What Counts As Fresh Food?

The word ‘fresh’ is strangely hard to define, and not every food needs to be fresh to be good. But there are certain rare experiences of freshness that will stop you in your tracks.

To celebrate the spring in Rome, they sometimes eat a vegetable stew called vignarola. Like the summer succotash of the American South or the ratatouille of France, vignarola is a vegetable stew that, in its ideal form, is radiant with freshness. It is made from artichokes, tiny fresh fava beans and freshly shelled peas, all braised together with spring onions and white wine with fresh mint added at the end. Vignarola is a mellow mixture of all things green and new. It would once have marked the start of the new season after the hungry gap of late winter. But in an era when frozen peas are available all year round, the dish’s dazzling spring freshness no longer means as much.

The great miracle of our modern food system has been to supply us with the freshness of spring all year round—or at least with an approximation of it. We can buy juicy fragrant herbs in the depths of winter and spring chickens in the fall. When I find myself getting twinges of nostalgia for the food of the past, I remember how grim it must have been to survive for half the year on little but salt pork, bread and molasses (as described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books for children). Before refrigeration and modern methods of agriculture, even butter and eggs were seasonal foods. Nineteenth-century American cookbooks included unappetizing recipes for keeping eggs “perfectly good” by coating them in a thick layer of grease or submerging them in saltwater. Somehow, these don’t sound perfectly good—or at least not as good as living in a time when fresh eggs are available year-round.

On the other hand, in our world of apparent freshness, how often do you ever taste something that is truly fresh? When you look closely, much supermarket produce isn’t quite as fresh as it seems. I recently met a British farmer who produces salad greens. He told me that he can taste a huge difference between a leaf that is a day old and three days old and that by five days, the flavor is greatly dulled, but the leaves would still look green and bright, so the average shopper would be none the wiser. The same goes for much of the food you buy. The label says “fresh” but what this actually means is something closer to “not rotten.”

Our entire food supply is based on the idea of ​​“fresh” and “keeping things fresh.” But to keep things fresh is a kind of contradiction or deception, because something can only be truly fresh when it is right out of the ground or just cooked. The “fresh” food and drink in our supermarkets has often been on a surprisingly long journey in the global cold chain before it reaches us. A case in point is “fresh” orange juice. According to the 2010 book “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice,” by Alissa Hamilton, “fresh” orange juice advertised as “not-from-concentrate” may sit for as long as a year in cold storage tanks before it is packaged and shipped to stores.This isn’t at all the same thing as taking a whole orange, cutting it in half and squeezing its bright juice straight into a glass as the perfume of the zest fills the air.

The word “fresh” is strangely hard to define, which was one of the themes of an excellent book from 2009 called “Fresh: A Perishable History,” by Susanne Freiberg. As consumers, we are constantly asking ourselves whether things are fresh enough. We sniff the bottle of milk before we pour it on our cereal; we inspect a fillet of fish with suspicious eyes before we buy it. But Ms. Freiberg notes that US food law is fuzzier on the question of freshness than you might expect. Many refrigerated foods can be labeled as “fresh” even if they are weeks old, and fruit can still be “fresh” after it is irradiated or waxed. In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration held a meeting in Chicago to discuss the meaning of the term “fresh” and to decide whether there should be a more honest term to describe certain “fresh” foods that are actually processed. Should these be renamed “fresh-like”? A Florida lobbyist for the American Fresh Juice Council argued that it was pointless to try to pin the term down. “Fresh is not a measurement,” he argued. “Fresh is a state of being.”

I sometimes wonder whether the desire for freshness is, paradoxically, part of the appeal of processed food, with its many kinds of packaging for the purpose of sealing in and opening up. The crackle of a newly opened bag of chips, the fizz when you release the tab of a soda, the big reveal of peeling back the foil on a tub of sugary yogurt—all of these can feel like a fresh start, even if what’s inside the packet isn’t exactly fresh.

It may be impossible to measure true freshness in food, but you know it when you taste it. It is the sweet snap of a green bean that has been picked that day or the way a walnut tastes at the start of the season straight from the shell. A couple of years ago in the early summer, a friend served me a simple dish of boiled potatoes that were so fresh and waxy that every other potato I’d ever eaten seemed stale in my memory. It was similar to the moment I tasted freshly made sushi for the first time: I had no idea that the grains of rice could have such an ambrosial warm texture, sticky and separate at the same time.

Not every food needs to be fresh to be good. Vignarola aside, it is hard to beat a frozen pea. I also love pickled lemons and canned tomatoes and stinky aged cheeses. A canned peach is an underrated thing, and a dried apricot is often tastier than a fresh one.

But there are certain rare times when you taste something so fresh it stops you in your tracks. For me, the food most likely to do this is asparagus, which is one vegetable I try to buy in bundles from the market ever since reading that the green spears start to lose their sugars even a day after harvest. Slightly less fresh asparagus is still a treat, of course. But there is something about a really fresh spear, trimmed of its tough stalk and simply steamed or roasted and dipped in hollandaise sauce, that tastes as fresh as sap rising. It is as if you are eating spring itself.

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