BOOK REVIEW: “Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves” by Nicola Twilley

What’s for dinner?

The answer to that can be gotten by opening your refrigerator door. Are the makings of a salad there? The ingredients for a recipe you’ve been dying to try? Cold OJ, eggs, leftover pizza, or dim sum? Okay, now, shut the door – we’re not refrigerating the neighborhood, you know – then settle in with “Frostbite” by Nicola Twilley and see how those things are just chillin’.

At twenty degrees below zero, it’s hard to keep employees.

That’s because, as Nicola Twilley learned while researching her book, it’s difficult to work in those conditions. You can try to stay warm but eventually your fingers fumble, your nose runs, your brain fogs, and you can get physically sick. Safety becomes an issue then, as she knows from her short stint at a frozen-food storage warehouse in California, and the average person quits quick.

You could blame it on science.

Even philosopher Rene Descartes knew that cold is “the absence of heat,” meaning that there is no such thing as “the creation of cold.” To make a space cold, you must take the warmth from the space and move it elsewhere. Simple, right?

Not so. It’s only been less than a century since refrigerators moved into the average home and cold-storage was “conquered.” Until then, ice harvesting was big business in the upper parts of the northern U.S. and keeping food decay at bay was a challenge.

And yet, ask where we’d be without the “cold chain,” and the answer is mixed.

Our ancestors knew how to keep things cool to stave off bacteria, and how to dry or otherwise store food, long-term. Still, says Twilley, certain nutritional diseases were almost seasonal, due to a lack of a variety of fresh foods at certain times of the year.

Conversely, we eat healthier now, more or less. Thanks to refrigeration, the average American’s height, weight, health, eating habits, and “family dynamics” have altered. Refrigeration has affected our daily lives and homes. And, says Twilley, “it has reconfigured global economics and politics.”

Bet you’re wishing you had a nice cold drink by your elbow, huh? Yep, and that’s generally only possible due to one thing. Read about it in “Frostbite.”

From ancient root cellars to Martha Stewart’s dozens of refrigerators in multiple kitchens, author Nicola Twilley explains how everything including the Earth has been changed by a big box that hums in the kitchen – and she takes a look at that hum, too. It’s a lively tale that also asks us to peek into both past and future, taking readers on a trip through an early 20th century pantry to a designer kitchen to grocery stores to a Rwandan desert and an American landfill. Reading it is like whipping open the fridge doors and finding a feast.

For sure, this book will make a cook or foodie very, very happy. It’ll speak to history and pop culture buffs and scientists, too. If you’re up for a fun read this summer, look for “Frostbite.”

It’s pretty cool stuff.


Penguin Press $30.00

387 pages