What ‘fresh’ means in this day and age

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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