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Alice asks: could you live without a refrigerator?

Think you can make me smile? Think again.

My cousin Alice has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. As an adorable rosy-cheeked little girl, she requested that we call her  “John” and wore shorts and no shirt to the beach. After all, if her older brother could do it, why couldn’t she? I’ve always admired her courage to be her own person. After college, she moved to Portugal to spend a summer working on a farm. That was two years ago! Since then, she has become fluent in Portuguese as well as farming. Alice possesses the unique talent of being able to make us think about what we take for granted in our lives as being necessary and part of decorum (see frowny-face photo), which is why I jumped at the chance to share her story of living for the past year without a refrigerator in Portugal.

Before I let her get started with her tale, I should mention I’m rather attached to my refrigerator. While I follow several bloggers in their attempts to go “off grid,” I have no plans to do so myself in the future. However, like Alice is about to explain, I have had the benefit of seeing differences in other cultures’ views of what MUST BE refrigerated. For example, my first time shopping in a British grocery store, I spent thirty minutes wandering around in search of the eggs. I stubbornly persisted, assuming I must be blind to some other method of storing eggs in the fridge besides cardboard crates. Only after an embarrassing moment in which I asked a befuddled store clerk did I finally discover the location of the eggs, midway down an aisle with NO REFRIGERATION. Then there was the British refrigerator in our home, which was the size of a trash compactor and was stored under the counter. I also remember that on my study abroad in Kenya, the yogurt in our sack lunches came European-style with more active cultures and was stored in unrefrigerated bags.

Exhibit A: The current state of my fridge

 Back to my love affair with the fridge for a moment. In an attempt to live frugally, I have gotten our trips to the store down to once per week, and this style of living would make a lack of a refrigerator (in non-winter months) difficult. I hope it becomes less of an issue when I learn how to can food, as I’ll be able to increase my room-temperature food storage substantially. You could argue that going without a refrigerator would be more frugal and thus allow for the gas required with an extra trip or two to the store. You could also argue Alice just doesn’t have kids yet and doesn’t know what she’s in for.

Whatever your proclivity for storing food, I hope you find inspiration in her description of what she keeps without refrigerating. Please note that Alice’s and my opinions on refrigeration are just that…opinions. My own knowledge of public health, and the fact that I have small children at home for whom botulism is a life-threatening illness, make me likely more conservative regarding food safety than Alice. If you have questions about food safety, please consult the folks at the CDC. Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll share your experiences and opinions in the comments. Let the robust discussion begin!

Take it away, Alice…

View from Alice’s balcony

I should first admit that I never planned to live without a refrigerator for a year; it was a matter of circumstance. In my second year living in Portugal, my boyfriend and I moved from our furnished apartment in the city of Porto to a wonderful little village in the middle-of-nowhere. Our new apartment had no furnishings and no appliances. It was cold in our first weeks there, and with no heat in the house, we barely noticed the absence of a refrigerator. I was spending every dime of our income on any IKEA item that could fit in the tiny Fiat we drove, so with no money for a fridge and no way to transport it, we kept putting off. After three months, it simply wasn’t a priority any more, and after six months living without, it became a project. It took only a few weeks for me to adjust my lifestyle to a point where I no longer felt I needed a fridge.

Cozy kitchen

I go to the grocery store two to three times a week. Rather than just picking up bread or cereal, I divide my list for the week into three equal parts. If I get something particularly perishable, like fish, we have it that same night and the next days we have pasta, soups, grains, and vegetables. By doing this, I let the store keep things cold for me, because there’s no point in refrigerating a piece of meat from Saturday to Wednesday when the store will be keeping it cold anyway, and I can pick it up on Wednesday on the way home. 

Fridge-less pantry

Our grandmothers never thought to keep cold much of the food we keep in the refrigerator. Eggs and butter are the best place to begin. Eggs will last several weeks at room temperature. If you’re not sure if your eggs are still edible, you can find out by dropping them in a bowl of water- if they float, throw them out. Butter will last for at least a week and, additionally, won’t absorb all those funky fridge flavors and stay soft enough to spread. I even keep pasteurized, sealed yogurt for up to five days on the counter, and it has never gone bad. Leftovers can be tricky, which is why a small freezer and big appetites are better than last week’s forgotten rice in the monster fridge.

Tangerine storage 🙂

Once we take out the condiments–many of which have so much sugar, vinegar or salt that they don’t really need to be cold–the fruits and vegetables and the aforementioned eggs, butter, etc., what are we left with? This is the jumping off point from which you can really explore your own home’s refrigeration needs. Some things like milk and meat must be refrigerated. We are at-home-vegetarians and not regular milk drinkers, but I buy smaller quantities and leave it on the counter when I have coffee-drinking guests. 

I’m forever getting asked about food safety. Aren’t I afraid that I’m going to die of botulism? Well, no, not really. In college, I spent a semester abroad in Jamaica, and I can remember vividly being shocked by what they would leave out on the counter: leftovers, eggs, juice and milk, and yet we never got sick. It seems to me that our society has become food safety paranoid. My experience leads me to believe that unless you have a problem with you nose, you will almost always know when food is bad; if you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be here. Also, the refrigerator does not guarantee any kind of safety; things go bad there too, just more slowly.

Alice’s aptly named “Chicken Ghetto”

I believe many families who live in urban or suburban, food-rich environments could probably also live comfortably without a refrigerator. Because the refrigerator is there, we put food in it; after a while, we assume these items need to go there. But by making small experiments with eggs, yogurt, cheese, and vegetables and fruit, you can find out what your family’s needs really are. Perhaps by eliminating the need to refrigerate things that you consume quickly, and those that never needed it, you can explore the option of downsizing to a mini-fridge, or getting rid of it all together. 

imageThese days, even in many developing countries, the refrigerator is a staple appliance in the kitchen. When we think of a world without refrigerators, we might think of children walking down dusty roads carrying blocks of ice tied in bail wire. But we should think again. Those living in sub-Saharan Africa or in areas with infrequent access to fresh vegetables and meat might need refrigerators more than those of us in the developed world. There is no doubt there are many folks for whom my system simply won’t work. Certainly, families with members who have special dietary needs, as well as the elderly who often depend on others to get to and from the store, would find it more than a small inconvenience. Rural populations and those living in the urban ‘food wastelands’ also need home refrigeration more than the urban middle class who have the access to grocery stores.

Of course, there’s the natural question: why live without a fridge? The refrigerator is the single largest user of energy in the home, hands down, assuming you don’t have air conditioning. For those of us who work hard in many aspects of our lives to minimize our use of energy, the refrigerator is clearly the forgotten beast. We assume its necessity without question. There’s no doubt that it’s convenient; I would love to have ice cream and cold beer, but after living comfortably for a year without a fridge, I can’t bring myself to get one just for that. I guess I’ll just have to go to the café. 

Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Patchwork Living Blogging Bee, the Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways Blog Hop, Your Green Resource, Simple Lives Thursday, FarmGirl Friday, Fight Back Friday, Frugal Friday, Sunday School, the Homestead Barn Hop, and Monday Mania