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The Cool World of Frozen Food

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

It might be tough making sure everyone got fed if not for the freezer! A glimpse at the history of frozen foods

Thursday, June 07, 2018

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Large or small, top or bottom, upright or chest-style, every kitchen today has at least one freezer. But how often do we stop and think about just how easy it makes our lives?

Today’s families can come home from a busy day and just pull out lasagna, schnitzel, or vegetables from the freezer, so the meal is ready in much less time than it would take to make it all from scratch. With a freezer, you never have to worry if green beans are in season and you don’t have to stand around peeling potatoes for French fries. Our ancestors never had it this easy!

The History of Frozen Food

In case you think freezing food is a modern innovation, think again. Folks have been doing it since the dawn of time — but only in certain seasons of the year. People figured out very early on that cold temperatures could literally freeze time, stopping the clock on the natural decay of sensitive foods like meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. The hard part was extending the natural benefits of freezing into the warmer months of the year. The Chinese were probably first, building underground ice cellars as early as 3000 BCE to keep meats, fish, and produce fresh, and by 1000 BCE, a few cultures were using ice crystals and packed snow to preserve food.

In fact, not much changed for thousands of years after that. The tricky part with freezing was getting ice and keeping it from melting. In America, ice was harvested every winter from chilly areas like New England and the Great Lakes and stored in barns or underground cellars, like in ancient China, packed in with straw or sawdust to keep it from coming in contact with the warm air all around.

 

The Icebox Evolves

Home iceboxes became common in the 1850s, but they weren’t electric, so they needed to be constantly refilled with ice. There was a drain at the bottom to let out water as the ice melted. Ice was delivered by an “iceman” who would drive around in a horse-drawn wagon. On a sweltering summer day in Brooklyn, a visit from the iceman was most welcome because he could sometimes be persuaded to break off a few tiny chips for neighborhood kids to suck on in the heat — probably hoping they’d become loyal customers themselves someday.

 

In the early 1900s, a new appliance was invented that would devastate the ice trade: electric refrigerators. The name was quickly shortened to “fridge,” maybe because one of the main manufacturers of refrigerators was called Frigidaire.

Early fridges, just like iceboxes, weren’t made to keep food frozen. They just kept dairy products and meats cool so they wouldn’t spoil as quickly. The biggest change came in the 1920s with the addition of an ice cube tray, which gradually evolved to become an entire freezer compartment. Frozen food, it seemed, wasn’t just a passing fad. By the 1940s, freezers had come home — and they were here to stay. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 713)

 

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