US: Book review: What 'fresh' means
Posted: May 26th, 2009 - 10:42am
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 purchased 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.
Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.