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Monday, August 27, 2012

The fridge and the human food chain

I grew up in a house without a fridge but then again I grew up in Ireland which suffers neither extreme cold in winter or extreme heat in summer, thanks to the gulf stream. In summer, we had a cold box which was kept in a shed and was used to store milk and butter. Today, it is impossible to imaging a fridge free house in any developed country. The advent of mass use of refrigeration totally transformed the human food chain. Ice has of course long been a means of preserving perishable food but it was not until the start of the 19th century that the concept of the mass use of ice began to be developed. Frederic Tudor, also known as the “Ice king”, effectively started what was to become a big industry, the harvesting of large quantities of ice from naturally frozen waters and shipping it across long distances[1].  As the demand for ice grew, the technology for harvesting it also grew and one of Tudor’s suppliers invented a horse drawn ice plough that cut cut large uniform blocks of ice. Between 1827 and 1830, the price of ice fell from five cents to as low as half a cent. Like all natural resources, mother nature could help or hinder by way of winter temperatures, which meant that the price of ice fluctuated quite considerably. In the suburbs of Boston, ice was delivered daily to homes in blocks of fifteen pounds by the ice man with his horse drawn carriage. Between 1843 and 1856, Boston’s consumption of ice grew from 6,000 to 85,000 tons. The ice was placed in an ice box to preserve meats, milk and vegetables. Ice was also beginning to be used for the transport of food and in 1851 the first refrigerated rail car shipped butter from Boston to New York. In contrast to the US, ice was not widely used in Europe. In contrast to the US, European housewives shopped daily for their food. US consulates were asked about the likelihood of Europeans adopting ice boxes and the French consul replied thus: “In the great cities of Marseilles and Bordeaux butchering is done every day in winter and twice a day in summer, and the meat is cooked within a few hours of killing”. Indeed, in the great Parisian market, Les Hallles, it was generally forbidden for traders to keep stocks of one day’s foods to be sold the next day.
The idea of producing “winter-free” ice took off in the mid nineteenth century. Ice harvested from ponds was by no means pure and could be contaminated by debris, insects and dirt. Moreover. as the concept of food hygiene took off, the possibility that harvested ice might be contaminated by sewage was a worry. In addition the ice-man who delivered the daily block of ice was described as a national joke - uncouth and dirty. While mechanical refrigeration was developed in the mid 1850s, they units were very large, very noisy and quite dangerous, particularly in relation to fire hazards. The first domestic fridges were so large that they were installed in basements with the coolant piped up into the iceless box in the kitchen. By the turn of the twentieth century, the big manufacturing companies began to take an interest in domestic refrigeration: General Electric, Frigidaire (subsequently bought by General Motors) and Kelvinator (founded by ex-GM executives). The big switch was to move from a gas driven system to an electric system. In 1927, GE released its first compact domestic fridge, the Monitor Top. The market however still had to compete with the traditional ice box with harvested ice and they were not about to give up. The ice-man was given a uniform, ice boxes insulation was improved and external portals were developed so that ice could be delivered into the home with no one present. A marketing war broke out between harvested ice and the fridge. The fridge manufacturers hit back and produced booklets with recipes and emphasised the value of refrigeration for summer fruits.
In 1930, a Frigidaire engineer developed a new gas, freon, which was non-toxic, non-inflammable and required less pressure to achieve colder temperatures leading to even smaller motors and thus bigger space for food storage. The ice-man vanished. By 1940, half of all US homes owned a fridge and today, a home without a fridge in the developed world is unthinkable. Refrigeration transformed the human food chain allowing foods to be transported great distances to everyone’s economic gain. It transformed shops and shopping and with that it transformed lifestyles, liberating people from frequent and nearby shopping. Freshness became the expectation of the consumer with respect to food. All of this is exactly what the locavore movement would want to see reversed but as is sung in the famous Irish song, Galway Bay: “They might as well go chasing after moonbeams or light a penny candle from a star”.
Ironically, the gas that came to transform refrigeration was to be targeted as the main cause of the loss the earths ozone layer and thus alternatives to freon and other CFCs had to be developed. The Montreal Protocol was the international treaty that all countries signed up to  to eliminate CFC gases and it has been hailed as the most successful collaborative effort in relation to the environment.

The fridge lives on and is taken for granted in today’s food chain.

[1] Based on a chapter in “Freshness: a perishable history” by Susanne Freidberg, published by Harvard University Press 

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