History of refrigeration

It was strawberry season again.  Strawberries are so good and so inexpensive around here.  Despite the heavy rains in the early spring, late May promised beau coups of berries and we were ready with cash and trimming knives, the former to buy the berries, the latter to top and split them.  And sugar.  We had sugar, I confess.

We were getting ready to take a vacation, celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary, and would need to freeze the berries.  No big deal.  They’d be waiting for us when we returned.  So we bought, cut, sugared, and froze about four pounds of Mayberry’s strawberries and headed for Texas, secure in the knowledge that when we got back, we’d have dessert every night for a month already made.

What seems like a simple thing—throwing the plastic containers of berries into the freezer compartment of the fridge—is actually a modern miracle, and as we know, modern miracles have a way of transmogrifying into modern nightmares.  Many of the things we grew up thinking were so good for our health turn out to be bad, and later, some of them turn out to be good again, or at least okay.

Freezing food is an example: is it a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing?

Englishman Greg Jenner in his must-read book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious  History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, reminds us that there was a time when being unable to preserve food could be a killer.  Speaking of refrigerator/freezers, Jenner states that, “Now of course, it’s an indispensable technology that most of us can’t live without, but for about 99 percent of human history people managed to do exactly that… long-term preservation was a perennial problem.  A poor harvest, uncooperative weather, or perhaps a beetle infestation was all it took for our ancestors to be cast into the hellish jaws of famine.”  People could, Jenner asserts, languish, lie down, starve, and die next to a field laden with some fruit or grain that our hunter-gatherer (but not preserver) ancestors simply had no clue how to process.

Food preservation has always been a crucial part of survival, as Jenner points out, because without a means to preserve at least some part of what we eat, humans are faced with limited, or even mono-cuisine, or temporary periods of near-starvation, and overall, a lack of the variety that the omnivore craves.

Spices provided an early preservation medium; whole cultures have been constructed around exotic spices—Indian food, bar-b-cue…  Salt was another important preservative.  Daniel Boone had his own salt lick and was proud of it.  But spices and salt have flavor, flavor that overcomes the flavor of the food.  Some people don’t like having the taste of their food blasted away by salt, chilies, or cumin.

But ice has no discernible flavor, as Eskimos and other far-northerners knew.  So ice gradually gained ascendancy as a kipper-and-quiche-keeper in America.  At first, it was mainly the wealthy individuals who had access to ice on a continuous basis.  They (or their slaves) could build special containers, a.k.a. houses, just for their ice supplies, hiding winter’s bounty deep down in the earth.  I saw my first icehouse as a child, visiting the grand historic home of Henry Clay; there can be no doubt as to who dug his underground freezer or fetched the ice for his mint juleps.

history of Refrigeration 2

Selling ice and making it available to ordinary folks became a booming American industry in the latter part of the 1800s, when Frederick Tudor, a.k.a. “The Ice King,” got the idea of shipping ice by the boatload from up in New England to the ice-deprived regions down south.  Following this idea with the construction of ice warehouses and ice cars on railroad lines, Tudor’s vision allowed people in seaports like New Orleans and Charleston, and later Houston and other land-locked cities, to realize that food need not always be fresh, need not always be seasonal.  It could be kept for days or months with the right amount of the silvery stuff.  It had its drawbacks of course—ice will melt, as we all know, at the rise of even a few degrees.  So Tudor helped his business along in the hottest spots by developing insulating materials that decreased melting losses by a considerable margin.  He devised a method of quickly and cheaply cutting uniform blocks of ice, which transformed the ice industry, making it possible to speed handling, storage, transportation, and distribution, with less waste.

It was not just food preservation, though, that kept men like Tudor seeking to build a better ice cube.  There were other reasons why western cultures wanted to beat the heat.  For one, it was a prevalent belief, bolstered by the experience of colonialist powers like Great Britain, that hot climates were inherently unhealthy.  People in hot African and Asian countries seemed to lack the hustle and bustle of Londoners and therefore needed to be cooled off a bit and forced to work harder at enriching their conquerors.  Heat was held directly responsible for many tropical diseases like malaria.  Heat stimulated the sin of lust.  Along with all these medical and moral concerns, the ideal of cooling an entire house without slave-powered fans was waiting in the wings.

Especially in cities, the ice man gradually became a cultural fixture; and strange boxes made of zinc and insulated with sawdust sat stolidly in urban kitchens by the turn of the 19th century.  With ice on the top and food crammed in a box underneath, the contraption became a standard feature in the kitchens of about 50% of America’s population, making the regular visit from the ice man with his wagon and giant tongs a necessity.

But then people found out that even ice had problems.  Though it might lack taste, real ice harvested in the wild came with pollutants, including animal poop. Ice was making people sick, and getting a bad reputation.

It was time for science to step in.

William Cullen was a Scot experimenter in the early 1700s who played around with the possibilities of the evaporation of liquids in a vacuum.  In the 1800s, Englishman Michael Faraday liquefied ammonia to cause cooling.  Modern compression-refrigeration systems operate on a concept adapted from Faraday’s experiments involving compressing gas into a liquid which will then absorb heat; in so doing it returns to gas.  This is a simple explanation of what happens inside a home refrigerator, freezer, air conditioner, or dehumidifier.

Once the technology was available, large companies that could afford it, began making artificial ice.  It was clean, lean, and definitely cold.  But not immediately available to ordinary folks.  Yet the ice-made-in-a-box (and not directly by the sweet breath of Mother Nature) would spawn many important innovations that changed our way of life permanently.  One major change was refrigerated railroad cars.  Cattle ranching, meat packing, and the railways formed a magic triangle of ingenuity, prosperity, and gluttony.  Americans were well on their way to becoming unrepentant beef-avores, suddenly able to enjoy fresh steaks first in restaurants like Delmonico’s (hence the dish “Delmonico steak”), and then at home, anytime, all the time.

When artificial ice production became cheaper, by the 1930s, iceboxes were a thing of the past, and refrigerators with “freezer compartments” ruled.  Suddenly most urban Americans could not only buy meats and vegetables out of season but could keep these foods to eat later, anytime, all the time.

Still, it took an experimenter with a funny, now iconic name, to get the frozen-food fad up and humming.  Clarence Birdseye, who had worked in Labrador as a young man, had memories of freezing his catch of fish to eat on another day.  He noted that such fish was firm, not mushy like comparable products being developed in the U.S.  Birdseye had a theory that food frozen in a frozen atmosphere held up better than food frozen in a warm ambiance.  By the late 1920s, he had invented what was known as “flash freezing”—smashing foods between two super-cooled metal plates.  He strove successfully to recreate the arctic-frozen-fish experience.  Being an engineer with an entrepreneurial spirit, Birdseye soon had a line of frozen foods ready for the American housewife, including seafood, meat, veggies, fruit, and later, whole dinners served up in a rather military little tray.  But housewives weren’t buying.  For one thing, stores weren’t selling, unwilling to invest in the specialized display cases required to market Birdseye’s delicacies.  The main buyers were commercial—shipping and rail lines and institutions that could afford the equipment, and that typically fed people who didn’t complain about the quality of their meals.

Then came World War II, when the Japanese took over much of the globe’s tin production and canning—up to that point, the dominant means of food storage—was under serious threat.  Tin was rationed.  People turned their cans into the government for war use.  Frozen food started to creep out of the train cars and lower decks of ships, to find its rightful place among American groceries.  Birdseye and others began to remarket frozen full meals: meat and two veggies, and later a dessert was added.  In the 1950s, Birdseye (who could not have predicted that a war would make his name a household mantra) and others of his ilk, were able to offer an extensive product line.  Including fish sticks.  Frozen fish sticks.  Thanks to Clarence Birdseye, a whole generation of kids like me grew up thinking fish were square.

Nowadays, the American housewife knows no limits to what she can feed her family, or from how far away it has come.  Packaging has made frozen foods taste better, and advances in the process continue to make frozen foods more appetizing and, well, almost, next-best-thing-to fresh.  Frozen bread, frozen bread dough, frozen pickles, frozen pickle pops, frozen pizza, frozen fondue (well, I may be kidding about that one).

We all know that frozen foods are convenient.  But how important is convenience?  Some of us want to live off the grid.  Is it possible to live without the preservative powers of extreme cold?  Isn’t the fridge/freezer one of those blessings of modernity, like cell phones, that no one really wants to do without?

Well, not necessarily.  Unusual though they may be, there are people who live a low-to-no-electricity lifestyle: hunting and gathering, very thrift-conscious, and/or prepping for the end times.  Surprisingly, it is possible to get by without cooling your food.  You can, as I learned when I lived in England in the 1980s, do without the ubiquitous ice water so dear to the hearts of American diner diners, and—shock/horror!—without ice-cold beer.  Yes, it is possible to consume beer in a mug that is not so frost-covered that it tears the skin off your hand.

Preppers extol the virtues of living without refrigeration.  Yes, you can have a back-up generator, but how long does that last in a true emergency?  So the Provident Prepper (for one good example) suggests going back about 2-3 generations, to the practical preservation schemes of great-grandma and great-grandad.  A lot of produce—root vegetables, hard fruits—can be stored under the house or buried, yes, buried in the cold, cold ground.  Remove light and you remove heat.  Your taters will keep longer in the dark.

In my article about locavores, I recounted the visionary pronouncements of Edgar Casey who was convinced that the farther a food travels from its source, the less healthy it is.  Clearly, this same principle applies not just to distance, but to the varying levels of tampering that our foods are subjected to nowadays… and that has to include freezing.

However, freezing is not an absolute evil; as we have seen, it is also a miracle that has kept, and is still keeping people alive who might otherwise have gone hungry; and offering almost unbelievable variety (whether “variety” is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is another discussion for another day).  So we must temper our attitude towards coldness, embracing it when it helps us and rejecting some of its extremes.

I for one reject “frozen dinner” products (sorry, Mr. Birdseye) as nearly always being a disappointment when compared to the item cooked by real people from scratch.  I accept simple frozen vegetables that if bought fresh would probably not be fresh anyway.  And the strawberries.  I like the strawberries.

Eatingwell.com has an interesting perspective: some foods may improve by freezing, if only because of volume: “There’s a reason Popeye reached for a can of spinach rather than a fresh bunch.  He knew that he could get more bang for his buck.  You can squeeze a lot of spinach into a can or a box, delivering more spinach in less volume. (You would have to eat a mountain of fresh to get what you can in a 10-ounce box of frozen.)  We prefer frozen spinach over canned—it’s got better flavor and is lower in sodium—but the same principle applies.  One cup of frozen spinach has more than four times the amount of nutrients, such as fiber, folate, iron, and calcium, than a cup of fresh spinach, so if you want to power up, do it with frozen spinach.”  EatingWell also rates frozen peas as superior to fresh, because the freeze process retards the conversion process that causes peas and other foods to move from sugar to starch to blah, when left to their own devices.

For my mother’s generation, home refrigerators with freezer compartments and the frozen foods in them were a great blessing… not just because she fully believed the advertising and felt secure about the safety and healthiness of brands like Birdseye and Swanson that she could purchase in any supermarket… but because she herself could now preserve foods without jars or rings or vats of boiling water.  Frozen food definitely took the sweat out of food storage.  It wasn’t long before we had a home freezer, and once we had left the rural life for city comforts, Mother could still buy cheap.  She could “put up” strawberries, peaches, greens, and meat, purchased in bulk and in season, lightly spiced and placed in cartons stored to be served months later. On days when Mother was tired, on days when she was extra busy, or just because someone wanted to taste the peaches in November to be reminded of July and trips to the country, she could pull something out of the freezer.

Like Mother, most moderns are not going to give up refrigerators or freezers.  Though our other mother (Ms. Nature) may pitch a hissy fit, cold as a means of food preservation has spread from the northernmost part of the globe to just about any place where electricity is available.  As Jenner says, “…We should be grateful that, this morning, there is food to be found inside our fridge…”

As I head to the freezer to get a frozen mug in which to pour a highly unnaturally chilly synthetically produced “lite” beer for my hubby to swig as he works outside tending his latest organic tomato crop, I offer this final tip: your frozen comestibles will stay coldest at the back of the freezer, away from the opening and shutting of the door.  And if you do have a power outage, stay away from that freezer! The food inside will remain frozen for two days at least, and opening the door or the lid before that time has elapsed only speeds up the warming process.


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