Dr. Diane Drake
26 March 2002
“Would you like salmonella with that?”
Refrigeration and Food
It’s 1892, and Harold and Maude are on their way home from Giblet. Harold, being the good husband that he is, suggests to Maude, “Let’s stop at the Colonel’s for some of that tasty chicken.”
“Good idea, Harold. We can also pick up some potato salad, beans, and cole slaw, while we’re at it.” Maude didn’t mind cooking, but after a long day of sitting on the wagon in the hot summer sun while waiting for Harold, she was ready for take-out. So she and Harold stopped at the local eatery, bought their dinner, and made the two-hour trip home to their children, their dinner, and some salmonella. Three days later, all of Giblet mourned their passing.
A stretch of the truth? Okay, the Colonel didn’t open until 1955 (He was only two years old in 1892) (“Sanders,” 471), but if he had and if Harold and Maude had brought home the chicken, potato salad, and cole slaw, the scene would not be so ridiculous for one good reason: the refrigerator had not been invented. Unprotected food was dangerous, as attested to by the New York Council of Hygiene who said that meat and poultry exposed to warm weather was “‘absolutely poisonous’” (Bettmann 110). Therefore, as we look back through history at all of the great inventions, the one that we can be truly thankful for (Thanksgiving turkey is a notorious source of salmonella) is the
refrigerator because it gave us the chance not only to love our food, but to keep loving it for several days after it’s been cooked.
Even before Thomas Edison turned on his first light bulb and before Benjamin Franklin was flying kites, even before Abraham had moved from Ur to Palestine, humans knew that cold kept food safe. As early as the Paleolithic era 40,000 to 15,000 years ago—give or take 20,000 years (“Nutrition”), humans were storing food in cold areas, such as dug out holes or caves. The Romans upgraded refrigeration to include packing ice around food sent from their far-flung territories, but it was the Chinese who were the first to make a “machine” to create cold out of a combination of salt and snow poured over a bucket of food. The French perfected this machine in the mid-19th century when in 1859 Ferdinand CarrJ and Charles Tellier presented their invention for making ice cubes at the Great Exhibition in London. Only two decades later, the two enterprising Frenchmen were shipping frozen meat across the Atlantic in a ship named Frigorifique, the origin of the word refrigerator (Toussaint-Samat 749-50).
The wonderful world of refrigeration entered the United States in 1851 when Dr. John Gorrie patented the first ice machine in, appropriately, Florida (“History of Ammonia”). During the Civil War era, Texas and Louisiana smuggled in one of CarrJ and Tellier’s refrigeration boxes to compensate for the blockade of ice from the North (Woolrich and Clark). However, block ice remained the cooling method of preference during the 19th century (see Fig. 1), until raw sewage pumped into rivers and lakes made the ice unpalatable (Krasner-Khait)—to say the least.
The solution was a return to Gorrie’s invention, updated and improved by John Standard and Thomas Elkins in 1879. Their improved refrigerator apparatus was
Fig. 1. Ice wagon, from Barbara Krasner-Khait, “The Impact of the Refrigerator,” History Magazine, 2002, http://www.history-magazine.com/refrig.html
designed to circulate compressed gases that absorb heat (“History of Household”) and became the basis for the modern refrigerator (“History of the Refrigerator”). General Electric used this concept in the first home refrigerators that appeared in 1911, and Frigidaire and Kelvinator followed with their own home refrigerators based on similar technology in 1915 and 1916. Freezers were added during the 1940s (“History of Household”), and since then, humans have been feeling a lot better about their food. As Bern Nagengast, refrigeration engineer, says, “‘The household refrigerator changed the way people ate’” (Krasner-Khait)—a clear understatement.
What refrigeration does for us is to slow down the bacteria that causes food poisoning. When food—cooked or uncooked—is exposed to temperatures between 40° and 140° F, the bacteria are in seventh heaven, doubling in number in less than 20 minutes (United States). Eventually the bacteria reach a level where the immune system can no longer protect humans who ingest these bacteria, and people get food poisoning (Iannelli). That food poisoning is dangerous is illustrated in the fact that up to 5000 Americans a year die from food poisoning (Mead, et al).
Refrigeration is why the number isn’t higher. Milk products, meat products, vegetables, fruits, eggs, and on and on are all safer because they are kept cold in the refrigerator. It is rare that humans cook a meal with something that does not come from that marvelous cold box that can literally keep us alive. However, we must be careful and use our refrigerators wisely by keeping that thermostat set at 40° or lower since bacteria are clever little bugs who after sensing even a subtle 5° rise in temperature turn into reproductive demons. Dr. Daniel C. Weaver, an expert on food-related illnesses, illustrates just how careful we must be with his own experience with food poisoning:
Some 20 years ago, to save money during my residency, I dialed my refrigerator thermostat up to 45 degrees (my first mistake). Then I made meat loaf with eggs, failing to cook it long enough (second mistake), left it overnight on the counter (third mistake), put it back in the refrigerator (fourth mistake), reheated it in a microwave oven (fifth mistake), and ate it. Six hours later I discovered first-hand salmonella’s incubation period.
What the good doctor is telling us is that we should put our leftovers in the refrigerator and find other ways to conserve on electricity than turning the refrigerator’s thermostat down.
Aah, leftovers—one of the great delights of the modern era. There are certain foods that taste even better after a night in the refrigerator and a warm-up in the microwave or oven. Most casseroles only improve with warm-ups, and what’s tastier than the post-Thanksgiving lunch of warmed-over turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and dressing. In the northern (or far southern) climes, such delights are possible in the winter, where outdoor temperatures can easily preserve tuna noodle casserole and assorted turkey parts, but not everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of winter cold and it’s not always winter. Therefore, after dinner (or breakfast or lunch, for that matter), we drag out the Tupperware® or plastic wrap, cram in the leftovers, and turn to the refrigerator—quickly since food needs to be cooled in a hurry to avoid bacteria growth. Because turkeys are so large—even after they have been exposed to the ravages of the typical American family—they can take up to four hours in the refrigerator to get to that 40° range necessary to stop bacteria growth (Miller). Without that refrigerator, we would be forced to throw out the leftovers or eat the entire bird and die of overeating or risk eating it unrefrigerated and perish later from food poisoning. In either case, I guess that we can conclude that refrigerators save food and lives.
Aside from keeping food cold until it is cooked or preserving leftovers for reheating, refrigerators also allow us to have our cold food cold. No one wants to eat room-temperature lettuce, and it’s no surprise that breweries were the first northern companies to make use of refrigeration mechanics (Krasner-Khait) since a good beer is not a good beer unless it’s cold. Summer is made even more enjoyable for people who must endure winters because refrigerators provide cold drinks, cold salads, and cold sandwiches. Salted ham can be preserved without a refrigerator (“Old Fashioned”), but I for one do not want my ham sandwich without mayonnaise, and mayonnaise, as everyone knows, requires refrigeration because it’s made with raw eggs, one of the most notorious carriers of salmonella (“Food Poisoning”). As a resident of Minnesota, I cherish my summers, and I prefer to spend them sitting with a cold beer on my deck rather than sitting with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol® on Thomas Elkins’s other invention, the toilet seat (“African-American”).
It’s true that science has given many great inventions that have made our lives easier, more comfortable, and longer. However, as I sit here, sipping on a glass of cold milk and enjoying a piece of sour-cream raisin pie, I praise the invention of the refrigerator. Frankly, it fits all three of the above benefits to humanity: it makes my life easier since I don’t have to carry 50 lb. ice blocks to a cold storage cellar, it makes my life more comfortable since room-temperature milk is a real turn-off, and it keeps me alive longer by preventing food poisoning. God rest Harold and Maude and family and God bless the refrigerator!
“African-Americans Database Search Results.” Great Lakes Patent and Trademark
Center. 2002. Detroit Public Library. 26 Feb. 2002 <http://www.detroit.lib.mi.us/ glptc/ aaid_table.htm>.
Bettmann, Otto L. The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! New York: Random
“Food Poisoning.” Columbia Encyclopedia. 2001 ed. Columbia University Press. 1 Mar.
“History of Ammonia Refrigeration.” ARTA, Inc. Ammonia Refrigeration Technicians
Association. 8 Feb. 2002 <http://www.nh3tech.org/history.html>.
“History of Household Wonders.” The History of Household Wonders. 2001. History
Channel. 20 Feb. 2002 http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/ modern/fridge.html>.
“History of the Refrigerator and Freezers.” Inventors. 2002. About, Inc. 7 Feb. 2002
Iannelli, Vincent. “Foodborne Illness Peaks in Summer.” Pediatrics. 2002. About, Inc. 7
Feb. 2002 http://pediatrics.about.com/library/blsummer_food_safety.htm? terms=foodborne+illness>.
Krasner-Khait, Barbara. “The Impact of the Refrigerator.” History Magazine. February-
March 2002. 1 Feb. 2002 <http://www.history-magazine.com/refrig.html>.
Mead, Paul S., et al. “Food Related Illness and Death in the United States.”
Environmental Health 62 (2002). PALS. Northland Community and Tech. Coll. Lib., Thief River Falls, MN. 2 Mar. 2002 <http://www.pals.msus.edu/webpals/>.
Miller, Martha. “Hey Cooks—Cool It!” Better Homes and Gardens Nov. 2000. PALS.
Northland Community and Tech. Coll. Lib., Thief River Falls, MN. 2 Mar. 2002 <http://www.pals.msus.edu/ webpals/>.
“Nutrition Lessons from the Stone Age: Clues to Better Eating Go Back 40,000 Years.”
Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter 19 (2001): 2 pp. PALS. Northland Community and Tech. Coll. Lib., Thief River Falls, MN. 14 Feb. 2002 <http://www.pals.msus.edu/ webpals/>.
“Old Fashioned Methods of Preservation.” Old Fashioned Home Remedies and Recipes.
2002. Love to Know Corp. 7 Feb. 2002 <http://www.2020site.org/remedies/ preservation.html>.
“Sanders, Harland.” Current Biography: 1981. Ed. Charles Moritz. New York: H. W.
Wilson, 1982. 471.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Barnes
& Noble, 1998.
United States. Department of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“Refrigeration and Food Safety.” Consumer Education and Information. Jan. 1999. 8 Feb. 2002 <http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/ focus_ref.htm>.
Weaver, Daniel C. “Why Is Everyone So Sick?” Discover 21.6 (2000). MnLINK.
Northland Community and Tech. Coll. Lib., Thief River Falls, MN. 2 Mar. 2002 <http://www.mnlink.org/>.
Woolrich, Willis R., and Charles T. Clark. “Refrigeration.” The Handbook of Texas
Online. 2001. Texas State Historical Association. 8 Feb. 2002 <http://www.tsha. utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/RR/dqr1.html>.