Mrs Thatcher once explained that she adored cleaning the fridge because, in a complicated life, it was one of the few tasks she could begin and end to total satisfaction. In this way are refrigerators evidence of our struggles, our hopes and our fears.
Moreover, if you accept that the selection and preparation of food is a defining part of our culture, then you must acknowledge the primacy of the refrigerator in human affairs. In 2012, The Royal Society declared refrigeration to be the single most significant innovation in food technology since Fred Flintstone invented the barbecue. Me? I wrote these notes while chewing chilled sapphire grapes from Brazil, via Waitrose, messengers from our refrigerated global food chain.
Your domestic fridge is your autobiography. By its contents are ye known. People ostentatiously arrange green vegetables to signal virtue. I know I do. The ratio of yoghurt to beer is always revealing. That withered and wretched celeriac root lurking at the back of the salad drawer always puts me in mind of a medieval theologian’s diatribes about the appearance of my soul. The evil-looking celeriac reveals a mixture of ambition and incompetence.
Size matters. There was, perhaps, once a time when I would ask visitors if they would like to come upstairs and see my etchings. Now I ask if they would like to come downstairs and admire my smackdown, look-at-me, double-door stainless steel Gaggenau RB491 combo. This is as big as a small car. And the latest refinement is a dedicated wine fridge. I know. I have one. You can calibrate self-improvement as well as the march of civilisation by the evolution of the fridge.
Then there are freezers, acting like medieval oubliettes where stuff of indeterminate value is suspended in limbo until it is thrown away. Who has not known the crisis of confronting a rock solid sub-zero brick of something brown but of unknown provenance? Freezers are touching evidence of our sophisticated pursuit of futility: expensively and ostentatiously preserving waste is surely a sign of decadence.
But refrigeration is not new. The Roman author Apicius has a recipe for chilled chicken soup. His slaaves would bring ice down from the mountains and, wrapped in straw, it might last a summer, chilling his libations as well as his chook broth. Yet Francis Bacon sensed something sinister in the process of making things cold: it is against nature. In 1624 Bacon says: ‘The producing of cold is a thing very worthy of the Inquisition.’ Indeed, it goes against instinct: the preparation of cold food appeals, as the critic Ingrid D. Rowland once explained, to a very different part of the psyche than the cooking fire.
Yet, evidence of our perversity, ice has always been cultivated, as Elizabeth David explained in her last great book Harvest of the Cold Months, a 1994 study of ice-houses and cold cooking. Every country house once had an insulated, usually subterranean, ice-house and, by all accounts, it worked very well. But modern refrigerators have their origin in the Victorian insistence on mechanising absolutely everything.
Ships were an inspiration: meat travelling from South America to Europe required chilling. At first, cargo holds were stacked with ice, but soon mechanical refrigeration, which is to say the artificial generation of ice, evolved at sea. Progress was rapid: in 1844 consignments of natural ice were still being shipped from a frozen lake in Massachusetts to London. By 1861, Mrs Beeton mentions a ‘refrigerator’ and the following year, the wheezing and gasping Siebe-Harrison ice-making machine was demonstrated at the 1862 Exhibition in London. Then in a signal event, in 1927, Clarence Birdseye patented his fish fingers. Such comestibles can exist only in a refrigerated culture. Refrigeration preserves food, but preserves a lot of other things as well.
The principle of mechanical refrigeration involves the neo-divine fundamentals of physics: when liquids vaporise, they get cold. So, in a refrigerator, a liquid is squirted into a low-pressure chamber where-upon it duly vaporises and the temperature drops. The vapour is then compressed into liquid and the cycle begins again.
Inevitably, early fridges had very visible, noisy and clunky compressors. The dream kitchen of Clarence Birdseye would have smelt and sounded like the cargo hold of a transatlantic meat ship. Then, as they became more familiar in the domestic environment, the technical need to seal compressors from dirt was, historically, coincidental with the artistic need, first felt in the 1930s, to streamline mechanical devices… irrespective of their need to travel through air.
To this end, the very first generation of consultant industrial designers, established in New York, made fridges their set pieces, since to design a beautiful and desirable refrigerator was to demonstrate masterful insights into consumer psychology. Of course, American manufacturers took the lead in this democratisation of luxury.
General Electric flirted with Norman Bel Geddes as an appliance designer, but settled for the more sober and reliable Henry Dreyfuss (who later popularised ergonomics as a practical science). And Raymond Loewy’s career was based on the stylish transformation he made of Sears Roebuck’s best-selling Coldspot. To an electrified Victorian ice-box, Loewy, who travelled the world in correspondents’ shoes and a miasma of eau-de-cologne, added bravura chrome accents. Soon, the General Motors ‘Frigidaire’ became an eponym for a genre of appliances: it was designed by the same people who gave us two-toned paint and rocket-inspired tail fins on Cadillacs. In some countries, ‘Frigidaire’ is a generic, not a brand.
The statement refrigerator became a part of the iconography of the American Dream Home in the 1950s: all pastels and smooth radii with racy chrome flourishes, as seductive as a 1958 Oldsmobile Holiday hardtop. Look at an American architectural magazine from about 1960 and you can see that the fridge was a low-temperature hearth: a sub-zero symbol of home comforts. How else would you source an ice-cold Coke?
This interior design language soon melted into a Britain hungry for post-imperial imagery and ready to find it anywhere, but especially in aerodynamic America. The rhetoric of the labour-saving kitchen with a fridge as centrepiece was amped up by women’s magazines, the Good Housekeeping Institute and the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition. True to say, on both sides of the chilly Atlantic, the democratisation of refrigeration was part of Cold War semantics.
Tricity even offered the ‘Diner Cold’ fridge, dressed in veneers of Sapele wood. So confident was Tricity that this was a readily construable status symbol in the never-had-it-so-good era, advertisements confidently suggested that this chilly wooden sarcophagus might be as much at home in the dining-room or ‘lounge’ as it was adjacent to the old-fashioned pantry. Herein, the origin of our ‘luxury kitchen’.
‘As a museum curator,’ the author writes, ‘I am offered a lot of old refrigerators’, surely one of the most unconsciously funny lines of all this year’s books. This, even as the abandoned Greystone quarry near Lewes now houses a fridge mountain 20 feet high comprising the ruined carcasses of 70,000 dream machines while errant CFCs eat what remains of the atmosphere. The fridge may have saved us from toxic rotting food, but its larger health and environmental benefits are, to put it no more warmly, arguable.
This is a book of hallucinatory wonder by a Science Museum keeper who writes with that rare combination of synoptic, grandiose academic majesty and wry humour. Midnight kitchen wanderers know the strange light an open fridge casts into darkness. Helen Peavitt’s Refrigerator illuminates not just our kitchens, but our entire value system.