Forum Holitorium

Month: March, 2013

Degrowing my Kitchen

Low tech

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.

Before

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.

After

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.

Egg n' polenta

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.

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Failing to See

Veggie mix

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my grandma’s kitchen. A mixture of white and that burnt orange ubiquitous in the seventies, it contained the standard kitchen appliances, a narrow pantry full of jars containing not just flour and sugar but all that great junk food I couldn’t eat at home, and a table to seat four. Behind the door were the pencil marks on the wall indicating how tall my cousin and I were at various stages of our childhood. Two windows opened up onto the long narrow lot the house was situated on, the view to the humongous garden blocked by the garage and car port. If you looked at the walls instead of gazing outside, there was a sign that read “Even my failures are edible.”

The plan Sunday night was to throw together a bunch of vegetables, ditalini (“little thimbles”) pasta, and water in a big pot and call it dinner. It was finally time do something with the carrots and leeks bought with good intentions. I also thought we could make thrifty use of the sad looking remnants of a head of Savoy cabbage, a sprouting red onion, and a wee red cabbage that was too small to play a serious role in anything, even a ferment. In the soup bowl, the vegetables looked so crowded. I had envisioned distinct leek and carrot coins in a wholesome, herby broth. The Savoy cabbage, however, had swollen up with pride, hogging all the space yet remaining maddeningly al dente. The red cabbage had slyly cast a rubious sheen on the concoction. I sipped the quite flavorful, nutritious broth and avoided the bulky mass of cabbage. Not what I had hoped to eat for dinner, this “failure” was nonetheless tasty.

After the soup had cooled down, I set out to deal with the leftovers. Most of the broth had been absorbed by the vegetables and the red cabbage had turned a bluish-purple thanks to its anthocyanins. The blue hue was stronger in person than in the picture above. Though I was really impressed that such a color could come from real food and not artificial food coloring, the leftovers still looked unappetizing. I was a bit worried about how to salvage the soup. It didn’t seem right to throw away something that healthy and of such great volume. The handy thing about soups is that they can be puréed, so the next incarnation of the soup looked like this:

Biowaste

TC commented on how it reminded him of the biowaste used to make biogas for power generation. I thought it just looked like bean soup or refried beans. Picky me opted for polenta Monday night, but TC ate the biosoup and said it was delicious.

To what extent is it meaningful to attach the word “failure” to something we have cooked? It makes sense to talk about failure if we burn something beyond repair, rendering it inedible, but do we fail if we attempt to create a dish that tastes just like our memory of it or that matches an ideal or projection and don’t arrive at this goal? I don’t think so. Our society has conditioned us to see so much in dualistic terms. It’s either black or white, a success or a failure. Something is judged to be a success when specific expectations are met and a failure when they are not.

What if we take a more experimental approach to creating in the kitchen? What if we throw some ingredients together and see what happens, observing the results and our sensations in response to them? What if we even set out to cook without any expectations beyond producing something edible? Perhaps the real issue is an inability to look at a situation from several different angles and respond creatively to whatever lands on your plate.