You’re god damn lucky. You really are. Out of all of the hominids born in the last few million years, you were born at a time of abundant energy and refrigeration. Yes, refrigeration – and on top of that, you were born into a society geographically situated and historically fortunate to be disproportionately wealthy, and actually have access to refrigeration. Most people take a technology like refrigeration for granted, not considering the profound ways in which it has altered what you eat, when you can eat, where it comes from, and ultimately who controls the system that produced it. ‘Artificial cold’ is a blessing to be sure, but it is also a curse. To what degree does refrigeration serve you, and to what degree do you serve refrigeration? How secure is our food system, and to what is the cost of artificial cold?
Aside from the wealthy aristocrat chilling a beverage, or having his servants concoct a frozen treat, few early 19th century North American inhabitants had any use for refrigeration – why would they be concerned over a problem they aren’t even cognizant of? People would have been getting along fine, more or less, utilizing traditional methods to grow, harvest, prepare, cook, and preserve foods. Certainly, a few individuals made use of ice harvested in winter lakes to help transport perishables to market, but generally speaking, the ice industry would require decades to mature, and to the early observers, success was not guaranteed.
A man by the name of Frederic Tudor got the hair-brained idea to ship ice, harvested in the northeast, to ports in southern latitudes. The frozen water was to serve as ballast on a ships southern route, the ice would be sold to individuals or businesses unaccustomed to such things, and the ship would return laden with cargo destined for northeastern ports. The enterprise was initially an abject failure, as he had no place to store the ice once arrived in port, which wasn’t the dilemma it sounds like because little to no ice would survive the trip. However, with perseverance, better insulation techniques, improved harvesting methods, and the establishment of a viable ice market, Tudor found success, even if he was constantly plagued with financial woes.
Long distance and international transport of ice would ultimately pale in size against the domestic market within the United States. Almost every food would be affected by ice and refrigeration: dairy, beef, hog, chicken, fish, produce, and even beer. In the 20th century, refrigeration technology would change the homes we live in, where they are located, the commercial structures we do business in, and make possible all sorts of industrial processes.
Over the span of a century or so, refrigeration became an inextricable linchpin in our food system. No longer would people be limited to the produce available in their geographic region. Shipped from far and wide, stored in warehouse cold rooms, these foods were shifted temporally by making them available out of growing season, their ripening and decay artificially prolonged by the colds tempering of the bacteria on and within the skins. Grown on larger and more consolidated plots of land, where fruits and vegetables could be cultivated in more ideal conditions, then transported from afar to the market with the greatest demand, and at the greatest profit. Railroads crisscrossed the nation, and new communication systems helped to ensure a timely and efficient delivery. This bounty was now obtainable by a citizenry of new urbanites, wealthier perhaps than their forebears, packed into dense, sprawling cities, they were participants in the burgeoning market economy, and participate they did. All the while they became distanced from the source of their food, more commodity than sustenance.
The beef industry changed too. At one time, it was far less consolidated than we find today, as cattlemen had to drive their herds into the cities where they would be slaughtered for hasty consumption. Live cattle could be transported via rail, but at considerable expense, so dismemberment and curing was another practice as well. Growing cities could no longer burden themselves with the foul smells, and unsanitary detritus of slaughterhouses feeding millions of urban dwellers. Iced railcars and cold rooms would change all of this. Now ranches with thousands of cattle could be fattened on mid-west grain, butchered, chilled on ice, then shipped off to markets countrywide. Monopolistic tendencies were quick to rear themselves with beef barons joining the ranks of the fabulously wealthy and powerful.
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