June 24, 2024


By Nicola Twilley
Interesting, insightful and impressively intrepid, Frostbite offers compelling food for thought about the role of cold in our lives.
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When the farm-to-table concept became widely popular 15 years ago, Nicola Twilley “got stuck on the conjunction. What about the to?” Her deeply researched and highly engaging second book, Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves, invites the reader on a quest to understand “what happen[s] between the farms and the tables.”

Twilley—co-author of Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine, regular contributor to The New Yorker and co-host of the award-winning Gastropod podcast—spent a decade tracing the history and contemplating the future of artificial cold. In Frostbite, she considers how we got where we are today: enjoying whatever food we want when we want it, but with unintended consequences for our health and environment.

Twilley notes that “Artificial, or mechanical, cooling . . . wasn’t achieved until the mid-1700s, it wasn’t commercialized until the late 1800s, and it wasn’t domesticated until the 1920s.” Now, the “cold chain” is so ingrained in our way of life that we take it for granted. From hard science to fascinating history, major machinery to quirky theories, Frostbite explores seemingly every aspect of our refrigeration-dependent existence as the author visits banana-ripening rooms in New York City and cheese caves in Missouri; travels to China to learn about its booming pork industry; has coffee in California with “the world’s first and only refrigerator dating expert” and much more.

While refrigeration reduced dependence on salt as a preservative, Twilley notes, it reduced consumption of fermented foods and “everyday exposure to microbes,” too, thus increasing gut inflammation. It has also increased food waste, released toxic substances into the environment and altered our connection to the natural world. She contends that “refrigeration was implemented, for the most part, in order to optimize markets rather than human and environmental health.”

What’s a concerned refrigerator-user to do? After all, the appliance is “an underappreciated engineering marvel . . . a reliable, relatively simple box that, without fuss or fanfare, harnesses the powers of nature to supernatural effect, performing the daily miracle of delaying matter’s inevitable decomposition and death.” Frostbite, a decidedly interesting and insightful book by an impressively intrepid reporter, offers compelling food for thought about the role of cold in our lives, for better or worse, now and in the future.

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By Nicola Twilley
Penguin Press
ISBN 9780735223288

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