — including irradiation, genetic modification, fish farming, the selective breeding of animals and poultry and the creation of vast agribusinesses — now also help supply us with “fresh” food of almost every kind at almost every time. Ms. Freidberg traces the history of these technologies, and even more important, explores their linked effects, not only in America, but also in less developed countries. In these countries, farmers labor at growing out-of-season vegetables, and factories prepare fish and seafood for American and European markets.
Clearly, many of the effects on people and animals are undesirable, even disastrous. Ms. Freidberg neither ignores these problems nor thumps the table about them. She writes lucidly and marshals her facts so they strike with impact. She sees fresh food as a system on which businesses, farmers, shippers and each of us depend. The system works to provide many benefits, not least of them plentiful and varied food. But should the system be changed?
Few can read this thought-provoking book without thinking that although the benefits of modern food production are real, they are bought at an extravagant price. We could, if we tried, be more sensible in our demands on farmers, more resistant to the lures of advertisers, more thoughtful about the origins of our food, and more alert to the effects food production has on the environment and the people who produce it. Ms. Freidberg’s book is a good place to start because it unravels the tangle of science and economics that puts food on our tables. Readers will find that the word “fresh” will never be quite the same again.
Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.