Fresh: A Perishable History
by Susanne Freidberg

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-674-03291-0.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 09/01/2009

Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

For most of her life, my grandmother kept her milk, eggs, and butter in the spring house on her Missouri farm. Through the 1940s, my mother subscribed to a twice-weekly delivery of ice for her icebox, and in 1951, bought a Crosley "Shelvadore." I have a refrigerator-freezer that makes ice and dispenses cold water, and another freezer for garden vegetables and fruits. Times have changed.

In Fresh: A Perishable History, Susanne Freidberg opens the refrigerator door on a fascinating aspect of our modern American food culture: how the search for "fresh" food has shaped what we buy, cook, and eat. We take the refrigerator so much for granted that it's almost impossible to imagine what eating was like before—and what it is like now for those who can't afford to participate.

But we didn't always have ice on demand and mechanical refrigeration has been around for only a century. In her first chapter, Freidberg's first chapter establishes the technical context for her discussion of the extraordinary changes that have taken place in our diets and eating habits in the last hundred years. The "cold revolution" changed the geography of fresh food, she says, making it possible for perishable foodstuffs to travel around the globe and for seasonally-available fruits, vegetables, and meat to appear on our tables year-round. Refrigeration gives us the ability to consume very old food and still happily imagine it as "fresh."

Take meat, for instance. As hunters, humans have always eaten wild meat, but Freidberg points out that eating domesticated animals has been, until recently, a "seasonal and regional luxury." Most people ate plant-based diets with the occasional addition of locally grown and processed meat. But after refrigerated railcars (chilled first with ice, then mechanically) made it possible to deliver meat from the meat-packing center of Chicago to consumers on the East Coast, "fresh" beef became less of a luxury and more of a perceived necessity. "Mobile meat," dependent on cross-country and global transport, convinced consumers "not only that fresh beef could come from far away, but also that their main relationship to meat—and indeed, to all once-living foods—was as consumers." This helped to create the disconnect that now plagues us,

between cities and their pastured hinterlands, between shoppers and their neighborhood butchers, and between people who bought the meat and those who dressed it in faraway slaughterhouses (p. 65).

But refrigeration didn't affect just meat, and it has created other hidden effects that we don't often think about" Consider this:

  • The "cold chain" allows us to have fresh eggs throughout the year and permits egg producers to create larger and larger egg-producing factories with detrimental impacts both on the local environment and on local small-farm competitors.
  • Refrigeration (enhanced by huge industry-funded marketing efforts) encourages us to desire beautiful if bland and tasteless out-of-season fruit. Advertising has taught us that "beauty is a mark of freshness," a beauty that is rarely more than skin deep.
  • Refrigeration enables us to enjoy fresh vegetables without going to the work of growing them ourselves, and disguises the "hidden dependence" of growers on cheap, often undocumented migrant labor. The value we place on fresh vegetables, Freidberg says, has "contributed to the historic undervaluing of the human labor that produces them."

Fresh makes one thing abundantly clear. Our contemporary American food culture is totally dependent on refrigeration. Without it, we would have no meat, eggs, milk, vegetables, fruit, or fish, except what we could grow ourselves or purchase locally, for immediate consumption. As Freidberg points out, refrigeration enables us to enjoy a richly varied and much safer diet. But because of it, we have become a culture of consumers dangerously removed from the work of managing our food and suffering from the ills created by overconsumption of meat, the injustice of cheap labor, and the depletion of natural resources. The "Cold Revolution" has created a comfortable world that may be too costly to sustain.

Susanne Freidberg grew up in Portland, Oregon, and attended Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley. Besides Fresh and her previous book, French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age. She is an Associate Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College, where she teaches class on food and agriculture, globalization, and international development. Read more on her website.

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