From October 20 to March 22, this humble wooden bench served as my refrigerator. Whenever I travel for more than a week at a time, I try to eat everything up and turn off the fridge. Any leftovers I give away to friends and neighbors, and any odd bottles and jars that can be kept at room temperature like rosewater, walnut oil, and mustard are placed in the coolest spot in the apartment while I’m away. After our three week journey in October and November, TC and I returned home to winter temperatures and decided not to turn on the fridge until warmer weather made it necessary. The bench was not in its current spring and summer position shown above but against another wall where it is mostly sheltered from snowfall.
I first thought of unplugging my fridge after reading an article printed over five years ago in La Décroissance (Degrowth), a highly polemical French monthly – which I must confess I enjoy reading when I come across it – that rails against the West’s unbridled faith in growth and advocates reducing consumption. One way of lowering electricity consumption is to stop using your refrigerator 24/7. It took me a few years to try this out, but try I did in my previous apartment, a studio on the third floor with a huge balcony and a very loud refrigerator. When winter arrived, I pulled the plug and put my dairy products outside on the balcony until spring. It worked out fine, I slept better, and so I did it again. This winter I tried it out with my current refrigerator.
The Royal Society in London deemed refrigeration the most significant invention in the history of food and drink. I’m not sure it deserves this superlative, but it has definitely shaped our habits – and for those who benefit from modern medicine, which would be impossible without refrigeration, many have their lives to thank for it. The average person, however, can live without a refrigerator, and it’s not just me and some French people unplugging but North Americans as well. The problem with refrigerators is their use of electricity derived from non-renewable energy sources and the use of harmful chemicals like Freon. The solution is to reconsider if we need to refrigerate as much as we do and when it is necessary, to rethink how we do it and create alternative refrigeration technologies with less of an environmental impact. One pioneer in this field is Yasuyuki Fujimura, a Japanese engineer who developed a non-electric refrigerator now used by nomads in Mongolia to keep mutton cool.
Which brings me to one reason why it is easier for me to go without a refrigerator and freezer: I don’t eat meat. I do, however, eat dairy products, which is why my refrigerator only takes a break in winter and doesn’t remain off. That being said, most of us refrigerate more than necessary. Butter and eggs, for example, can remain at room temperature for up to a week. I had a roommate in college that left the butter out and I was really horrified at first, but she learned it at home from her mother, who had grown up on a farm, and I have come to do the same myself. As for produce, vegetables such as beets, turnips, squash, onions, garlic, and leeks and non-berry fruit can all be kept at room temperature, though in my experience carrots tend to shrivel up quickly. Leafy greens need the cold so they don’t wilt as quickly. The Austrian government has a website dealing with refrigeration and recommends NOT refrigerating the following fruits and vegetables as they are sensitive to cold: avocado, bananas, pomegranates, mangos, citrus fruit, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini. When there are leftovers, they normally disappear the next day, so I just leave them out on top of the stove or in the oven. My leftovers are usually vegetable or bean soups, vegetable turnovers, or quiche that I reheat before eating. On hot summer days I am more cautious and quicker to refrigerate.
This is what our refrigerator looked like when we started it up again on Friday. What begs for refrigeration are the dairy products and the leafy greens, though the oils and juice in the door are also thankful for the cold. It turns out that I was a little hasty in turning on the fridge: the temperature plunged back down below freezing and the snow keeps on coming down. Since the sun won’t shine here, I have to make it shine in my lunch bowl. Incidentally, the ingredients in the next recipe don’t need to be refrigerated.
Hidden Sunshine Polenta
Take 1/2 cup polenta (mine was a white heirloom variety from Italy) and mix it in 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil in a small pot. Keep stirring with a whisk. When the polenta has thickened, break an egg onto the top of the polenta in the middle of the pot. Stir around the egg so as not to disturb the egg yolk (and to keep the polenta from spitting). Slowly incorporate the egg white into the polenta. When the egg white has cooked (you’ll see specks of egg white in the polenta), transfer the whole mixture to a bowl. I covered the egg yolk with polenta and then deliberately stirred where the yolk was, letting the yolk run into the polenta and giving it a nice yellow hue. Add salt and pepper to taste and enjoy.