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In defence of fridgelessness

 
R Ranson
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I've been surprised to see how violently attached some people are to their refrigerators. I yet to be convinced that they are a necessity for life and good health. YES, they HELP, but one can live without it, we have for most of human history.

The following is my position on the topic of fridglessness. It is one point of view as to why and how we can reduce or dependency on refrigeration.

Reasons people tell me fridges are necessary:

  • they are affordable - if one is wealthy enough to purchase an energy star fridge, then possibly... but that's begging the question. I don't know the numbers on fridges, and I don't really care. Anything that is a monthly drain, isn't affordable for many people in the world. Off grid fridges are more expensive to buy.
  • they are eco-friendly - this should read they are more eco-friendly than previous generations of fridges... maybe... I don't know. Fridges have a lot more plastic in them now not to mention the distance traveled of the parts (and food that we put in the fridges), and the after life of the fridge, and the ecological impact of the electricity produced... You're smart enough to see how resource heavy fridges are. They are certainly not eco-friendly when compared to a hole in the ground.
  • you would die without one - then we wouldn't have 7 billion people in this world. I don't know the numbers, but I suspect it's about half the world's population that live without refrigeration.
  • okay then, you won't die, but you'll drastically shorten your life - Really? Are we sure we aren't being brainwashed here? Let's look at this some more. It's the only objection that comes close to convincing me... and if falls flat when I did my research.


  • First and most importantly, I agree that a fridge is necessary when living a standard western diet, especially when consuming and storing pasteurized or canned food that have been opened! It is also necessary for some food that has been transported long distances. The way our food system is currently designed is fully dependent on the refrigerator to keep us safe.

    So for a good understanding of what safe food without refrigeration looked like in the past, we have to go back, to a time and diet before the modern western one. One that does not include pasteurization or canning. This is also a time before air tight sealing was used for food (like plastic, or airlocks). People ate their food fresh, or preserved it with fermentation, cellaring, drying, and salting. These preservation techniques do not sterilize the food, rather they create environments that promote friendly bacteria and unfriendly to unfriendly bacteria. Food born illnesses were not as common as modern media leads us to believe. People knew how to keep their food safe, they wouldn't have survived to reproduce otherwise. Life expectancy is another cry of the pro-fridge movement. Wars, a life of hard work, infant mortality, and yes, some dietary issues like famine and poor nutrition were all contributing factors. Poor nutrition, I've learned, was not that poor. It was more the feast and famine pattern of the year, plus lack of fats in the peasants diet that caused most of (what we consider now) poor nutrition. What we consider now is less than 2000 calories, but compared to today's nutrition, there are schools of thought that suggest the pre-industrial diet was actually better nutritionally than what we eat in the West today. See the works of sally fallon and the Western Price Foundation.

    With the rise of city living, lack of sanitation caused a great deal of illness, both in people directly, but also by raising livestock in condensed, unsanitary conditions. These were not necessarily caused by lack of refrigeration, but rather by greedy people not caring about what effects their actions had on others. The invention of pasteurization and understanding of germ theory allowed these modern foods (because we are entering the start of the modern food system here) produced in unsafe conditions (like Milk from unhealthy cows that had nasty stuff like TB) to be made safe through processing. This processing was widely accepted the same time as refrigeration was. So, yes, there is a correlation between refrigeration and increased health in the (urban) population. Correlation also exists between this health increase and germ theory and advances in medical technology.

    A really important thing to note is that these modern food processing techniques like pasteurization, preservatives, and long distance transportation of fresh foods, require refrigeration to keep the food safe for human consumption. Only, they also came with a new set of safety challenges (like botulism which wasn't much of an issue before canning) Since this kind of food processing was so different than the historical norm, people needed educating on how to keep these new foods safe. Public education campaigns, food safe classes, advertisements, &c. Both industry and government worked hard to educate the public so we now believe that refrigeration is the one and only way to keep food safely.

    I remember in high school, I asked my home economics teacher how people kept food safe before refrigeration. She told me, unequivocally, there wasn't a time before refrigerators. Being stubborn, I got a history book out of the library and showed her that there was indeed a time before refrigeration. He answer was "they're all dead because they didn't have fridges". Whether or not she believed it, or was just parroting the party line, it goes to show you how well indoctrinated we are into believing electric refrigeration is necessary to survival.



    As for life expectancy being longer now than it was before refrigeration. If we take infant mortality out of the equation, and look at projected life expectancy for people born today, who will have lived their entire life with refrigerated food... are we sure we want to say that refrigeration is the only factor that correlates to life expectancy? If we do, then it would make a convincing argument against refrigeration. But that's my point, the fridge in and of itself is a symptom of modern food processing. If we remove these modern foods from our diet (while keeping many of the advancements from modern medicine - because one does not necessarily exclude the other), having a fridge in the home offers little benefit.



    That said, I do currently live with a fridge. Raised on the modern western diet, I'm having to learn the traditional methods for food preservation. Once I've completely kicked the habit of modern food, I hope to live with little or no refrigeration, but perhaps one small freezer because it's just so convenient. I'm telling you this so you don't think I'm suggesting everyone be without a fridge. I'm simply trying to expose some of the brainwashing we've been given to believe that it's absolutely necessary to survival.



    Resources used for this post (to save you from the sin of asking for citation):
    Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions
    Cooking andDining in Medieval England by Peter Brears
    Mrs Beaton's Book of Household Management
    Terry Jones' Medieval Lives
    Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
    Personal experience time traveling in the 14th Century - I participate in an education display where we eat, sleep, and live in the year 1371 for a couple of weeks each year.


    To a lesser extent:
    in defence of foods by Michael Pollan
    The Country House Kitchen 1650-1900 by Pamela A Sambrook & Peter Brears
    Medieval Kitchen by Hannele Klemettila
    Pleyn Delit by Hieatt and Butler
    Medieval Kitchen by Odille Redon, Francoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi
    art of natural cheese making by Asher
    Paul's Podcast with Sally Fallon on Raw Milk


    This post expresses my point of view based on my reading and understanding of the world. However, we are talking history here, which involves a certain amount of interpretation. There will never be a solid 'truth' one way or the other, because quite frankly most of the people who have done work in this field are bias, and they let that bias show in their work (I know I do). Mine is not the only conclusion made from the information presented here, but I'm not alone in it either.
     
    Dan Boone
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    I am sort of intrigued by the framing of your post around the proposition that a fridge is (or is not) a necessity. Because to me, it seems instead to be a highly-desirable luxury.

    We all of us are products of our environment. I grew up in a log cabin on the Yukon river. We had a garden and a root cellar and a pole between two trees to hang meat from. We had a smokehouse and a lot of Mason jars and several large pressure canners. We did not have electricity (well, we had a generator for running power tools or other short-duration projects requiring electricity, Mom would sometimes fire it up to make mayonnaise in bulk using an electric blender) and we did not have refrigeration. My mother liked the idea of a propane fridge but we never could afford to buy one. (We kept the jars of mayo on the floor; they never went bad before we finished them.)

    We were careful about food safety, and nobody ever got sick. But we did lose leftovers fairly often, stored in a "cool" (often a cold corner of the cabin) for too long. One summer we had some kind of "sour" bacteria in our kitchen that was souring all of our soups and beans before they had even finished cooling off to room temp. It wasn't dangerous, but it tasted terrible. Cheese (bought "in town" and stored for too long) would sometimes go moldy; if you pare off the mold you can then retard it by washing the brick of cheese with vinegar. Do too much of this and the cheese will get really sharp. Butter likewise goes "sharp" when kept too long in sub-optimal storage conditions; it's perfectly edible but definitely an acquired taste. Put sharp butter on stale "Pilot Crackers" and you'll bring all the old trappers to your yard, if any of them are still left alive.

    There wasn't much fresh produce in our lives, except for the two months of the year when mom's garden was producing. If she made a big dressed salad of lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers and mayo, we had to eat it all in one sitting. Without refrigeration, it would become hopeless slime overnight. We never let that happen; produce was a luxury too. But that sort of consideration complicated everything about our daily food processes.

    You can live a perfectly civilized life without refrigeration, and eat a perfectly healthy diet. I never had a fridge until I got to college. But I don't choose to live without one now.

    What does a fridge (or more precisely, a refrigerator/freezer) buy me? It is a luxury convenience. Fridges make food storage easier, and they allow cooking tasks to be bunched and done in bulk. Without a fridge more food-related tasks become daily (garden harvesting, perishables shopping, cooking) that might otherwise be weekly.

    Fridges also allow for economic savings. I can buy produce past its prime that would need to be cooked immediately without a fridge, and save it a few more days in my fridge until I can find time to cook up a large pot of whatever. You can buy perishables in larger quantities with refrigeration. You have access to different foodways, such as frozen vegetables, which are nearly as nutritious as fresh and one whole lot cheaper.

    It's a labor-saving device. It's a luxury. It can save you money, although I'd be hard pressed to prove the savings net more than the energy expense. A necessity? No. But you have to work harder to achieve the same level of nutrition without a fridge.

    A note on the embodied energy that goes into making a fridge and transporting it to you: that's huge. But I've never bought a new fridge. Every fridge I ever bought was somebody else's used fridge. I'm not sure I'd prevent the consumption of that embodied energy by eschewing fridges. That embodied energy is a sunk cost for society. The logic is the same as using repurposed plastics: as a society we've already pulled those hydrocarbons out of the ground, now the goal is to get the maximum possible use out of them.

    Conclusion: I firmly agree that a fridge is not necessary for good health or longevity. But I'm not convinced there's any pressing need to eliminate fridges from a sustainable lifestyle. The energy expense is not negligible, but the benefits of spending that energy are quite tangible.
     
    R Ranson
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    I really like your post, Dan. Thanks for joining in the conversation and sharing your first-hand experience. I enjoyed reading about the challenges and the successes of fridge-free living.

    It's a labor-saving device. It's a luxury. It can save you money, although I'd be hard pressed to prove the savings net more than the energy expense. A necessity? No. But you have to work harder to achieve the same level of nutrition without a fridge.


    This is a good point.

    Maybe it's more than the fridge being required for the modern Western diet. Maybe it's also required to live the modern Western lifestyle? Not having a fridge would require more frequent food acquisition and cooking. But on the plus side, your example shows it forces one to eat more seasonably.

    I admit, I love the luxury of a fridge. I don't know if I'll ever go completely fridgeless, so long as I can afford to have electricity. But, I also want to know that I could live without a fridge if the situation arose.


    To me, the problem comes from the overgeneralization that all perishable food must be kept refrigerated. I've been told so many times by so many people that it's simply not safe to live without a fridge. I just don't think it's true that a fridge is a necessity of life. I like the luxury, but I don't like the brainwashing we get that makes us believe we MUST have one to survive.
     
    Judith Browning
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    We were off grid for 16 years when our sons were young and had no problem without a refrigerator....we milked goats every day, had chickens and rabbits and many times fed the leftovers to the dogs and later a pig. I think we were more mindful of what and how we were cooking and certainly with what we brought home from town.
    Now we have a very small 'dorm' refrigerator and it is as Dan says a luxury and one we've gotten used to. I usually keep a jug of water frozen in the freezer part to put in a cooler for the overflow greens, etc.
    This reminds me of an old thread of mine....it seems many here don't have typical items in their refrigerators
    http://www.permies.com/t/33311/md/refrigerator
     
    Rebecca Norman
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    In my experience, life before fridges was perfectly fine, and I've lived without a fridge for the past 20-odd years here in Ladakh. For at least 15 of those years nobody I knew here had a fridge, and they didn't see a need for a fridge, AND I never saw anybody eat food that had gone bad. The earliest fridge adopters I knew used it solely to keep drinks cold in summer, and only gradually learned to keep food in the fridge.

    Changes in social structure and economy go hand in hand with technology like a fridge. Things like the nuclear family where everyone goes out all day to work or study; not having a cow or a milkman; our habit of buying meat and vegetables only once or twice a week.

    The fridge-less society that I saw having a healthy and nutritious life was largely rural and producing fresh dairy at home daily, producing lots of root vegetables to eat fresh and store for winter in the root cellar, and fermented pickles and dried foods for winter. Meat was either bought fresh on the day of consumption or in winter, kept frozen. More meat was eaten in winter, more vegetables in summer. Families were large, and there were usually one or more full time homemaker-farmers in the family, who would do the cooking from scratch at every meal. Because there were so many people, my impression is that left-overs were easily eaten within the next day or so. This climate is moderate in summer and cold in winter, so leftovers don't go off immediately.

    In the rest of India, life before fridges seems to me to have also depended on a full time homemaker/cook/farmer in the family, local fresh milk or meat available daily, and making every meal from scratch from fresh ingredients. But also Indian culture considers it essential to cook a new hot meal three times a day, and has a strong aversion to eating leftovers. This has carried through to modern homes with fridges. For example, I'm often eager to eat leftovers for breakfast, but I find that Indian hosts are often unwilling to let a guest eat leftovers. That might be due to the culture developing appropriate customs for the very hot climate. Also, Indian culture tends to consider it unacceptable to eat a cold meal such as sandwiches. For example, trekking agencies in my region know that for Indian tourists they have to cook or carry a hot lunch, but some agencies are aware that for western tourists you can carry a cold lunch. In a culture and economy where somebody in the house will bring in fresh milk, meat and vegetables daily, and will cook three hot meals from scratch, a fridge is entirely unnecessary, though of course once they became available they were adopted for cold drinks in hot weather, and now people actually use them for storing food as we do in the west.

    Butchers here slaughter in the morning, sell out by midday, and then close up. They never sell day-old meat, except for frozen items that are brought in from outside the region.

    When people live in urban areas and don't have a full-time homemaker to bring fresh food and cook from scratch every day, and when everybody is out all day and comes back in the evening, it becomes much more desirable to shop once or twice a week and keep things in the fridge.

    Of course having a fridge makes us develop a lifestyle that requires it. The demise of neighborhood groceries and butchers is both a cause and a result of us all having cars and fridges. It's a vicious cycle.

    Semi-off-topic anecdote -- I once lived with 3 other women in the US, and our fridge was often overfull. You know, everybody had a different kind of milk etc taking up space in there. I suggested let's keep certain vegetables, and for gods sake the butter, onions and potatoes, out of the fridge, but one of the roommates was horrified: "Everything will get all germy!" This was 25 years ago, before I'd done all this fridge-free living, but even then I thought that sounded delusional, and a sad marker of modern artificial life.
     
    leila hamaya
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    for the many years i lived off grid and without a fridge, i found an unexpected bonus was that it kept me eating out of my garden more/eating fresh foods more/minimized the amount of pre made crap i bought.

    i had a small cooler outside that was ok for a few days storage of a few things, and that was ok enough, for the once a month stock ups, especially if i spurlged on ice too while in town......for a few days a month i would be able to have certain special items that normally need a fridge. but just by not having a fridge i ate a LOT better....and had to frequently go on mini trips to the small local store for mostly milk, something i really enjoy, especially for coffee addiction rituals. =)

    though with all that said, i really like that now that i have grid power, i have a tiny fridge, and love being able to occasionally get ice cream, store cheese longer, and the major one that was always an issue --> milk/half and half.
     
    Todd Parr
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    Growing up my family never put butter in the fridge, and it was so much better. It never got bad and you could actually spread it without tearing your bread to pieces or trying to mash an impenetrable lump of it into your potatoes. I don't even understand refrigerating butter.
     
    Dan Boone
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    Todd Parr wrote:Growing up my family never put butter in the fridge, and it was so much better. It never got bad and you could actually spread it without tearing your bread to pieces or trying to mash an impenetrable lump of it into your potatoes. I don't even understand refrigerating butter.


    Fully agree with this. Butter will get sharp after weeks or months with no refrigeration, but purchased and consumed in the usual amounts, it's better at room temperature and much easier to spread. I have never seen butter "spoil" in any inedible way, as long as it is not allowed to melt.

    Back when I was eating butter, I did once have "new relationship adjustment issues" because the new girlfriend wanted to refrigerate my butter. I had to get very firm about not putting my butter dish in the fridge...
     
    Todd Parr
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    Dan Boone wrote:

    Back when I was eating butter, I did once have "new relationship adjustment issues" because the new girlfriend wanted to refrigerate my butter. I had to get very firm about not putting my butter dish in the fridge...


    As does my current lady
     
    Kyrt Ryder
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    Dan Boone wrote:
    Todd Parr wrote:Growing up my family never put butter in the fridge, and it was so much better. It never got bad and you could actually spread it without tearing your bread to pieces or trying to mash an impenetrable lump of it into your potatoes. I don't even understand refrigerating butter.


    Fully agree with this. Butter will get sharp after weeks or months with no refrigeration, but purchased and consumed in the usual amounts, it's better at room temperature and much easier to spread. I have never seen butter "spoil" in any inedible way, as long as it is not allowed to melt.
    Does this apply to butter made from pasteurized cream? I would imagine that- given enough time- it would likely go rancid rather than sour.
     
    I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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