Chill Out

Review: Tom Jackson, ‘Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again’


There is a history of humankind, a deep account of the rising and falling of human cultures, to be written around the simple fact that food rots. Goes bad. Sours and spoils.

It’s one of those problems so deep in human history and so intrinsic to human experience that, admittedly, we hardly notice it anymore. But from the days of Cain (who was, you remember, both the first murderer and the first city builder in the Bible) all the way down to our own time, the problem of keeping food fresh has been a ceaseless motor of culture—like the noise of the kitchen refrigerator, humming in the background.

Think of it this way: The first question of early human existence is “What will we eat today?” The second question is “What will we eat tomorrow?” And in the transition from one to the other, civilization is born.

Chilled, the recent book by Tom Jackson, tries to tell this story by tracing the history of refrigeration, the attempt to slow spoilage through cold. And fair enough: Cooling has always been one of the approaches to food preservation and, in modern times, perhaps the most important. But wouldn’t a history of salt tell much the same story, albeit with entirely different particulars? A history of vinegar, too. An explanation of canning. An account of dehydration. If the history of civilization is, in many ways, a history of food—and if the history of food is, in many ways, a history of preservation—then all these stories are going to have the same basic arc. They’re all about what we will eat tomorrow.

You could explain the rise of Mediterranean culture, for example, by the geographical area’s successful domestication of chickens. It’s not a complete explanation or even much of a convincing one—but the ability to keep chickens did help change the way people fed themselves. To slaughter cows and horses, even sheep and goats, is to be left with a great weight of meat that must somehow be preserved, while chickens are just a day’s worth of food. To slaughter a chicken is to eat today and still have the remaining chickens to eat in the coming days.

Besides, chickens produce eggs, just as cows provide milk, for ongoing food. As it happens, modern refrigeration has been the only really successful way humans have found to extend the shelf-life of eggs (as anybody who has ever tasted dehydrated eggs knows). Much earlier in history, cheese allowed the preservation of milk through controlled bacterial growth—and this same history of civilization, especially Europe’s, could be told in the parallel rise of dairy farming and a population that could digest milk after infancy.

These deep roots of civilization are what fascinate in the histories of drying, salting, corning, fermenting—even the handful of attempts to preserve with alkalines, from the Mayans’ nixtamalization of corn into hominy to the Scandinavians’ reduction of cod into the gooey mess of lutefisk. They are what fascinate in the history of refrigeration, as well, and it’s unfortunate that Tom Jackson too often forgets why he was writing Chilled, his tale of how people tried to preserve food with cold. He knows the history, but he cannot seem to explain why we should care, and the result is a meandering stream of a book, without much confidence in its own existence.

Jackson is a well-known British science writer, aiming at a popular audience with such well-received volumes as Physics: An Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science. He begins Chilled with a history of cooling, noting the ways in which cultures had tried to preserve winter ice and deliver it to cities, from the ancient Persians to the Greenwich Village dwellers in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

The science of air conditioning and the science of refrigeration are so closely related that Jackson sometimes seems to think their histories must be the same, which tends to muddle the story he has to tell. From the Middle Ages through to the 1700s, the experimenters who advance the science of cooling are presented in lively and interesting sketches—but the science itself is not. The talent Jackson showed in Physics, to explain science to non-scientists, has at least partially deserted him in Chilled, and several of the key elements of heat transfer refuse to come clear in his text.

The sociology he attempts is also less than clear. The British were slow to purchase domestic fridges for their kitchens because, unlike Americans, the British “knew what ripe fruit and vegetables and fresh meat tasted like,” Jackson explains—to which an American can do little more than drawl, “Is that so?” And here we reach toward the real problem with Chilled, and thereby the problem with this whole genre of histories of things and processes that has come to dominate a slice of modern publishing. The problem is, essentially, that sociology isn’t quite the same thing as political theory.

Now, that’s obscure and we’d need a thousand pages to explain the difference. But, in brief, think of it this way: Sociology must, by its nature, surrender to the material and efficient causes of explanation, telling us how people responded to innovation and cultural change. Political theory attempts, at least, to give final causes in its explanations, telling us why people sought to change their cultures and the ways in which the deep stuff of human existence dictated those changes. In the case of Tom Jackson’s Chilled, the sociology lets him indulge trendy swipes against Americans and explain how the spreading of refrigeration altered our eating habits. But the deep stuff he does not relate—and that’s the stuff that makes all this important.

Not that Jackson’s story of refrigeration’s rise is uninteresting. The tale of Frederic Tudor, a mad Bostonian who thought that a fortune could be made selling winter ice hauled down to the tropics, proves lively and fun. The science of inhibiting bacteria with cold is well explained, as is the global market created by the expansion of the domestic fridge into the idea of a refrigerator ship. Jackson quite correctly notes that the idea of “fresh food” is completely changed, perhaps inverted, when refrigeration has allowed us to buy fresh lamb from Australia, fresh crab from Alaska, and fresh melons from Aruba, in the well-stocked aisles of a grocery store in Abilene, Texas.

Jackson’s prose sometimes misses its register; I refuse to believe that Isaac Newton “joined the action” of fridge making. But the concluding section gives a quick but lively account of the changes that advances in refrigeration promise for future medicine, space travel, and computers. Don’t get me wrong. Chilled is not a bad book. It’s just not a good one, and certainly not the book it could have been. There is a history of humankind, a deep account of the rising and falling of human cultures around the simple fact that food rots. Goes bad. Sours and spoils. And that’s the book for which we’re still waiting.

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