The Big Chill: A Look at America’s Coldscape

The Center for Land Use Interpretation and writer Nicola Twilley document an often unacknowledged aspect of the food chain.

Tropicana, Bradenton, FL. (Photo: Nicola Twilley)

Jul 22, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The slides skip forward slowly on the wall-mounted flat screens, showing each sparse industrial landscape long enough for viewers to take in the fences, security gates and row after row of low-slung buildings. But the statistics seem to move at double-time, quickly slashing the American diet into definite chunks of individual annual consumptions: Six pounds of broccoli, 80 pounds of dairy, 225 pounds of fruit—45 of those pounds made up of oranges, both whole and juiced.

“Whole” is an important distinction here, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s small gallery space in Culver City, California. The current exhibition, curated by journalist Nicola Twilley, examines the country’s cold chain—the seemingly endless series of refrigerated spaces that keep vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy from spoiling after it leaves the farm or ranch. Foods like navel oranges may be advertised as “fresh,” but for the most part, they’re anything but. In the permanent winter of the cold chain, the concept of freshness is stretched to incredible lengths.

Pushing through the clear vinyl flaps that hang over the entrance to Perishable: An Exploration of the Refrigerated Landscape of America, you come face-to-face with what could be called Big Refrigeration. In fact, the room feels like a walk-in refrigerator. The facilities depicted in the photos taken by Twilley and CLUI staff and volunteers, are responsible for chilling a full 70 percent of what we eat. From the unripe bananas shipped in from the tropics and ripened with ethylene gas in special pressurized rooms to storage facilities for apples, fish, ice cream and even peanuts—it’s all there, chilling in the countless buildings that make up what Twilley calls the coldscape.

Writing about these refrigerated spaces for the art journal Cabinet, Twilley describes the cognitive dissonance created by the chilled infrastructure:

These are spaces in which a perpetual winter has distorted or erased seasonality; spaces that are located within an energy-intensive geography of previously unimaginable distance—both mental and physical—between producers and consumers.

No product embodies the postmodern notion of freshness enabled by the cold chain—the mental and physical distance Twilley speaks of—than orange juice. That carton of not-from-concentrate OJ? It may very well be made from fruit that was harvested more than a year ago.

“To store fresh orange juice, the not-from-concentrate, for this amount of time, you have to de-oxygenate it and de-oil it, they call it. You’re actually taking out the things that give it flavor,” she says of storing process. Each element is piped into its own towering storage tank and chilled to just above freezing. The deconstruction guarantees that the juice “doesn’t spoil while it stores, and you add it [the oil and other flavor components] back in when you go to sell it. But of course you can add them back in in any proportion you like and so that’s how you can develop a brand flavor as a sort of side effect of storing.

“Orange juice, technically, should always taste different,” Twilley continues. “For example, in Florida, over the course of the season different oranges come in and out—so Hamlins to Valencias to...and they totally have different flavors! The harvest, as it comes in, should make you a slightly different-tasting orange juice every day. But how can you have the difference between Tropicana and Minute Maid and have that be something you advertise and have the brand promise, quote unquote, if it isn’t going to taste the same every day?”

Long-term bulk storage—in tanks so large that workers who clean them can’t communicate with one another due to the echo—also creates a financial opportunity within that mental and physical distance between the orange tree and the consumer. “Orange juice, which seems like the epitome of freshness and goodness, is actually a financial instrument after you figure out how to store it for two years plus,” says Twilley. Yes, you can buy into the orange juice futures market, if you’re so inclined.

The gigantic tank farms of Tropicana and Citrusuco, the world’s largest orange juice producer, occupy one particular corner of the coldscape, with its own specific architecture and quirks. Considered in aggregate, the images in the show—the ice cream plants, the produce packing facilities, the world’s largest French fry factory—help to define a typology for this vast, often unacknowledged segment of the food chain. And across the board, the aesthetic is an industrial one. The only fields of vegetables are depicted in a mural on the brick façade of the packing warehouse. Many of facilities are located in port cities or major transit hubs. Compton Creamery may be the least bucolic name among the facilities depicted in Perishable, but the juxtaposition it offers between an inner city and a business with a strong pastoral association can sum up the coldscape.

Since dew-dappled trees and oranges with drinking staws poking through the rinds are used to sell an inherently industrial product like orange juice, Twilley’s effort to lay bare the coldscape could be considered vindictive. She’s clear that the intent is to inform, however, and hearing her speak excitedly about the niche culture of large-scale refrigeration, there’s no doubt that her intellectual curiosity is both pure and rabid. She can talk at length about the labor turnover rate at ice cream facilities (people just can’t hack it in the cold) and the specially designed clothing of this permawinter, among other topics.

“Refrigeration is definitely not something I’m out to say is a terrible thing. That would be extremely stupid. It’s not that I’m out to sort of damn, you know: ‘Look at all of this horrible corporate-refrigerated foods!’ No, not at all.”

Twilley says her fascination with refrigerated spaces was initially sparked while she was waiting to cross the border into Canada on a trip to Montreal. She saw some freight being moved out of a refrigerated truck into a refrigerated warehouse. It was winter at the time, and Twilley says, “It was so cold outside and it was equally cold inside and it suddenly occurred to me that it was going to be permanently cold in there. Even when it wasn’t winter outside, it was always going to be winter on the inside.”

The show, which runs through September 1, is just one way she’s investigating the cold chain. She’s writing various articles on the topic, and there’s a book proposal in the works too. “It’s definitely a blind spot for people, which is so funny because we do have a refrigerator in our homes—a lot of people have two,” she says. “And thinking back along the chain—so where the food in our refrigerator lived before—doesn’t seem to come into it.”