Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jonathan Rees's "Refrigeration Nation"

Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University, Pueblo. His books include Representation and Rebellion: The Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914–1942 and Managing the Mills: Labor Policy in the American Steel Industry during the Nonunion Era.

Rees applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Refrigeration Nation is the first page of the chapter I wrote on the cold storage industry. If you think that sounds terribly boring, I don’t blame you at all, but let me try to explain to you why it’s not. To this day, cold storage serves as a place to keep perishable foods over time so that we can enjoy them out of season. As we have come to rely on more of these kinds of foods as part of our everyday lives, the more important this technology has become.

This chapter about the first days of cold storage explains why it was once one of the great controversies of America’s Progressive Era. Many consumers didn’t trust cold storage because they thought it was a way to charge the public more for perishable food and because they were afraid that refrigeration either affected the taste too much for the worse or even made those foods dangerous. Investigations eventually proved that cold storage actually evened out prices rather than increased them because it evened out the supply of any perishable food over time.

With respect to the healthfulness of food kept in cold storage, the critics had a better case. Cold storage really was unreliable in its early days. Warehousemen didn’t know what temperature or humidity to keep things. They didn’t realize that if you kept two kinds of foods together (like fish and butter, for example) the two could come out of cold storage smelling and tasting like each other. As time passed, though, cold storage got better. World War I, an era of food shortages, proved the crucial period for the American public accepting cold storage and we (nor the rest of the world for that matter) haven’t looked back since.

I do think this page and its subject are typical of the book as a whole. My goal in Refrigeration Nation is to get readers to appreciate parts of the modern refrigeration infrastructure (the “cold chain,” as refrigerating engineers put it) that they tend to take for granted. Since cold storage warehouses are out of the public eye and the food they preserve remains a crucial part of the American diet, it is easy to forget their controversial history. In the rest of the book, I try to do the same with other refrigeration technologies ranging from ice harvesting to household refrigerators.
Learn more about Refrigeration Nation at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue