How refrigeration changed the way we eat

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Roy Rick, owner of Rick's Appliances in Burbank (center), smiles alongside other winners of a Frigidaire campaign, c. 1963. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Archives.

In recent years, the fermentation fad has heightened the way many diners experience some of the world’s best restaurants. If we travel back in time a century, the trend in food was something we very much take for granted today — refrigeration. In 2012, the Royal Society of Britain declared refrigeration the most important invention in the history of food and drink. Author, New Yorker contributor, and Gastropod co-host Nicola Twilley considers the cold chain and how keeping things frosty has changed the way we eat in her latest book, Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves.

Evan Kleiman: I'm so happy that you're back. Start off by telling us how much of what we Americans consume is touched by refrigeration.

Nicola Twilley: This is a tough number to figure out. I had to do some advanced math, which if anyone knows me, they know that's not my strength. But if you take all of the foods that are consumed by Americans — this is data you can get from the USDA — and you calculate which of those things pass through what I call the "cold chain," basically, refrigeration, refrigerated warehouses, refrigerated trucks, something that's kept cold on its way to us, you end up with something that's nearly three-quarters of everything we eat. That's probably an underestimate because the USDA data is for things like commodities, so I take out things like wheat but by the time that wheat is made into a frozen pizza base, it is being refrigerated. It's a lot, is the long and short.

I understand that we boast an estimated 5.5 billion cubic feet of refrigerated space.

Yes, the United States is the world leader in refrigeration, if nothing else. The United States has a ton of refrigerated space. Globally, there's more. It's really hard to picture that but I came to picture it as almost a third pole. It's funny because it's not all joined up, so we never think of it at the scale that it really is. But it's an enormous artificial winter. It just happens to be scattered around logistics, parks, and, you know, ports around the country.

In her research, Nicola Twilley visited Kraft cheese caves in Missouri and banana ripening rooms in New York. Photo by Rebecca Fishman.

You call these hidden spaces "the artificial cryosphere." What were some of the places that you ventured in your research that most of us will never get to see?

The natural cryosphere, of course, are the poles and the glaciers, the world's naturally cold spaces. The artificial cryosphere has its wonders too, fewer explorers but equal numbers of wonders, so I went to see some of them. There are, for example, in the Ozark region, huge underground former mines that are now refrigerated warehouses. I visited one in Missouri. It's vast. That's where Kraft stores most of its cheese. There are cheese caves in Europe. That's how we get Roquefort and Gruyere. Well, there are cheese caves in the US too. They're refrigerated warehouses in former limestone mines that are filled with Kraft cheese. 

There are some pretty spectacular places. I went to the largest juice tank farm in the US. That's on the East Coast, at the Port of Wilmington. That is where orange juice coming in from Brazil is stored in these enormous tanks [that are] many, many stories high. All the flavor is taken out so it can be stored and then added back when it's being bottled to be sold. There are some really strange places.

That is insane.

The stuff in the tanks is sugar water, essentially. The process of creating something that you can store under refrigeration means that you have to strip out all the oils and the volatiles but that has a side effect — when you add them back in, you can add them back in in the same ratio all the time. Anyone who has freshly squeezed orange juice knows that it will taste different at different times of the year, in different places, from different orange varieties. Well, guess what? Tropicana always tastes the same and that's how they do it.

Wow. Now, we have this infrastructure that allows us to not have to shop on a daily basis and to go into the supermarket where there are countless foods that weren't created yesterday and are stored for our convenience. What industries help create this environment for us?

We have beer to thank. There's an easy answer there. Actually, one of the theories for why humans first started farming is to have the grains to turn into beer. It's definitely the reason we invested in mechanical refrigeration — to make lager beer, specifically. The yeast for lager beer really doesn't like it when temperatures get above about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's very difficult to make in the US in the summer. 

In the mid-1800s, there was a huge influx of German immigrants to the US. They wanted to drink lager all summer long (who wouldn't?) but they were having a hard time making it, so they were the ones who invested the money. 

There was this new technology and the story of how it was invented involves a lot of explosions and a lot of luck. The industry that invested was the brewers. The first mechanical, refrigerated room for making beer was in Brooklyn. 

That's amazing. 

I know, cheers to that! Originally, people had an icebox, so the icemen would come around and deliver [ice]. Then, once mechanical refrigeration started to be made... the first machines to do this, they were the size of houses, and they were incredibly dangerous. You couldn't insure them, they regularly blew up. But once electricity became slightly more commonplace [and] the grid got rolled out, they weren't being powered by steam, so you could start to shrink them to home size. 

There were two options: an electric fridge or a gas-powered fridge. The gas-powered fridge had some advantages. It was much quieter, more reliable, fewer moving parts. But the electric fridge won and the reason why is GE really invested in it. They had all this money from Thomas Edison's patents. They thought of the fridge as a goldmine. Here's this appliance you plug into the electric outlet that runs 24/7, for the rest of eternity. Ka-ching! They made a movie in which a fridge goes to visit the North Pole. They spent a fortune marketing their electric fridge and that's what eventually caught on.

In the beginning, when refrigeration was first starting to roll out, people were very suspicious of it. Why were they so afraid?

It's the funniest thing because today, if something hasn't been in the fridge, if you leave it out on the counter for a couple of hours, people are terrified, like, is it still good to eat? It was the exact opposite 100 years ago. If you think about it, it makes sense. Before, if something was fresh, if it looked fresh, it had to have been harvested or killed recently, within the past day or two if not in front of you, and it couldn't have come from far away. Suddenly, here's this technology where you can buy a chicken that looks like it was slaughtered yesterday but it could have been slaughtered six months or a year ago. That was really unnerving. Consumers had known one thing and had to adapt to a completely different idea of what freshness meant. 

Also, in the early days, warehousemen didn't know how to use refrigeration, so they were like, "We've got this magic new tool. We'll take something out for sale. If it doesn't sell that day, we'll put it back in the fridge at night. It'll be good as new tomorrow." They didn't really understand that you want to keep meat at a different temperature from apples or they threw everything in together and figured this magic new tool would do the trick. Often it didn't, so people really were getting sick.

"Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves" chronicles the evolution of cool and how that shaped our diets. Photo courtesy of Penguin Press.

Could you describe the scene and the menu of the world's first cold storage banquet in Chicago in 1911?

The cold storage banquet was actually a PR campaign. People were very suspicious of cold stored foods so the National Poultry, Butter and Egg Association decided to hold a cold storage banquet in Chicago in 1911 to prove that you could eat refrigerated food and live to tell the tale. They invited everyone. There were congressmen, there were city officials. They were gathered in the banquet room of the city's finest hotel. The whole premise was that everything that was served, except for the olives in the dry martini, had been refrigerated. 

The menu was amazing. Rather than say, "This chicken was raised on this particular farm" or "This chicken is this particular breed," it said, "This chicken has been stored for six months at Booth's Cold Storage plant." Imagine a menu like that today with [info about] where your food had been stored. That's not even something we can imagine. It was a five course meal — turkey, eggs, salmon, apple pie. Even though apples were in season (this was October) the apples came out of cold storage. So did the butter. So did the eggs. Everything had been stored.

Could you give us some examples of basic American fare that was made possible by the refrigerated food system and this idea of saving the season?

My favorite example here is many people's favorite food, a cheeseburger. A cheeseburger is a refrigerated culinary icon. The idea of making a meat patty goes way back but being able to serve it with tomato, lettuce, and cheese all at the same time, in the same place, in the same season, that's thanks to refrigeration. 

The guy who figured this out is an open data activist called Waldo Jaquith. He decided to live this very off-grid lifestyle, raising his own chickens and growing his own vegetables. He wanted to make a project. He wanted to raise and make a cheeseburger from scratch, just to see if it could be done. Then he figured it really couldn't [be done] without refrigeration. 

If you were operating on a traditional agricultural calendar, slaughtering your meat in November, because that's when it gets cold enough, your cow then has its calf, for the milk for the cheese in the spring, because that's a traditional calendar, so you make the cheese then and your tomato is harvested in the summer. None of it can come together into the gorgeousness we know as a cheeseburger without a refrigerated food system.

Now, I'm gonna have to have a cheeseburger for dinner.

I'm sorry. You wash it down with an ice-cold Coca-Cola. That's something that doesn't work without refrigeration. Coca-Cola is way too sweet. Our basic taste receptors, sweet, bitter, sour, etc. Well, it turns out that sweet, bitter, and umami are very temperature-sensitive. So if the tongue is being cooled down by what you're eating or drinking to below 59 degrees, then those receptors go quiet. The signal they're sending to your brain is extremely muted. What that means is, if a Coke tasted great while it was warm, it wouldn't taste sweet enough when it was cold. You have to pump up the sugar in order for it to taste right over ice. Melted ice cream is also disgusting. 

Americans are famous for their love of ice water and cold drinks. If you go anywhere else in the world, you might be served tap water without ice in it. It's Americans who love everything iced. So there's a theory that this is why there's so much sugar in our food or it's one of the reasons. It won't taste right because we've numbed our taste receptors, so you have to pump up that sugar to get the sweet message through.