Science  /  Book Excerpt

How the Fridge Changed Flavor

From the tomato to the hamburger bun, the invention has transformed not just what we eat but taste itself.

In 2010, the open‐data activist Waldo Jaquith decided to make a cheeseburger from scratch, using only agrarian methods. He and his wife had just built a home in the woods of Virginia, where they raised chickens and tended to an extensive vegetable garden. Flush with pride in his self-sufficiency, Jaquith outlined the steps required: bake buns, mince beef, make cheese, harvest lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. Then he realized that he wasn’t nearly committed enough. To really make a cheeseburger from scratch, he would also need to plant, harvest, and grind his own wheat, and raise at least two cows, one for the dairy and another to be slaughtered for the meat.

At this point, Jaquith gave up. The problem wasn’t labor but timing. His tomatoes were in season in late summer, his lettuce ready to harvest in spring and fall. According to the seasonal, pre-refrigeration calendar he was trying to follow, Jaquith would have needed to make his cheese in the springtime, after his dairy cow had given birth: her calf would be slaughtered for the rennet, and the milk intended to feed it repurposed. But the cow that provided his beef wouldn’t be killed until the autumn, when the weather started to get cold. If Jaquith turned the tomatoes into ketchup and aged his cheese in a cellar for six months, until the meat, lettuce, and wheat bun were ready, he could maybe, possibly, make a cheeseburger from scratch. But practically speaking, he concluded, “the cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago.”

And, in fact, it did not. The cheeseburger is just one of many sensory pleasures made possible by a highly industrialized and refrigerated food system. More obvious ones include the delightful anticipation of pouring a crisp beer at the end of the day, the refreshing clink of ice cubes in a soft drink or a cocktail, and, of course, the joy of licking an ice-cream cone in summer. Brewers, such as Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch, were among the first to invest in mechanical refrigeration; without it, American-style lager beer was impossible to make year-round or at scale. David Wondrich, a historian of alcohol, has traced the cocktail back to a custom of drinking a blend of spirits, bitters, and sugar in Britain—but it wasn’t until such drinks met continual, affordable supplies of American ice, in the late nineteenth century, that the art of mixology was born. And though the ancient Chinese, Romans, and Persians all mixed snow or ice with fruit juice or dairy products to make chilled desserts, ice cream only became popular outside élite circles in the mid-eighteen-hundreds.