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How Refrigerators Rule Our Lives

Birds Eye frozen food plant, Darien, Wisconsin.
Birds Eye frozen food plant, Darien, Wisconsin.
Center for Land Use Interpretation

Just stepping into the Center for Land Use Interpretation's space in Culver City gives viewer a little shiver. Is it excitement, or the fact that they have chilled the space and added refrigeration flaps at the door to keep the cold from escaping? Maybe both.

The chilled-out atmosphere sets an appropriate scenefor the exhibition "Perishable: An Exploration of the Refrigerated Landscape of America."

The exhibition is follows "the continuum of cool that spreads from the source of food to your refrigerator," CLUI director Matthew Coolidge tells L.A. Weekly. "It also tells the story of how your fridge is a closet that opens up into this whole national infrastructure and logistics to maintains coldness in food so it's able to travel more widely and further from its source."

It's hard to imagine a world without constant refrigeration, but the whole setup began with the invention of fridge technology and flash freezing in the 1940s and 1950s, which moved American households from freshly prepared meals to TV dinners. "Frozen foods required a guarantee of coldness from production to the grocery store to the home," which set up an entire world of cold, says Coolidge.

For example, take the humble apple, which is picked seasonally and moved to giant controlled-atmosphere spaces to provide the ideal environment, "slowing down ripening of apple by taking oxygen out and replacing with nitrogen while chilling the space," says Coolidge.

Different fruits and vegetables have developed their own cold architectures, as the exhibition points out. Americans eat about 2000 pounds of food per year. Of that ton, "around 70 percent of what we eat goes through the cold chain through its life -- so most of what we eat is supported by this nationwide mechanism," Coolidge says.

The exhibit, which includes photos of the cold system and interactive information on how it works, took two years to research and photograph. Together with Nicola Twilley, who writes a blog called Edible Geography, the CLUI folks examined everything from banana ripening rooms to meat storage lockers. They uncovered a mountain of data and began sifting through it to select different types of structures and systems to represent the cold chain, which is like a supply chain.

Los Angeles has an interesting piece in the cold chain -- not only is California where the bulk of fresh vegetables and fruits are grown in America, but our fair city is also home to the world's largest banana ripening facility.

Bananas are the third-most consumed fruit in terms of weight, and 99 percent of them are produced elsewhere (mostly Ecuador and Colombia). "Bananas are unusual in that they come prepackaged, and are picked long before ripe, so they have to be ripened in special rooms." There are 50 such pressurized rooms at the downtown L.A. facility, Coast Tropical.

Coolidge says he was struck by the interconnectedness of the system. "Once you have a product that needs to be chilled you have to guarantee [it] along its whole life. It's also trying to slow down time -- this coldscape is about a kind of time machine to slow things down so they can move greater distance."

The free exhibition is open now at CLUI, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 12-5 p.m., through Sept. 1. You can also check out a clickable map that shows some of the sites from the exhibit here.

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