How the fridge changed taste

It was the most talked about food in the United States. In the weeks leading up to the luncheon, its organizers received so many requests for seats that they changed the venue to one of Chicago’s largest dining halls. Newspapers across the country covered the guest list, which included Chicago’s mayor and health commissioner; at least one member of Congress; dozens of bureaucrats from Washington, DC, New York and beyond; and many of the country’s most distinguished agricultural scientists.

The occasion for this excitement was the world’s first refrigerated banquet: a meal where only refrigerated foods are served. On Monday, October 23, 1911, more than four hundred guests sat among the curtains and gilding of the Louis XVI Room at the Hotel Sherman, spread out white linen napkins, and enjoyed a five-course, two-hour meal in which everything but the olive in their dry Martinis had spent months in cold stores. The menu proudly displayed each item’s most recent address: the salmon came from a brief stay at Booth’s Cold Storage, the chicken had lived in Chicago Cold Storage since December 1910, and the turkey and eggs had spent the past eleven and seven months, respectively. , in the Monarch cold store. Asked by reporter Meyer Eichengreen, vice president of the National Poultry, Butter and Egg Association, one of the event’s sponsors, he was happy to provide more details. “Your capon received his summons to the great obscurity around last Valentine’s Day,” he said. “And that egg in your salad—go ahead and eat it—well, some lucky hen got up from her nest and clucked over that egg when winter was just turning into spring.

At the time, there was widespread suspicion of refrigerated foods. Stomach infections and food poisoning were the leading cause of death in America, and many blamed the mysteries of cold storage, which suspended the natural decay of life and confounded all the clues—proximity of origin, appearance—previously used to determine whether food was safe to eat. . The Senate considered legislation that would set extremely short limits on how long meat, fish, eggs and butter can be refrigerated. In the face of this opposition, the banquet was an industry-backed attempt to show that cold storage was not only safe; it was proven to improve what was eaten. «This hotel has never served a better lunch,» said Lucien Fromente, Sherman’s executive chef. Harry Dowie, national president of the Poultry, Butter and Egg Association, saw the event as proof that chilled foods are not only perfectly tasty but, he said, «better than what we think of as fresh». Even Congressman Martin B. Madden agreed. «I do believe, as you say, that cold-raised poultry has more flavor than that advertised as fresh-killed,» he said, ready to spread the word in the nation’s capital.

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Today, nearly three-quarters of everything Americans consume is processed, packaged, shipped, and refrigerated. In the century since the Chicago banquet, the so-called cold chain—the shipping containers, trucks, warehouses, ripening rooms, tank houses, walk-ins and refrigerators that move food from farm to table — have changed what we eat, where it’s grown, the layout of our cities and homes, and the very definition of freshness. But perhaps its most notable imprint can still be found in how our food actually tastes, for better or for worse.

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

At this point, Jaquith gave up. The problem was not the work, but the timing. His tomatoes were in season in late summer, his lettuce ready for spring and fall harvest. According to the seasonal pre-cooling calendar he tried to follow, Jaquith would need to make his cheese in the spring, after his dairy cow had given birth: her calf would be slaughtered for the rennet and milk for feeding. reworked it. But the cow that provided him with beef would not be killed until autumn, when it began to cool. If Jaquith turned tomatoes into ketchup and let his cheese age in the cellar for six months until the meat, lettuce and wheat bun were ready, he might be able to make a cheeseburger from scratch. But practically speaking, he concluded, «the cheeseburger could not have existed nearly a century ago.»

And in reality it wasn’t. A cheeseburger is just one of the many sensory delights made possible by a highly industrialized and refrigerated food system. The more obvious ones include the delicious anticipation of pouring a crisp beer at the end of the day, the refreshing clink of ice cubes in a soft drink or 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, it was impossible to produce American-style lager year-round or on a large scale. David Wondrich, an alcohol historian, traces the cocktail back to the practice of sipping a mixture of spirits, bitters and sugar in Britain – but it wasn’t until these drinks met a steady, affordable supply of American ice in the late nineteenth century that the art of mixology was born. And although the ancient Chinese, Romans, and Persians mixed snow or ice with fruit juice or dairy products to make chilled desserts, it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that ice cream became popular outside elite circles.

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The possibility of consuming frosty drinks and desserts opened up a whole new vocabulary of sensations. The cold shocked some at first. «Lord! How I saw people sizzle when they first tasted it,» recalled a London ice cream vendor in 1851. One customer—»a young Irishman»—took a spoon, stood still, and then «shouted, ‘Jasus! I’m a kilt. Me shakes the coal.» The earliest recorded account of brain freeze appears to have been published by Patrick Brydone, a Scotsman traveling in Sicily in the 1970s. The victim was a British naval officer who took a large mouthful of ice cream at a gala dinner. «At first he looked serious and blew it his face to give it more room,» wrote Brydone. «The violence of the cold soon overcame his patience, and he began to roll it from side to side in his mouth.» Shortly afterwards he spat it out «with a terrible oath.» he had to restrain his indignation from hitting the nearest servant.

Scientists still don’t fully understand the cause of brain freeze, but the leading theory is that the sudden, blinding pain is caused by the rush of blood to the head and the resulting pressure of the brain on the skull. Another mystery is why consuming chilled foods and drinks is so refreshing because they make no real difference to body temperature. Scientists have suggested that when the temperature receptors in our mouths are cool, they tell the brain that our thirst has been quenched. The body has other ways of monitoring hydration levels—including checking how concentrated or diluted our blood is—but according to this theory, the cooling sensation caused by water evaporating from the tongue is an early warning that fluid has been ingested. One study found that water-deprived rats, mice, guinea pigs, and hamsters repeatedly licked a cold metal tube instead of a hot or room-temperature one, presumably because the cold triggered an illusory feeling of hydration.

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The cold may also have made food and drinks sweeter—especially in the ice-obsessed United States. At least three of our basic taste receptors—sweet, bitter, and umami, or salty—are extremely sensitive to temperature. When food or drinks cool the tongue below fifty-nine degrees, the channels through which these receptors send messages to the brain seem to close, and the resulting taste signal is extremely weak. This is why warm Coca-Cola or melted ice cream tastes sickly sweet: because they are meant to be consumed cold, they must contain too much sugar to amplify the signal and even register as sweet in our brain. (In 1929, the president of the Coca-Cola Company set up a fountain operator training school where his salespeople were told, «If it’s going to sell, it must be cold.») Washing down food with ice water or a soft drink, as Americans often do, will have the same effect—a phenomenon that may explain why extra sugar finds its way into so many salty packaged foods, from hamburgers to salad dressings. Everything just needs to be a little sweeter to taste right if your tongue is cold.

Refrigeration made American icons like the cheeseburger and Budweiser possible, but it also created a whole new culinary category: leftovers. According to food historian Helen Veit, the term was first coined in the early years of the twentieth century; previously, leftovers from dinner were fed to animals or added to a cooking pot. The home refrigerator changed that, inviting chefs to serve yesterday’s food, often garnished to make it look new. In a 1932 pamphlet titled “Cooking with Cold,” Kelvinator, a leading refrigerator manufacturer, promised that with “a little of this and a little of that… . . leftovers disappear and are replaced by wonderful combinations, well-mixed with Kelvinator chill.” Leaving aside his suggestion that one serve “Tinned Lamb with Fruit,” Kelvinator was right when he said that refrigeration can improve the flavor of leftovers. This is because chemical reactions continue in the cold, albeit slowly, and some of them improve the taste. a few years ago Cook’s Illustrated they researched the process by serving fresh bowls of beef chili along with French onion, creamy tomato and black bean soups along with servings that were made two days prior. Testers preferred the refrigerator-aged versions, describing them as «sweeter,» «more robust in flavor,» and «well-rounded.»


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