The History of 2 Great
Silverware & The Refrigerator
Food Inventions Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the history of not one but two inventions that we very much take for granted today: Silverware and Refrigeration. It would be hard to imagine eating being the same without either of these inventions, but the arrival of both is relatively recent and both provide a fascinating history.
Find out more about the fascinating history of the silverware and the refrigerator, and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE
THE HISTORY OF 2 GREAT FOOD INVENTIONS:
SILVERWARE and THE REFRIGERATOR
I once asked my mum how long I could keep chicken in the freezer.
So, what did she say?
She said about three months. But, do you know what?
When I put one in the fridge, and checked back the next day, it was dead.
Very few things funnier than a dead chicken joke.
And welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And on today’s very special episode we’re going to respond to some of the many requests I receive on social media to share the story of two of food history’s greatest inventions. They’re subjects that are fascinating, but perhaps I didn’t think that they would be enough to cover a complete episode on their own. So, by putting them together, I hope that not only can I respond to some of those requests from our valued listeners, but also create an episode that might be a model for more we create in future. If you let me know how much you enjoy them.
So, no more messing around. We have a lot to cover in the episode.
Now, let’s start with a subject that I have been keen to tackle for quite some time.
THE HISTORY OF SILVERWARE
Now, “Silverware” or “Flatware,” as it is known in the United States, or “Cutlery,” as it is known in the United Kingdom, is something that we might take for granted now. It is one of the first things you might purchase when you buy a house, and traditionally, I suspect, has been one of the most requested gifts for newlyweds as they move into their new life together.
However, for something that is so common in our everyday lives, it has a truly fascinating history. Some elements of it stretch back to the very beginning of time, while other elements are relative new introductions to our table. The use of these implements are a great way of looking at how we do and did eat over the generations, and about the social and dining etiquette of a particular period in history.
As always, let’s begin by being exactly clear what it is we are talking about with the help of a definition from our friendly neighborhood dictionary. Now, this might not be as easy as you imagine because of the different names used in different places for the same implements, but let’s give it a go.
Dictionary dot com describes “silverware” as,
“articles, especially eating and serving utensils, made of silver, silver-plated metals, stainless steel, etc.”
While “flatware” is described by Merriam-Webster as,
“relatively flat tableware especially: eating and serving utensils (such as knives, forks, and spoons).”
Whereas the term I grew up with, “cutlery,” is described by the Cambridge Dictionary as,
“knives, forks, and spoons used for eating food.”
All of which can be slightly confusing, particularly if, like me, you have moved between the U.K. and the U.S. cultures quite a lot during your lifetime.
So, before we move on to look at the history of some of the specific items of eating utensils, it might be worth looking at the etymology of each word to see why they are used.
The term, “flatware,” was probably the first to be used – and specifically in the United States of America – towards the end of the 19th century. The term was used to differentiate this tableware from items such as bowls, jugs and vases, which, since the late 17th century, had been known as “hollowware.” I have to be honest and say that “flatware” is not a term I had ever encountered until I began to come to the U.S. regularly in the 1990s.
“Silverware,” as the name suggests, denote flatware that was made with silver, or later was silver plated. However, it has tended to be used for all eating utensils, including those that are also made of materials that resemble silver, such as stainless steel.
Finally, the term that I used as a child and still use is “cutlery.” The word originated from the Old French word, “coutellerie.” In North America it refers to utensils used for cutting food, like knives. But now, and particularly in the UK, it refers not just to knives, razors and scissors, but also to forks and spoons.
Now all this might seem a lot to take in, but it does show us how the same items can be called different things by two cultures that speak the same language, because of the influences of others upon them. And, in the case of silverware, the term I shall use from now on, it also impacts upon the dining etiquette and how they are used.
Now, let’s look at some of those implements specifically.
People, of course, have had knives of a fashion since as long as it is possible for us to imagine. These would initially have been knives made from stone, used in a period long before humans developed the techniques of smelting metal.
Initially, archeologists assumed that the knowledge of making knives, even from stone, was something that would have been possible only to modern humans with the mental faculties of carving edged knives from stone. They dated this ability to only around 40,000 years ago. However, over time, new discoveries have pushed the origins of the knife back way further. First, to around 300,000 plus years ago to Neanderthals in the Middle East and in Europe. And now, even further to around 500,000 years ago to the Baringo Basin of Kenya. Paleoanthropologist Cara Roure Johnson and her team found lava stone cobbles hammered to create blades. She declared,
“This is the oldest known occurrence of blades.”
At first, these rough versions of today’s knives would have been made from flint, hammered down with stone to give a double edge and primarily used for hunting, preparation of food, and of course for security.
Then, around the 7th and 6th millennia BCE, these stone implements, known as “microliths,” would have developed, and varied in size from larger to smaller versions such as arrowheads and knives. They gradually would have become more and more advanced, but it was not until about 3300 to 1200 BCE, the period known as the Bronze Age, that we see the next major change as humans first began working with metals.
The first metal tools are believed to have been made around 6,000 B.C.E. in an area we now call, “The Fertile Crescent,” or sometimes, “The Cradle of Civilization” – an area that covers what is now parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine and Iran. These would have been made of copper created by applying heat. I’d like to think that, as with so many things in history, this discovery happened by accident, perhaps when some copper bearing rocks fell into a fire.
Copper is not terribly durable. It was not until around 3000 BCE that humans began to add extracts of another ore – that of tin – to the copper to create an alloy known as bronze that we see the next great development in the advancement of implements. These were first found in the area of the Sumerians. But, soon spread both East and West into China and the edges of Europe.
Further developments of metallurgy occurred with the development of iron made tools amongst the Chalybes around 1800 BCE by forging them in fire and hammering them. Steel is made by the addition of carbon to iron. An addition that makes the iron much, much stronger. There were various stages in getting the process correct, and along the way, we see the production of different types of iron that we still know today: Wrought Iron, and Cast Iron. It was Indian metalworkers in 400 BCE that developed the first processes to make “true” steel.
Indian metal workers traded their “wootz steel,” as it was known all around the known world, to as far as the Roman Empire, from where it was crafted into weapons that were sent to all parts of their territories.
In terms of our conversation, the smaller version of these weapons – knives – also found use as an eating utensil. In some cases the utensil would have a double purpose, both being used as an aid to eating, and being used to protect oneself. The wealthy set of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans definitely kept ornamental knives for dining. And by around the 13th century, the wealthy in Europe kept knives for their guests but men typically brought their own knives.
These knives had another role too. In 1637, Cardinal Richelieu, one of the most powerful men in early 17th century France and who is best known perhaps for the part he played in Alexandre Dumas’ “Three Musketeers,” became so repulsed by watching men spear food with their daggers and then afterward picking the remains out of their teeth with the point of the dagger – eiw – that he ordered his staff to grind down the tips of the house knives so they were rounded. As is so often the way, other households began to copy the idea of this famous man and the idea spread throughout France. In 1669, even King Louis XIV banned pointed knives, in part, as protection to himself, but also to promote the idea of civilized manners. The fashion caught on not just in France but across Europe, and we begin to see the origins of the first rounded dinner knife, and the separation of knives being used for defense and for eating utensils.
This change, along with the development of the fork, began to change the way we ate, how we held the knife, and a specific dining etiquette began to be developed in Europe. An etiquette that, as we shall see, was very different from the way that people ate in the American colonies, and continue now to eat in United States. But, as I said, we shall get to that in a moment.
With the invention of the rounded dinner knife, it was not long before different styles of knife would be created to eat different types of food. This came particularly at the time in Europe as people moved away from what was known as “Service a la Francaise” – a style of dining where all the food being served was placed on the table at the same time. A style described in the 1868 book, “The Epicure’s Year Book and Table Companion,” as,
“to the gourmand, the best, when the guests are few, and are close friends . . . This method entails vast responsibility on the host ; let him be a poor carver, and the dinner . . . is spoiled.”
And a move towards a style known as, “Service a la Russe,” where dishes were served sequentially in multiple courses.
Silverware was almost inevitably at its height during the Victorian period. Not only was there a plethora of different silverware to be laid out for a meal, but also a complex system of how it should be laid out and how it should be used. There could be up to twenty four pieces of silverware per place setting at the fanciest meals, which could include a general dinner knife, a knife for eating fish, knives for butter, knives for eating game and fruit, plus a separate knife for the cheese course. They were all set to the right of the place setting. There was just as strict an etiquette as to how these knives were used and in what order. The general rule of thumb being that you worked from the outside using the knife furthest away from the plate and moved inwards to the next knife that correlated to the specific order of dishes that would arrive. Nowadays of course, we have far less silverware to put at our place settings, although the notion of starting at the outside and working inwards still remains.
I think this is a good place to also mention a very important point raised by Doctor Tawny Paul, the Public History Initiative Director at UCLA, and part of the kind team there that reads through our scripts as part of our process of research. And that is, as well as looking at the process of how cutlery was invented, it’s important too to recognize its impact on social history.
In the early modern period, what you ate and how you ate it were becoming key indicators of social distinction. The “elites” having access not only to luxury food and drink, but also developing this extensive range of dining rituals, also developed cutlery that had perhaps one specific purpose. As much to display that they were wealthy enough to afford what might be considered a frippery to the less wealthy, as to it actually being useful.
In a really terrific article by Adam Fox, supplied to me by Doctor Paul, entitled “Food, Drink and Social Distinction in Early Modern England,” he states that,
“In early modern England the food and drink that people ingested provided resonant markers in the expression of worth and the articulation of status.”
People were judged on what they ate, what time they ate meals, and how many courses that might be served and for our purposes the tools that were implemented to consume the meal.
Now, obviously, I think this is too huge a topic to touch on in depth here, but I did think that Doctor Paul’s point that the development of silverware had a role to play in explaining social history was too important to overlook.
Today, most of our silverware will not be made of silver or even silver plated. It may well be made of stainless steel, which, before we move on to talk about the history of the spoon, gives me a chance to give a shout out to my hometown of Rotherham – hurrah! – and its near neighbor the big city of Sheffield in England.
Cutlery making began in Sheffield as far back as 1200. And by the 18th century, Sheffield had become the center of the cutlery industry. So it’s unsurprising that in 1912 or 1913, a metallurgist called Harry Brearley discovered stainless steel in Sheffield. He found that adding chromium to steel made it weather resistant and not subject to rust. He started selling knives and calling it “rustless steel.” Luckily, he had a friend who had a knack for snazzier names and renamed it “stainless steel.” For many years, and even to some extent today, Sheffield – and its neighbor, Rotherham – is considered a center for steel making and the most prestigious brand in steel making. So when you see stainless steel in your kitchen, you can thank Harry Brearly and his friend, who were practically my neighbors, if I was alive then.
So, that’s the knife. So how about the spoon?
Well, along with the knife, spoons are believed to have been the first utensils known to be used by humans. During the stone age, hollowed out pieces of wood or chips of sea shells were used to transport materials. These were often connected to pieces of wood to act as stems.
In her very interesting book, “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat,” author Bee Wilson talks about the universality of spoons in world culture, saying,
“There are fork cultures, and there are chopstick cultures. But, all the peoples of the world use spoons.”
Neanderthals likely used seas shells and such as the first types of spoons. But the first spoons we see being manufactured come from around 1000 BCE and were found in ancient Egypt. These were made of ivory and stone, and were decorated with religious symbols which indicates that they were perhaps used in ritual and worship. This also suggests that they were used primarily by priests.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used different types of spoons. One was what they called a “cochlear,” which refers to the spiral sea shell from which they were often made. A quick side note for our multilingual listeners, this “cochlear” or “coclear” is the Latin root for the French word, “cuillére,” the Spanish word, “cuchara,” and the Italian word, “cucchiaio,” – which all translate to our English word for it, spoon. What the ancient Greeks and Romans called, “cochlear,” was similar to our spoons today. The cochlear would also at this time have been made from silver and bronze. Another kind was known as a “ligula,” a larger spoon but shaped so that it could be used to eat from narrow vessels.
The Anglo-Saxons in Europe used the word, “spōn,” from which we get our own word spoon. This Old English word meant “chip of wood,” or “splinter,” likely due to those spoons being made out of wood.
By the middle ages, wealthy people used spoons made from metals. When pewter, an alloy of tin, became widely available in the 14th century, most of the commoners used spoons made with pewter. These may well have been the sort of spoons that were served alongside plates to guests at a meal in the middle ages.
And in England, some spoons even became a type of status symbol during the reign of the Tudors. Apparently, it was a thing for rich people to give spoons with the image of an apostle as christening gifts.
In 18th century Europe, we begin to see the very wide usage also of the fork.
Now, of course, there were pronged instruments used way back into ancient times – after all, the ancient Greeks gave their god, Poseidon, a trident to carry, which is really just a large old fork. The fork may even have been put to culinary use, but it was probably in the kitchen rather that at the table. For example, ancient Greeks may have used the fork to take food from fires while roasting.
We don’t know exactly when people started using forks as a tool for dining but they start appearing on the dining tables of the wealthy in the Persian Empire around the 8th or 9th century. By the 11th century, diners in the Byzantine Empire were using forks at the dinner table. And they brought the fork to western Europe.
In the 11th century, a Byzantine princess named Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the doge of Venice. She brought two-pronged golden forks with her and used them to eat at their wedding feast.
Local clergy were not best pleased with this one, telling all,
“God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers  Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”
And then later, when the poor princess died of the plague, Saint Peter Damian, the Bishop of Ostia, blamed her death on the wickedness of her using said golden utensil.
“Such was the luxury of her habits . . . Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.”
For using a fork. There you go.
It was, according to Bee Wilson, the Italians who really developed the use of forks in Europe before its spread across Europe in the 17th century. This was, she suggests because of their love of pasta. Particularly macaroni and vermicelli for which a fork they developed known as the “punteruolo” was the ideal eating utensil.
From Italy, the fork traveled to France. In 1533, Catherine de Medici traveled to France to marry the soon to be Henry II and brought with her a case of silver forks. Unlike poor Byzantine Princess Maria, Catherine’s got to tour her new country for a year and to show off not just the types of food she ate but also the way she ate her food – which included the use of the fork. This, of course, helped popularized the fork in France.
It was due to another one of these rather fabulous characters that we come across while researching episodes of Eat My Globe that forks were first introduced to the people of England. Thomas Coryat was an English writer and a fearless traveler. He combines the two in a wonderful book known as “Coryat’s Crudities,” which told the story of his 5-month mostly on-foot travels through Europe from May through October 1608. As part of his journey that spanned 1,975 miles, he spent time in Italy and wrote of this unusual eating utensil they used.
“I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through the which I passed, that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I thinke that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe always at their meales use a little forke when they cut their meate.”
And he describes the reason they use such an implement,
“The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seing all mens fingers are not alike cleane.”
Coryat, brought this curious tool back to England where he started using the fork when he ate. Soon, his friends started calling him “furcifer,” which meant, “fork holder.” We actually get our own name for the implement, “fork,” from the Latin, “furca,” which means “pitchfork.” And back in ancient Roman times, a “furca” was an instrument by which they punished people by placing this wood on the offender’s shoulder and then tied the offenders’ arms to it. Which is altogether less pleasant, and probably shows what people thought of this potentially indecent piece of dining equipment.
However, by 1633, Charles the 1st of England was said to have declared,
“It is decent to use a fork.”
Which shows that they were now becoming a recognizable part of the dinner settings of England.
When Catherine de Medici traveled from Italy to France, the forks back then were two-pronged. Around the 17th and 18th centuries, extra tines or prongs were added to give a three and four tined fork.
Now, before we leave silverware, let’s just touch on the history of one item, about which I get asked a lot. The “spork”, that is a spoon and a fork combined. Now, I recall my parents having these when I was a child, and, at the time, I thought they were a recent invention. In fact, they were invented in 1874, by a rather wonderful chap called Samuel W. Francis who received a patent for a dining utensil that was both a spoon and a fork, but could also cut like a knife. The term, “Spork,” itself though was not coined until 1951 by a man named Hyde W. Ballard.
Now, and finally, finally, before we move on to our next invention, let me finish by explaining why it is that Europeans and Americans have such different styles when it comes to using a knife and fork. Europeans, as you will know, if you ever dine with me, place the knife in their dominant hand, and use the fork, in the other hand, with the tines facing downwards towards the plate. The knife is used to cut the food, which is then held in place by the fork, and then pushed on to the tines of the fork to be transferred to the mouth. However, in the U.S., most people practice what is known as the “cut and switch” technique where the food is cut in a similar way to the European style, but then the knife is placed on the plate, and the fork transferred to the dominant hand to be used to bring the food to the mouth of the diner.
Now, I’ve always found this U.S. approach a little. . . kind of lacking in elegance, I will admit. However, I was surprised to find out that this “cut and switch” technique was imported to America from the fashionable diners in France in the early 19th century, who were seen as,
“arbiters of elegance.”
However, by the mid-19th century, Europeans had moved to the no switch style we still use today, primarily as a matter of efficiency.
So, there you have it. American diners. So early 19th century.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
THE HISTORY OF THE REFRIGERATOR
Like so many people, there are often days when I don’t have the chance to go shopping for food or, during the pandemic, to order in groceries to be delivered. So, instead, I turn to the refrigerator I have in my kitchen to either see what we have in the freezer to be defrosted, or to see what leftovers can be resuscitated into a meal.
We all do it. And I think it would be fair to say that, certainly in the more developed nations anyway, this piece of electrical equipment is something we consider essential but also one which we can definitely take for granted.
The question of how this refrigerator became such a standard part of our life is one that I am asked very frequently, so I thought that this episode, it would be the perfect place to go into its history in more detail.
Now, of course, the notion of food being cooled as an act of preservation is one that humans began to understand almost at the point at which they began to domesticate animals and harvest crops. This would have been about the same time as other methods of food preservation would have been developed such as fermenting, drying, smoking, or leaving them in peat bogs. And, initially would have been to prevent the spoilage of food, but also to create the notion of food surplus for times when food was less abundant.
These ancient methods of cooling may have made use of natural refrigeration, such as streams, and underground pits, which, although not understood by the people at the time, would have slowed the microbial growth in the food and it consequently lasted longer. Eventually, and as we shall see, these methods of cooling would have become more sophisticated and we begin to see more refined forms of cooling pits being created.
Perhaps the first mention we have of a specific facility in ancient times comes from 1780 BCE, from a series of tablets created for the library of the city of Mari. A kingdom which sat off the Euphrates river between Syria and Mesopotamia. This city was, at the time, second only to Babylon as helmed by King Hammurabi, and the Mari tablets form one of the great libraries of ancient times. The Mari king was named Zimri-Lim.
He was the last king of this territory but built it up into a powerful and prosperous kingdom. A 1930s excavation discovered 22,000 tablets, written in the Akkadian language, which detailed the bureaucracy of the kingdom, including treaties with neighboring kingdoms. And, in one relevant tablet, they discuss the building of a vast icehouse in the nearby city of Terqa, which tablet, by the way, you can now check out at the Louvre, if you ever visit. The tablet reads,
“never before had any king built.”
The fact that they knew what an icehouse was suggests that this was not the first one – and indeed, it wasn’t as an icehouse already existed in the city of Ur to the south of Mari. The fact that it deserves mention suggests that it was the first on this scale, and worthy of noting.
As Tom Jackson says in his very enjoyable book, “Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again,” the Terqa icehouse was six by twelve meters in size, and had channels to remove water that had melted from the ice.
By the 5th century BCE, the area in the eastern part of Mesopotamia, in what is now Iran, had developed a technology for cooling that was more advanced than anywhere else. It used technology that Jackson describes as having three elements: the “badgir,” the “qanat,” and the “yakhchal.”
The “badgir” translates as “wind catcher” and is still in use today as a traditional form of air conditioning. It would basically pull air down into the basement of a building.
The “qanat” was and is a downward sloping channel that would be used to take water from one location to another.
And, the “yakhchal” meant “ice pit,” and was where ice that was brought in and stored. And I am informed that the current word for refrigerator in Farsi is “yakhchal.” These ancient “yakhchal” had large imposing clay domes to store the ice.
The tall domes of the “yakhchal” were meant to allow the warm air to rise with minimal contact with the ice as the “badgir” pulled down the cool wind. And the sloped irrigation canal of the “qanat” channeled melted water away from the ice to prevent further melting.
Apparently, ancient Persians used the “yakhchal” not only for storing ice but for also making their ancient version of ice cream, the Faloodeh. Faloodeh is a dish of frozen rice noodles topped with lime juice and rose water. You’ve got to try it.
Now, Alexander the Great supposedly learned how to build ice houses around the 4th century BCE. After he captured Aornus on his India campaign, it is believed that he ordered people to dig up over 30 ice pits and had them covered with oak to preserve the ice. And when he was in Petra, in what is now Jordan, he allegedly also had ice brought from the mountains and had them buried in ice pits.
The ancient Romans too used to chill wine by storing them in their cellars. The ancient Roman Emperor Nero was also said to have developed the notion of boiling water before chilling it. Though he did not understand why this helped, he did like the resulting beverage at the end. Supposedly, as he awaited death, he sipped on some saying,
“haec est…Neronis decocta.”
“This is the distilled water of Nero.”
And they had their own version of self-cooling wine bottles known as a, “psykter,” which was a large mushroom-like amphora or jug in which it could be placed on a large container filled with ice, as one might an ice bucket.
We know too that ice cooling technology was known in ancient China. The ancient Chinese stored ice as far back as 1100 BCE. In fact, the word for ice house has appeared in the “Shih Ching” or “Book of Odes,” which was edited by Confucius in 475 BCE.
“In the days of the second month, they hew out the ice with harmonious blows;
And in the third month they convey it to the ice houses
Which they open in those of the fourth, early in the morning,
Having offered in sacrifice a lamb with scallions.”
The ancient Chinese also developed what was one of the first versions of an ice box known as a “bingjian” or “ice container,” which was a container with an outer shell that could be packed with ice and used to cool foods. Also, if they brought the container indoors without the lid on, it acted as an early form of air conditioning. And apparently, King Tang of the Shang Dynasty was very fond of an early form of ice cream and had 94 “Ice Men” whose job it was to help make the dish from buffalo milk, flour and edible camphor.
I didn’t find any great advancement of cooling technology in Europe during the Middle Ages. Most people either used ice houses when they did have ice and snow available, or using underground room cellars to slow the spoilage of food. What did continue and develop were other techniques of food preservation such as drying, pickling, fermenting, or using sugar to create sweet preserves.
It wasn’t until Europe began to move from the Middle Ages in the 1500s that we begin to see the new developments in food cooling techniques and dishes associated with that begin to emerge.
As we talk about refrigeration, it seems almost obligatory to tell the story of the spread of frozen treats, which is often claimed to involve the wedding of Catherine of Medici of Italy to soon-to-be Henry II of France in 1533. Remember her? She was involved in the spread of the fork’s popularity, as we discussed earlier, and garlic’s popularity, as we discussed in our episode on the history of garlic.
Catherine’s arrival in France from Florence, with her plethora of chefs, caused quite a stir, and as well as bringing with them forks and garlic, legend has it that she also brought gelato with her.
There are actually a few legends about Catherine and gelato – the first, being an ex-chicken vendor, or possibly astrologer, called Ruggeri – later identified as Cosimo – who came with her from Florence to Versailles and brought his gelato making techniques to the French court. He was the subject of jealousy in the French court that he was bullied and almost killed. As the story goes, almost getting killed was a deal breaker and he asked Catherine to be sent back to Florence and just hoped that people would remember his “candiero,” which is what gelato was called, but forget all about him. The other legend is that a Florentine architect called Buontalenti came with Catherine and invented or honed gelato making in the French court.
As I said, these are legends – albeit very good ones. Apparently, the first evidence of humans freezing sorbet or ice cream happened on the year of Catherine’s death in 1589 so she might not have been able to enjoy anything but an icy drink.
And, in England, some 100 years later, in 1671, we see the first mention of what we might recognize as a “proper” ice cream at a banquet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Charles II of England’s restoration to the throne. At this lavish banquet, there was,
“one plate of white strawberries and one plate of ice cream.”
The story goes that it was such a hit that he paid a stipend to his dessert maker to keep the recipe of frozen cream with orange blossom a secret.
In 1748, William Cullen boiled ethyl ether into a partial vacuum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland – Now, I don’t know the science of it but that was apparently the first form of artificial refrigeration that did not involve ice. No, not much happened with this invention, apparently. Later, in 1805, American Oliver Evans invented a refrigerator using vapor for cooling. And again, not much happened with that. In 1876, a German inventor, Carl von Linden, obtained a patent for refrigerator technology using liquified gas that we still use today. But the refrigerators that developed between the late 1800s and 1929 used gasses, such as methyl chloride, led to many deaths. Not cool.
So, we are back to ice.
In the new-ish American colonies of the 17th century, Charles I gave the then-governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, a license,
“to gather, make, and take snow and ice, and to preserve and keep them in such pits, caves, and cool places as he should think fit.”
Berkeley was successful enough that he had the license renewed in 1665.
The sale of ice was a success in the American colonies. Although, it appeared that it was reserved for the more wealthy. Thomas Jefferson, for example, is known to have subscribed to an ice service from James Oeller’s Chestnut St. Hotel for one shilling a day. The Hotel, apparently, was known for serving its boozy punch with a block of ice.
In 1790, the Philadelphia house of Robert Morris was used as a residence of the United States President until the capital moved to Washington D.C. Morris’ home is said to have included, according to US History dot org,
“the most technologically sophisticated refrigeration system in the fledgling United States.”
The ice pit was a 13 feet wide octagon with an 18 feet deep shaft, which took advantage of the natural 54 degrees temperature underground. People cut tons of ice from a neighboring river and brought it to the house and then stored it in the ice pit. The gravel on the base of the pit allowed melted water to run away, and the pressure of all of the ice packed together made it a solid mass.
Before the Morris house became the American President’s home, George Washington visited the home often. The icehouse amazed Washington. So much so that in 1784, he pressed Morris for details of how exactly this ice house had been built and Morris sent a long and detailed letter in return. Washington later built a version of exactly the same type at his own house in Mount Vernon. However, he struggled to find the right materials for the house to preserve the ice and disconsolately wrote to Morris that,
“The house I filled with ice does not answer – it is gone already . . . . My house was filled chiefly with Snow, have you ever tried Snow? do you think it is owing to this I am lurched.”
“not the smallest particle remaining”
End quote, by the end of June.
In early 19th century Europe, the ice harvesting industry was centered in Norway. However, in the United States of America, it was focused in New England and came under the watchful eye of one of my favorite personalities in food history, Mr. Frederick “The Ice King” Tudor.
Now, if you have not yet listened to the episode of “Eat My Globe” where I chat with my good friend, Alton Brown, I do recommend you go and do so. Not only because it’s a terrific episode where I challenge Alton to name 5 people who he thinks should be returned to the culinary pantheon, but also because as part of that discussion we have a long chat about Frederick “The Ice King” Tudor, one of his suggestions. I also talked about him on our episode on the history of gin from season 1.
Frederick Tudor decided, at the age of 22, that his future was in ice. His idea was to carve ice from the ponds and rivers of New England and to ship it to the French colony of Martinique, where it could be put to use for food preservation and for cooling drinks.
He couldn’t find a ship willing to hold water, even frozen, so he bought his own ship in which to travel and wrapped the ice in hay to preserve it and set sail. What he had not reckoned on, however, was that even if the ice survived the journey, which it remarkably did, there were no ice houses in Martinique. So, Tudor’s profits literally melted away and he lost $4,000 on that venture.
Not a great start, for sure. And things got worse as a future trip, including one to Havana, Cuba, also made no money and he ended up in debtor’s prison. . . twice.
However, he persevered and began to develop his business. With a business partner, Nathaniel Wyeth, he developed a more efficient way of cutting ice. He built ice houses in his destination ports and came up with improved ways of preserving his ice en route. He soon began to prosper, particularly in the Southern states where he gave bartenders free ice so they could get their customers hooked on cold drinks. While cocktails existed before, I agree with the arguments that this was the very beginning of the cocktail industry that we know today.
In 1833, he even undertook a mission to sell ice in Calcutta, India – my late father’s hometown by the way. That was a journey of 1600 miles over four long months, and remarkably, most of the 180-ton shipment arrived intact. It was such a smash hit that the local British colonials commissioned an ice house to be built awaiting the next shipment.
Amazing stuff. So imagine, the gin and tonics that they had in Calcutta, they were cooling with ice from New England. Isn’t that amazing? That is just incredible. I love that. I love that story.
By 1856, 150,000 tons of ice left Boston on ships to countries all around the world, including Japan, Australia and China.
Within the United States, ice sales were also terrific. This was helped by the development of railroad cars. These refrigerated railroad cars or reefers, as they were known, began to be used in 1857. These were simple railroad cars with bins of ice in them. However, by 1867, William Davis obtained a patent for specifically designed refrigerated cars and, in 1877, Joel Tiffany obtained a patent for an even more successful version.
The impact of these refrigerated methods of transport was huge both on the way that food was transported and on people’s eating habits due to their newfound ability to receive food from anywhere. But to facilitate this, not only did they need these refrigerated methods of distribution, they also needed a method of keeping those food stuffs from spoiling in their own home.
The first home refrigerator – really an ice box – first appeared in American homes in 1803. They were made from cedar, mahogany or teak with a tin or zinc lining with rabbit fur, flannel or cork padding. Someone at the time described it as,
“handsome item of domestic furniture . . . almost as indispensable as the sofa or the side-board.”
I guess. . . .
By the end of the 19th century, many American households had an ice box. This allowed them to store food, but also allowed them to store leftovers. The beginning of the leftover culture, no doubt.
This early type of refrigeration required daily ice deliveries by the quote, “iceman,” end quote, who sold ice in blocks that weighed between 25 pounds and 100 pounds. Apparently, back then, the average household used 300 100-pound blocks per year.
In 1913, Fred Wolf, Jr. markets the “Domestic Electric Refrigerator,” or shortened by taking the first syllable of each, the “DomElRe.” Popular Mechanics describe it as,
“an electric fan atop an icebox.”
Earlier, I mentioned Carl von Linden and his invention of liquifying gas used in refrigerators. In the 1920s, companies started developing safer gasses for the electric refrigerator. We also begin to see the origins of brand names, some of which we might still recognize, such as “Frigidaire” or “General Electric.”
These new machines were initially very expensive, but by the mid-1930s people started buying them as they became more affordable. We also see the beginning of the addition of freezer units not just to make ice cubes, but to take advantage of the boom in the availability of affordable frozen food, an industry that, in 2018, was worth nearly $228 billion.
And as I mentioned before, for most homes today, the notion of not having a fridge or a fridge freezer might seem unthinkable, and nearly 8 million new models are sold each year.
Which seems like a good place to bring this episode to a close. I hope you enjoyed this notion of combining two more compact histories together. And if you did, perhaps you can suggest some more that you would like to hear.
In the meantime, when you grab that spoon from your silverware drawer to scoop a spoonful of whipped cream cheese from your refrigerator, think of all the folks we talked about today to make that happen. Am I the only one who eats whipped cream cheese by itself by the refrigerator? Hmmm…..
Anyway, see you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 31, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.