Transcending Seasons: Following the Global Cold Chain

Transcending Seasons: Following the Global Cold Chain

Prior to the late 19th century, families around the country ate only what they could grow or what nearby farmers had to offer. For people who lived where winters were frigid, that meant a limited winter diet consisting of food preserved in a root cellar. But that all changed when refrigerated rail cars enabled cross-country shipping of meats and produce from faraway farms. Access to a wider variety of foods year round changed the American diet permanently.

In 1927, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published the first of their two classic studies of modernization in a midwestern community they called “Middletown.” Among the topics considered by the citizens of what was actually Muncie, Indiana, were recent changes to their diet. “In 1890 we had meat three times a day,” explained a Muncie grocery store owner. “Breakfast, pork chops or steak with fried potatoes, buckwheat cakes, and hot bread; lunch, a hot roast and potatoes; supper, same roast cold.” This would have been impossible even a decade earlier because the mass production of beef had only just become technologically viable.

What made the mass production of beef possible? Refrigerated rail cars, thanks to Gustavus Swift’s efforts in the 1880s. By 1890, steers and pigs slaughtered in Chicago stockyards arrived in cities and towns across the country, chilled by ice for the entire route.

“Steaks, roasts, macaroni, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, coleslaw, fried apples and stewed tomatoes.” This is how a Muncie housewife described her family’s “winter diet” to the Lynds before refrigeration arrived there during the late 1920s. No strawberries. No eggs. The winter diet was nothing but bland winter fare. Before fruits and vegetables were protected by similarly refrigerated rail cars, producers faced substantial spoilage and could never ship in winter because delays caused by freezing weather could doom whole shipments. (While some spoilage happened during warm months, too, ventilated rail cars allowed cooling breezes, mitigating damage.)

Consumers in Muncie faced what was known as “spring sickness” because they lacked access to the vitamins they needed for months on end every year. By contrast, with the advent of refrigeration, perishable produce could arrive from California all year or be kept in cold storage for winter use when those fruits or vegetables had been grown nearby.

The year-round availability of meats and green vegetables that we now take for granted requires an infrastructure. The turn of the 20th century brought the inception of this infrastructure, which changed the American diet forever.

“Everything from eggs to apples (apart from canned, pickled or dried versions) would be seasonally unavailable without cold storage.”

As refrigerated transportation became the norm, a new type of food chain was born — the cold chain. While a food chain requires no special technologies to store and transport foods of all kinds, cold chains require some form of refrigeration every step of the way because spoilage is ongoing. If one link in the chain fails, the product becomes inedible. What was true about cold chains during the early 20th century remains true today.

Lexicon Icon COLD CHAIN

A “cold chain” is a modern refrigerating engineering term that refers to the path of perishable foods from the point of production to the point of consumption. Unlike regular food chains, cold chains require refrigeration along the entire path to prevent spoilage.


Technology has always had a tremendous effect on what people eat. Some technologies have made it possible to overcome distance by making cold chains longer, while others have made it economical to get better-tasting perishables by making cold chains shorter. As cold chains (and the transportation systems associated with them) have improved, the perishable food we eat has become fresher as delivery has become faster. Cold chains even let consumers defy seasons, allowing us access to fruits and vegetables that the people of Muncie seldom saw at any time of year.

With so many cold chains for so many different foods now available, it seems much more accurate to describe our perishable-food provisioning system as an intricate cold web. The refrigerated strands of that web crisscross not just America but the whole world. Their size, their speed and, most importantly, their efficiency have an enormous impact on what we eat because they help determine how much every kind of perishable food costs, or whether that food is available at all.


Meat was just about the most expensive food you could buy during the late 19th century. As such, it was the perfect guinea pig for testing cold chain technology — success would bring the greatest financial benefit to the pioneers. Meat producers tapped into a huge market of consumers who wanted to add more meat to their diets as both a status symbol and because of the superior nourishment meat provided, compared to their earlier diets. When technology brought down the price of meat, consumers responded quickly.

After the cold chain for meat came similar protections for fruits and vegetables, starting in the 1890s. Fast refrigerator cars full of produce grown in California could get melons or lettuce to the East Coast for consumption in about a week. Iceberg lettuce was bred specifically during this period because it could hold up to refrigeration better than the alternatives. Refrigerated shipping and cold storage made these products common all year round and ended “spring sickness” forever.

In his 2006 book “The Walmart Effect,” journalist Charles Fishman describes how lengthening the cold chain for salmon — all the way to South America — brought down the price so much that Americans can now eat that once-uncommon fish on a regular basis. While Atlantic Salmon are not native to Chile, they are now being farmed there and flown to the United States in huge quantities. As a result, writes Fishman, “[S]almon farming has transformed the economy of southern Chile, ushering in an industrial revolution that has turned thousands of Chileans from subsistence farmers and fishermen into hourly paid salmon processing-plant workers.”

Fishman stresses the importance of deboning machinery to making shipping cheap salmon economical — but that’s just because the low costs of refrigerating fish and transporting the product by air are so entrenched that they can be easily taken for granted. Thanks to advances in the cold chain that have made it possible to market fish of all kinds worldwide, Chilean salmon arrives in the continental United States faster than salmon from Alaska. Walmart has paid for preserving and marketing much of that Chilean salmon once it arrives.

Long cold chains for fish do not have to involve airplanes. Refrigerated packing crates and gigantic barges have made shipping costs so cheap that fish caught off Norway can be efficiently shipped to China for processing (taking advantage of low labor costs) and then shipped again across the Pacific to America for consumption. Cold chain shipping — by air or sea — has played a particularly important role in fish farming of all kinds, making it possible to market large amounts of fish produced in what would otherwise be isolated locations. In fact, whether there will still be enough fish in the seas to satisfy this new demand has become an open question.


Orange juice is a good example of how cold chains can be physically shortened to preserve a fresher taste. “Fresh-frozen” orange juice from concentrate dates from 1952. Not-from-concentrate orange juice dates from the 1990s. Ironically, this apparently “fresh” product can be stored for up to a year before the necessary processing occurs. Once taken out of storage and pumped with flavor enhancements, fresh juice has a shorter shelf life than juice concentrate — one to two weeks. Since it bears a much closer resemblance to fresh-squeezed it can fetch a higher price than the frozen juice concentrate sold in cans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the local food movement has revived somewhat the idea of shorter cold chains. But it may be a moot argument. Consider the pros and cons:

One reason people were supposed to buy more local food is that the energy expended on refrigeration contributes significantly to the warming of the planet. Yet, as Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimzo have explained, one study found that “transporting a large volume of broccoli in a refrigerated container that had been moved around on a boat, a railroad car, and a truck to a distribution point required a lot less energy than a few thousand consumers bringing the same volume of broccoli back to their homes.”

Food miles have lately fallen out of favor as a unit of analysis because they oversimplify the environmental costs of eating perishable foods. Besides the efficiency of transport, another problem with food miles is that the energy expended to keep perishable food fresh also keeps that food from ending up in a landfill where it would give off the deadly greenhouse gas methane as it rots — a scenario in which the costs of refrigeration are less than the costs of spoilage. Similarly, the refrigeration costs associated with eating local beef may be lower, but what about the greenhouse gasses expended to raise the cow in the first place?


Nonetheless, some refrigerated indulgences should give any environmentally minded person pause. For example, the highly endangered bluefin tuna is an Atlantic and Mediterranean fish, yet it is regularly shipped as fast as possible to the Tsukiji fish market in Japan, where one specimen alone recently fetched $632,000. In this case, refrigeration has enabled the creation of a market that provides the perverse incentive to hunt a species to near extinction. Similarly, the Costa Di Mare restaurant inside the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas daily flies in fish caught and frozen in Italy’s coastal waters.

One way to move faster is to travel long distances at higher speeds; another is to eliminate steps along the way. The freezer packs inside ready-to-eat meal kits allow people to enjoy their “Beef Medallions & Brown Butter Caper Sauce” and “Thai Curry Chicken with Carrots & Bok Choy” in pre-measured portions without ever having to go to a grocery store. Blue Apron, the most prominent of these ready-to-eat meal companies, sends out millions of six-pound ice packs filled with sodium polyacrylate, a powder that when mixed with water melts much more slowly than water alone. This created both a personalized cold chain and an environmental disaster, due to excess packaging.

The historian Jenny Leigh Smith has described the practices of the Soviet ice cream industry in similar terms. Unable to afford the creation of an elaborate cold chain based on mechanical refrigeration, Soviet vendors during the 1950s and 1960s simply put dry ice in their insulated pushcarts and used that to keep their product cold as they sold it on the streets. It’s a good reminder that effective refrigeration technologies are not always expensive — they just have to meet the particular needs of the situation at any point in the cold chain.

Another way to make the cold chain move faster is by using refrigeration to speed natural processes that need to occur before perishable products are sold. When the food and science writer Nicola Twilley visited one of New York City’s four main banana distributors, he told her that the energy coming off just a single box of ripening bananas “could heat a small apartment.” The firm’s ripening room was designed to control output by blowing cold air through the boxes. The ripening of some fruit is accelerated, while in other cases it gets slowed down. It all depends upon matching supply with market demand. [Read our story, “How the Bodega Gets the Banana,” for more about the long journey of this ubiquitous tropical fruit.]


When perishables are harvested in season but need to be distributed out of season, cold storage is required. The idea of cold storage dates to around the turn of the 20th century, when mechanical refrigeration was just becoming reliable enough for producers to entrust their livelihoods to these third parties along the cold chain. While new fast train lines could bring fresh-picked strawberries from Florida or melons from California to areas with harsher climates, the easiest way to defy seasonality was to store local produce in newly built refrigerated warehouses for perishable foods of all kinds.

The effects of these changes were noticeable immediately. “Twenty years ago,” explained a 
reporter for the New York Sun in 1894, “[p]ears which sell today two for five cents were 40 cents apiece, and black Hamburg grapes…were only to be had from hothouse growers and were worth $1 a pound. The luscious great cherries which were so plentiful a few weeks ago were unknown in our markets, prunes were known only as a dried fruit, and apricots and nectarines were rare enough to be but a tradition among the greater part of the people.” At that time, rare meant expensive, but not impossible to purchase for special occasions — for instance, buying oranges only at Christmastime.

Storage itself can be expensive even now because of the energy it requires, but it remains an essential component to using refrigeration to transcend seasonality. Everything from eggs to apples (apart from canned, pickled or dried versions) would be seasonally unavailable without cold storage.

The final link in the cold chain, the electric household refrigerator, is a kind of personal cold storage. When the first reliable, affordable, electric household refrigerator went on the market in 1927, it became an instant sensation. It meant that people no longer had to buy food quite so often as before. This was cold storage for your home. By 1960, there was a modern fridge in nearly every home in the country.

Refrigerators allow consumers to time their purchases far better than they would otherwise. In countries like France, where refrigerators are far smaller than they are in the United States, many consumers gladly visit local markets every day so that they can be assured the best flavor possible from their perishable products. By contrast, in the United States, grocery shopping only once a week is a common way to avoid the inconvenience of driving to the Walmart Supercenter and waiting in the checkout line more often. Stores like Costco, which sell huge packages of frozen goods, thrive on this American tendency to favor convenience over taste.


Future technological developments in our web of cold chains will likely occur in the parts that we don’t see. Bring the cost of storage and transport down, and producers can enter new markets or lower costs for consumers so that more people can afford to eat fresh. These changes will require increasing the scale of what travels through cold chains. Perishable products that are still too expensive for most consumers to buy regularly might become more accessible.

Dragon fruit (pitaya), for example, is well-known enough to be a flavor of VitaminWater, but just try buying an actual dragon fruit in the produce section at even a store like Whole Foods. Maybe it can be done in some places at certain times of the year, but it is far from easy. Grow the supply and cultivate the demand, and a cold chain could evolve to service it.

Apart from refrigeration itself, many important developments in cold chain history have involved improvements in transportation — airplanes or refrigerated containers for transoceanic shipping. With all the links in the chain fully refrigerated now, what might future technological improvements look like? Will your meal kits soon arrive via drone? That depends on whether it can be done efficiently and cost effectively. Improvements in the energy efficiency of refrigeration will also help increase the availability of foods to people at all economic levels if those savings are shared with consumers in a meaningful way.

Increased access to perishable foods of all kinds has been a sign of growth in our food provisioning system ever since the advent of ice refrigeration in the early 19th century. The web of cold chains this process has created stretches across the planet. Even countries that do not benefit from being the endpoint of a cold chain probably produce perishable products that could not be sold elsewhere without refrigeration technologies. While it is unlikely that the changes in diet promoted by future changes in technology can surprise middle-class Americans anymore, anything that can be done to bring the same food choices and relatively low prices to the rest of the world will benefit all of humanity.

Quick History of Consumer Ice

In the early 19th century, ice took long journeys across the globe. Cut from lakes around Boston and packed onto ships, it might be sold as far away as India. Today, anyone can get all the ice they need on demand at local convenience stores. The Ice Factory, developed in 1992, was the first of a new breed of automatic ice machines. It manufactures ice on demand and even bags it for you automatically. This eliminates both delivery and storage costs. It allows people to stock up on ice when they need it for parties and barbecues, yet still use their home freezers for their day-to-day needs the rest of the year. Prior to the Ice Factory, one ice manufacturing plant could pack enough bags to satisfy demand within a 100-mile radius.

Modern Times Cold Calling?

Expensive “smart” refrigerators, like the Internet of Things in general, are really just a way to convince consumers that they need to replace appliances that work perfectly well as-is with new ones hooked up to the World Wide Web so that they can impress their friends with how modern their home is. At this moment in time, the benefits of owning a networked refrigerator do not justify its cost. If you can send email from your computer or your phone, you have no need to send it from your fridge. Refrigerators have certainly gotten bigger since 1960. However, they don’t keep food any fresher.

History of the Cold Chain

From ice harvesting in New England to home refrigerators that can monitor their contents and send a text when you’re low on eggs, milestones along the cold chain have transformed how and what Americans eat. There was a time when pineapples and bananas were rare sites outside of tropical climates. And the idea of eating fish caught in Japanese waters yesterday while sitting in a Texas sushi restaurant today was unimaginable. No more. Check out some of the more memorable moments of the last two centuries of the refrigeration revolution.


Frederick Tudor sends the first commercial shipment of ice by sea in world history from Boston to Martinique. Most of what survives the trip melts because the customers don’t know what to do with the product. Below, Tudor’s workers divide a pond into a chessboard pattern and cut ice into two-foot square blocks.


Florida doctor John Gorrie patents a commercial ice machine he developed while trying to invent what we now know as air-conditioning. It does not prove commercially viable.


Meat-packing magnate Gustavas Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase to design an ice-cooled rail car that would enable the shipment of processed carcasses across long distances. The result was a well-insulated yet ventilated car, in which the meat was packed tightly at the bottom of the car, and ice was kept at the top, allowing the chilled air to flow naturally downward.

1880 & 1890

The first ice famine grips the Hudson Valley. The New York market turns to Maine for its ice, leading to vast growth in the infrastructure for providing ice there and the growth of ice for domestic consumption in the United States in general. A second ice famine grips the Hudson Valley. In response, ice equipment makers work hard to improve the efficiency of commercial ice machines and largely succeed by 1900.


The total number of electric household refrigerators sold in the United States tops 1,000 for the first time.


Thomas B. Slate applies for the US patent on dry ice. A year later, the DryIce Corporation of America trademarked solid carbon dioxide, giving it a moniker that has lasted nearly 100 years. The company began marketing dry ice for deep refrigeration.


Clarence Birdseye patents a better form of flash freezing, which will eventually make mass-marketed frozen foods possible.


General Electric is responsible for bringing the cold chain into homes. In 1927, the “Monitor-Top” fridge cost around $520 — equivalent to $7,000 today — and helped lucky families keep leftovers fresh. Refrigerator design saw an update to the more familiar integrated box style in the 1940s.

Check out this amazing collection of antique iceboxes.


Before the refrigerated rail car became a key part of the cold chain, leafy greens like lettuce were too delicate to survive a long journey packed in ice. The solution? Iceberg (or crisphead) lettuce, introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s to be hearty enough to reach salad bowls hundreds of miles away.


Railroads gradually stop using ice for refrigerated shipping as mechanical refrigeration technology becomes cheap and small enough to install in individual railroad cars.


Frigidaire introduces the first frost-proof refrigerator, eliminating the need for customers to defrost their appliances at all. “Frigi-Foam” insulation allowed for the first Frost-Proof refrigerator-freezer.


The Radio Cap Corporation introduced the Koozie™, a Styrofoam sleeve designed to insulate a chilled beverage from warming up due to conduction or heat radiation. Many a cold beverage will be kept cold.


Jim Stuart invents the ice factory, the first ice machine that produces and bags ice cubes on demand. This eliminated the need for centralized ice production in regular, larger ice factories.


The introduction of the Internet-enabled or “smart” refrigerator. Not enough people have decided that refrigerators that tell you what should be on your shopping list are worth the added expense and potential problems of buying yet another Internet-enabled device.


High-end cooler brand YETI was founded in Austin by brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders. Their new design for a heavy-duty cooler that could stand up to abuse during fishing trips and retain ice for hours started as gear for serious outdoors people and has evolved into a multi-product cult brand. And it keeps your beer cold for a long time.


Blue Apron begins shipping meal kits, including meats and seafood items sandwiched between ice packs to ensure freshness past delivery.


Internet-enabled refrigerators, which first appeared in 1998, now have cameras and the ability to text you with messages about what might be running low inside. In the same year, both Wired and Forbes magazines published stories lauding high-tech fridges and wondering if 2014 was the year they’d finally take hold.

Make Way for Public Markets?

Make Way for Public Markets?

While farmers’ markets are become more common attractions, public markets like Pike Place or the Pittsburgh Public Market are still fairly hard to come by in urban areas.

At a gathering I attended a few years ago in downtown Austin, the breakfast fare said it all. Organic yogurt, locally produced honey, and fresh breakfast tacos broke from the usual offerings of croissants and Danish pastries. This crowd was invested in their food — emotionally and economically — as farmers, chefs, city planners, food activists, non-profits and individuals gathered to learn about the possibility of bringing a public food market to Austin. Like many urban areas across the country, Austin has farmers markets but no public market — yet. Why is that?

The answer requires a brief tour of public market history and our relationship with food. The relationship has always been contentious, as cities all over the world have historically been defined by their food markets and yet have moved their markets farther and farther away. Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back. 

“Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back.”

Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.

Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.

Great, you say. In a digital, industrialized world, we all need more humanity.  

But today’s desire to bring food back to our urban landscape runs counter to the ejection of large public food markets that began in earnest during the mid-19th century when cities began to modernize. City dwellers wanted to leave behind their rough, tough rural lives. What’s more, food production was viewed as a threat to sanitation, a serious problem in the 19th century, when diseases like cholera rolled through urban landscapes. By the 20th century many cities saw their public markets as occupiers of space that could be developed to create more revenue, provide more sanitation and improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

A few of these public markets refused to budge, but now they seem to be on their way out, too. Smithfield meat market in London and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo are both big historic markets that are in the crosshairs of developers and urban improvement programs. Both define their neighborhoods, have historic roots and contribute to the social and economic fabric of their host cities.

London’s Smithfield meat market opened in 1868, and Tsukiji, began its evolution as the world’s largest fish market in 1935. In Smithfield’s case, the City of London owns the land occupied by the market, and the market has come under attack several times during the past few decades because of increasing congestion around the market and the anomaly of the occupation of prime, centrally located space as a place for a wholesale meat market. The history of London’s meat market has been contentious for most of its 800-year history, so this battle for its place in London’s landscape is familiar.

Smithfield Market

Smithfield Market, in London…for now.

Some of Smithfield’s buildings have been deteriorating while the neighborhood has been modernizing and becoming a trendy area for new restaurants and businesses. Plans for a real estate company to redevelop the market were accepted and then scrapped, and now it looks as though the western buildings are to be renovated and become home to the Museum of London.

In Tokyo, the fish market, Tsukiji, has become a tourist attraction, a trend fed by the announcement of its removal nearly two decades ago. The announcement met opposition at first but then gradually gained support, even of the union associated with the market in spite of those who objected the loss of the neighborhood’s culture and history. Costs for the removal have risen but the decision to build a new market outside of the center of Tokyo will most likely stick. The arrival of the Olympic games and the need for the world’s largest fish market to conform to global sanitation requirements are important to Japan’s overall economic and diplomatic status.

In Austin, though, it looks like we’re ready to bring our food back to the city. The St. Elmo Public Market is slated to open in South Austin within a matter of months. This new experiment sits within changing tides of urban development as food markets come and go and attitudes change about how we view food, the countryside, and our public spaces. Are the battles over Smithfield and Tsukiji relevant to cities such as Austin? Or is Austin exceptional in some way that could allow it to break new ground for those who want a closer relationship with their food?

The Pan in Choripàn

The Pan in Choripàn

Most food in Argentina comes from somewhere else, at least in its earliest forms. Like wheat.

Sure, there’s asado, a ubiquitous dish on Argentinian menus that is mostly a mound of barbequed meat. But in Argentina, the mishmash of culinary traditions reflects a long history of immigrants who left very little of anything that can be called truly Argentinian.

The view that the Argentinian national cuisine is actually a mix of British, Italian and French food can be galling to some cultural purists. The Scots made significant cultural contributions, such as the introduction of football. The British brought tea to Argentina while the native plants added the local flavor of yerba mate. And the British sailed to the Falkland Islands and the Argentinian mainland during the 19th century, hauling their sheep and cattle along as they established ranches (estancias) that survive today, even if only as useful buildings for a remote resort.

Estancia Christina, where our family spent the Christmas holidays a few years ago, is one such compound, located in Los Glaciares National Park. Visitors can wander through a museum on the ranch that exhibits shearing and branding equipment hauled to the estancia by John Percival Masters in the early 1900s. He and his family had almost 30,000 sheep and shipped wool to Buenos Aires on railroads built by British engineers. Asado was made possible by decades of cattle, sheep and pig importations during those years of British ranching.

Football fans consume thousands of choripàns at their local stadiums, but still, Argentina is known for its football championships, not for its bread. So choripàn bread, closely resembling French baguettes in taste and flavor, brings Argentina and France together — if not for the duration of a rowdy football match, at least for the time it takes to consume a chorizo sandwich.

Wheat flour, used to make chorizo sandwiches, came from wheat brought by the Spaniards to South America during the sixteenth century. The bread in Argentina is almost exclusively white, a lingering imprint left by Europeans who saw white bread as the signature of upper class cuisine. That January, at the Central Market outside Buenos Aires, dozens of customers waited in line to buy freshly baked French baguettes priced at one kilo of baguettes for seven pesos. (The Argentinian government had set bread prices at ten pesos per kilo, so wonder the line for one kilo of bread at seven pesos wound around and around the bakery stall that day.)

Argentina got serious about growing wheat after the new nation (established in 1852) built a School of Agronomy in 1875. Soon Argentina exported grain for the first time and began to industrialize the country’s grain production system. Bad weather and crop failures in the early 1900s combined with a lack of demand for grains, a commodity not considered important to those waging World War I. When the war was over, the economic depression ended, and workers began to demand protection from those who appeared to profit by the resurgence of grain production.

When I was there, the wheat market was in turmoil as Kirchner’s government restricted wheat exports, causing wheat farmers to lower production and in some cases move their fields into the more lucrative production of soybeans, which have no limits even though sales are taxed at 35 percent. Since farmers want to reap the benefits from the more liberal policies, they are depleting the soil with the nutrient-hungry soybeans.

The wheat farmers who remain in their fields soldier on, producing grain for choripàn bread. One mill outside Buenos Aires, Melino Chacabuco, receives shipments of grain around the clock. Chacabuco is a sleepy, semi-industrial town of just over 35,000 inhabitants located on the Saluda River, now the Laguna Rocha. The presence of a river must have been the attraction for building a mill, a winding conduit for grain to the mills. Tall smoke stacks, grain storage silos, and cylindrical billboards advertise Chacabuco both as a town and as a mill.

I visited the mill, driving three hours to Chacabuco on a long, flat highway through dusty agricultural towns. At the mill, a long queue of bright red trucks transferred grain from their bellies into the metal grates built into the flooring of the mill delivery courtyard. To show how all these shipments of grain become the refined, enriched white flour used in choripàn sandwich bread, two employees met me in the mill conference room. With a display more suited to a foreign dignitary, production manager Juan Rafael Errasti and food engineer Gabriela Benavidez sat at a long wooden conference table, slide projector perched at one end, American and Argentinian flags flanking each other, and a basket of sweet, sticky, shiny Argentinian pastries slowly circumnavigating the table.

Rafael and Gabriela explained how their mill made flour—oh, and pet food, a byproduct of milling flour. Molino Chacabuco S.A. was founded by Crespo & Rodriguez, a firm in the early 1900s. Don Tomás Crespo and Don Jose Maria Rodríguez acquired the milling equipment in Chacabuco in 1918.

Inside the old Chacabuco Mill, Rafael and Gabriel talked about their jobs. Rafael revealed that his recent promotion to manager made him uncomfortable. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he confessed that he knows how milling equipment works, not people. He’s tall with silver hair, and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt to keep cool in on that mid-summer day. The warm, damp air smelled of ground flour.

“A simple loaf of bread is not easy to make, and not all grains of wheat are created equal.”

Gabriela appeared to thrive in her job as a food scientist, a position she’d had for the last twenty-nine years. Slowly stirring her tea as she emptied a series of sugar packets into her cup, she explained how flour continues to hold her interest. A simple loaf of bread, she said, is not easy to make. Not all grains of wheat are created equal, according to Gabriela, who described all the variances that can occur and all the adaptations and challenges that arise as a result of differences caused by different growing practices and weather changes. Adding to the complexities of her flour world, she said she believes that bakers today are not as skilled as in the past, sometimes blundering through the making of bread inconsistently, often tossing in ingredients without regard for precision or, she suggested, any concern for quality. As a result, Gabriela is in constant contact with her customers, advising and sometimes training them so they can create a stable, consistent loaf. After all, she wants them to stay in business, and it’s the flour that will get a bad rap if a customer feels the bread doesn’t taste good.

“It’s the flour that will get a bad rap if a customer feels the bread doesn’t taste good.”

Gabriela reports to Rafael, who towered over her with his wiry six-feet. Her hair is short and dark brown, drawn back over her face by her reading glasses. Wearing a white lab coat with the company logo on one side, she conveyed the competence of a scientist, betrayed in some moments by an occasional twinkle and smile. During our tour through the factory, we caught each other’s attention when we approached a large area where the highly polished wooden floor begged for a tango dancer or two. Spontaneously, we both mimicked the motions of tango dancing, sliding across the floor for a few minutes undetected by the oblivious males in our group.

Rafael and Gabriela led us into the factory, a collection of buildings adjoining their offices. Winding our way in between the tall silos of grain awaiting the capacious maw inside the largest of the buildings, we began our trek up and down the five floors of 1950s style milling equipment.

The mill was impeccable. The machinery was either emitting soft grinding sounds or energetically quivering and rumbling as flour coursed throughout the different factory floors. Every machine seemed to be either grinding or sifting. In a quiet room shut off from these sounds and vibrations, Raphael and Gabriela presented a series of trays, each with tiny piles of ground grains in various stages of milling. Trays appeared and were whisked away in a performance designed by a team of millers who displayed the same sort of geekiness that you find in a chemistry lab. Gabriela and Raphael showed, with their small piles illustrating the progressive stages of milling, how the grains became 00 or 000 flour, two specifications indicating fineness. (The Argentinians use the Italian system for grading flour according to fineness. The more zeros, the finer the grind.)

And the reveal of small piles of flour didn’t end in the small room filled with flour samples. On each floor, Raphael and Gabriela went from machine to machine, pulling out samples of flour to demonstrate how many times the wheat grains passed through the mill, up and down, back and forth, streaming through Plexiglas tubes, rustling and shaking their way toward some degree of 000s.

The floors, supported by the old columns from the mill’s early years, gleamed. While the columns appeared of recent vintage, the capitols were the old cast iron ones, black and decorative. Great care had been taken by someone in charge of the mill’s history to patch only small areas of the flooring in an effort to keep as much of the early 19th century underfoot. In spite of the effort to keep the mill’s past intact, modern milling practices and the use of computers to manage every step of the process were evident at every turn. One turn took us to a room where bags of additives awaited someone who would measure out desired amounts of niacin and riboflavin to create “enriched” flour. (Seems like the flour industry spends its time stripping off the outer shell of a grain, removing protein and nutrients and then replacing nutrients through the “enrichment” process. Must be a reason for this, and it might have something to do with the cultural preference for white bread, like the bread used in choripàn.)

“No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant on the problems of wheat.”

Wheat is one of those crops brought to South America by the same Europeans that Niall Ferguson lauds in his book, Empire. Ferguson argues that the colonizers during the 19th century added to the conquered countries, adding such commodities such as grain, railroads, and cattle. Whether you agreed with Ferguson or not, you see the effects of foreign cultures in every choripàn. Argentinian wheat makes a significant contribution to the global economy and governments are wary of any shortage or disruption to the wheat supply chain. As Socrates said in one of his discussions with Plato, “No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant on the problems of wheat.”

And Argentina has been having its wheat problems. How the choripàn will fare is unclear. But just ask any Argentinian if whole wheat or any bread other than that white wheat bread would be worthy of their chorizo, and you’ll get a grimace and denial all in one motion.

“Ask any Argentinian if any other bread would be worthy of their chorizo, and you’ll get a grimace and denial all in one motion.”

On the way back from the mill, I passed through several highway tollbooths where police officers waved cars through, allowing them to pass without paying any toll. My guide explained that the government passed a law making it illegal for tollbooths to detain drivers for longer than three minutes during peak traffic hours. This seemed to indicate that the government was alarmed that such delays could incite riots or other forms of social unrest. If a few minutes delay at the tollbooth could cause such a reaction, imagine what might ensue if choripàn bread became prohibitively expensive or even unavailable due to a wheat shortage. Beware any government that goes too far, threatening all those football fans with the loss of their beloved choripàn.

Curious About the Curiosities

Curious About the Curiosities

Peter Lund Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.

In 1859, The Curiosities of Food was published in London by Peter Lund Simmonds.  At that time, Simmonds joined other Londoners such as George Dodd, author of The Food of London, in a quest to understand food at home and abroad. By then, 400 million people had been added to the British Empire, each nation bringing a food culture that seemed exotic to the ordinary Victorian. Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.

Following in the tradition of Victorian publishers, the title continues: Or, The Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From The Animal Kingdom. The book is rich with information, anecdotes, and literary allusions to all kinds of fleshy ingredients, from fish to horses.

Simmonds is conscious of the thin line between food that evokes nausea and food that indulges the most indulgent gastronome, yet some of the food he discusses is hard to stomach. Horsemeat, for example, may delight a Frenchman, but it will disgust a Briton, and his chapter about horsemeat reveals his dry British humor: “At Paris, where all eccentricities are found and even encouraged…horsemeat was all the rage.” Simmonds reflects upon his inclusion of the animal’s flesh in his book by wondering if Londoners would soon be requesting, “A piece o’ horse, my kingdom for a piece o’ horse.”

Even more amusing is his observation that horsemeat had been sold as other types of meat, such as venison, in restaurants. Unfortunately, this stomach-turning note presaged the 2013 discovery that beef sold at a Tesco’s supermarket in the UK had actually been processed with horsemeat. Simmonds laments the practice of disguising beef in any way, describing the then-popular technique of “blowing the meat,” inserting a tube into a piece of meat to blow air into the flesh. This caused the meat to appear “plump and glistening,” as Frederick Accum described in his book on the adulteration of food in the early 1800s.

The Curiosities of Food contains history, science, and literature. Simmonds includes Roman history on the same page as a description of contemporary food fads, such as the arrival of “condensed” eggs in London’s markets. Readers will not only consume history and poetry, they will learn about plant classifications and geography.

John Milton, quoted in The Curiosities of Food

…Of fish that with their fins, and shining scales,
Glide under the green wave, in sculls that oft Bank the mid sea: part single, or with mate,
Grazed the seaweed their pasture, and through groves
Of coral stray; or sporting with quick glance,
Show to the sun their waved coats dropt with gold.

He ends the book with a summation of the breadth and variety of foods eaten across the globe and invites us to join him in understanding the world better by exploring the food eaten by those who occupied foreign lands and ate unimaginable fare. “Who shall venture to determine what is good eating?” he asks, and it’s a good question during our era of food-related obsessions and value judgments.

Transporting Food Over Oceans

Transporting Food Over Oceans

“The use of ships to transport food begins at least with Viking and Roman ships that transported oil and wine over the ocean.”

I have a smartphone app that tracks marine traffic, and there’s no end to the amusement I derive from locating in real time the ships near me in almost any port. I can see where the ship is registered, its origin, and its destination. Unfortunately, I cannot see into the cargo hold, and therein lies the intrigue.

The use of ships to transport food begins at least with Viking and Roman ships that transported oil and wine over the ocean. Today, new Panamax container ships slip through the expanded Panama Canal. The tradeoffs between speed and carrying capacity seem to be part of the long evolution of ocean transport, not unlike the evolution of land-based transportation technology.

Liner Service and Tramp Shipping

Basic tutorials on merchant shipping reveal at least two relevant categories of cargo ships: liner service and tramp shipping. Essentially, liners have regular routes and schedules, and tramp shipping is chartered and has irregular schedules. Liners are generally more expensive than tramp services, and so bulk cargos like grain and sugar often travel with the tramp services. What this all means is unclear to a novice, but at least it separates two basic classes according to the types of foods that travel on ships.

Picking Up Speed

The business of shipping food rode on the innovations in naval architecture and energy. Relying on wind to move food around the world had its limits, most of which were reached by the end of the 19th century. Steam slowly entered transoceanic trade, but the problem of lugging all that coal over long distances slowed progress. Still, some food movers benefitted from the transition from wind to steam. Two New England entrepreneurs established the Boston Fruit Company, which became the United Fruit Company in 1899.

In spite of the slow beginning of transoceanic shipping of food, by 1915 the United Fruit Company and others were sending food in the cargo holds around Cape Horn and through the Panama Canal. That period must have been the tipping point in terms of speed and shipping capacity…although using the term “tipping point” to talk about shipping may not be a good idea.