Already for several years has there been a popular proliferation of books that brandish a designation of “Social History” on the bottom of their back cover. This is one of the obvious if somewhat delayed results of “history going total” in the vein of Marc Bloch’s famous book Apologie pour l’histoire, which marked a break with former view of history as something that deals only with important things. As Bloch, and in his wake a whole new generation of historians argued, everything has history and thus history is total.
Nowadays, one can find a book about the history of pretty much anything. One of the freshest – pardon the pun – books that draw upon this trend is FRESH: A perishable history by Susanne Freidberg, published by Harvard University Press last month and reviewed in TLS of April 17. There have been several pop-historical publications on food and eating recently, such as Salt: A World History by Kurlansky, Spice: The History of a Temptation by Turner, The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Zuckerman, The True History of Chocolate by Coe, Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Abott, along with some older books that have acquired a status of something classic such as Mintz’s Sweetness and Power or Goody’s Food and Love – and I could go on and on. Fresh, while in one way firmly in the same tradition, is at the same time somewhat different. It takes a close look at our current obsession with “freshness” – an “idea that emerged to fill the conceptual ellipsis that resulted from removing the site of production from the sight of consumers”. If we all grew our carrots, farmed our cows and caught our fish, there would be no need to ask “is it fresh?” – and actually the very same line could also be extended to the craze about organic food. It is precisely because we have lost our personal relation to the food we consume, and because we have it, collectively, in such abundance as never before in history that we have became obsessed over how exactly is it produced. We want it 100% natural in our stores and supermarkets that are anything but. We want to know that our apples have been grown by human sweat alone without any fertilizers, and we want to know that chikens we eat lived happy lives and died with no pain. Not only this – we also demand “permanent global summertime”, with all the fruit and vegetables being both available and fresh all year round.
The TLS review faults Freidberg for the “lack of conviction” and not taking her stance vis-à-vis all the issues she describes – which actually didn’t bother me much at all. There are plenty of books around that do that – Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is the first port of call for anyone looking for a political manifesto on modern American food, but there are several others. Freidberg’s book is an entertaining as well as enlightening view that plays on the old adage – you are what you eat – and as such we all may be a lot less fresh than we’d like to think.