Future Chill

UP Reefer cars

Lydia Sigourney’s 1854 lament about progress speaks to the emergence of a desire for mobility, for travel at increasing rates of speed:  “We plod after it in our antique, lumbering stage-coaches, and can scarcely keep in sight the smoke of its engine. We can not overtake it, and it will not stay for us.” It isn’t just about the speed though; it’s a matter of climate control. Food, one of our most basic “goods,” is endlessly tangled up in the need for speed and narrow spectrums of climate.

The shift from live food to dead food began in earnest with the introduction of the refrigerated railroad car in the 1880s. Shipments of live cattle began to drop, while shipments of beef carcasses increased dramatically. By 1900, there were approximately 68,000 refrigerated railway cars in service. In California, refrigerated cars were introduced around 1886 in an attempt to broaden the market for citrus crops. Living in Central New York, I find myself a short distance from the Erie Canal, a railway shipping terminal, and the New York State Thruway (a toll road with multiple interstate highway components). Shipping history weaves its way across upstate NY in a fairly dramatic fashion.

The towpaths of the Erie Canal speak to its leisurely pace. Mules towing barges are not really rapid transit. The history of refrigerated water transport is fraught and not nearly as explosive as railway commerce, though the Anchor liner Circassia brought a cargo of chilled beef from the US to London using a  Bell-Coleman dense-air machine in 1879, and in 1880, the Strathleven shipped beef, mutton, butter and kegs, from Melbourne to London — a 9-week voyage. By 1900, reefer ships were primarily used to bring fruit from far away places.

A quick trip to the local supermarket this morning found me following an elderly man with a jacket that read “once a canaler, always a canaler.” He was moving at an incredibly slow pace, discussing where to start shopping with his wife.  I had to google what “canaler” meant when I got home. Apparently, it either means a person who fishes the Erie Canal or a person who drives freight boats down it. One site claims that the Erie is staging a comeback as a shipping corridor but I’ve really not seen much evidence of that.

The biggest explosion in food shipping came with the development of the Interstate highway system, a decentralized mode of transport that broke the stranglehold of the railways. The big news was simply this: with refrigerated trucks, the reach of the local farm finally grew past fifty miles. Fresh produce could be taken anywhere. We moved from a live food system to new sort of “freshly killed” (or recently taken from the ground) system. Transnational shipping wasn’t as significant as interstate commerce in the US, though the result was an expansion of “local” beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Citrus in the north where it won’t normally grow; cold weather fruits and vegetables in the south. Chicken, beef, and pork everywhere— without the smell of the farmyard. Food of all sorts, extracted from its dirt and chilled to perfection.

Perfection for Clarence Birdseye involved turning everything into frozen bricks to build a hedge against time— “fresh frozen,” that wonderful oxymoron, came into being at the same time as refrigerated transport was being perfected. Of course, climate control doesn’t simply mean addressing the need to keep things cool so they won’t spoil, but also the need to keep things from freezing when you don’t want them to. Citrus, for example, doesn’t deal with extreme cold well. It’s a problem in the North. An automobile race driver/mechanic named Fredrick McKinley Jones patented an interesting solution in 1949.

Fredrick McKinley Jones

Fredrick McKinley Jones, c. 1918

Heat-Pump-TruckJones patented an arrangement of a radial motor set up to directly drive a compressor and a blower on a single shaft, placed near the roof of a truck. The compressor can either refrigerate  or heat the interior depending on the transportation need. As early as 1939, he began marketing improvements to refrigerated transport with a partner, forming the Thermo-King corporation. Kings of the road, indeed. ones was he first African-American inducted into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. Jones’s innovations no doubt were driven partly by uniqueness of his location. He lived in Hallock, Minnesota, not far south of the Canadian border. One of the coldest areas in the US, Hallock is also fairly close to Fargo, North Dakota. An odd aside: The Cohen brothers film Fargo used Hallock to film all the shots that were supposedly in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Time, space, and temperature all have a unique influence on our food system. It’s been frustrating to find out that all the heavy cream in my area has been heated nearly to the point of disintegration (ultra pasteurized). You can’t really make cheese and other bacterially driven foods from it; it also tastes noticeably inferior to non-ultra pasteurized cream. The primary local dairy is trying to pioneer ESL (extended shelf life) milk. In other words, producing milk that might be free of the need for refrigeration. In 2008, they invested 28 million dollars in a local plant to make it possible to ship all of this sterile milk further and further from here.

I prefer the raw milk I can buy at a farm about five miles from my house. It tastes better. But the local farm doesn’t sell cream. While the big dairy proudly proclaims no growth hormones and such, it still kills the milk to ship it. Even the organic dairy stuff (probably processed in the same plant) is heated beyond recognition. For the time being, the local guys have a “fresh” line that isn’t ultra-pasteurized, but it’s hard to find outside their chain of local convenience stores.

The co-op serving local organic farmers (Organic Valley) don’t seem to care that they’re removing the taste from their milk to make it transportable. If I want full-line organic dairy that isn’t ultra-boiled, It seems that I have to drive all the way to the Hudson Valley (Battenkill Dairy is a favorite). The New York State Thruway makes that relatively painless, but time consuming. Often though, I’d rather wander across on State Route 5, flirting with the Mohawk river or the Erie canal along the way. In some sections, you can keep up with the trains. It takes more time, but I suppose I might be a canaler of a sort.

What it seems to boil down to is that in order to make more remote areas economically viable, we have to conquer space, time, and spoilage by killing every microbe in sight. To save small farms, we have to replace them with big farms and complex killing systems, sending our food away somewhere. It’s positively chilling.

I don’t think people like Fred Jones and Clarence Birdseye saw that coming. I’m sure they thought they were bringing fresh food to people, not eliminating the possibility of fresh food.