Being from Portland my family are what you might call foodies. We love food. We love to make it, smell it, taste it, experiment with new recipes and tastes and textures. Another prerequisite for being a Portland foodie is trying to be very knowledgeable about the source of your food. Where does it come from? a farm? Was it grown using pesticides? Were they natural pesticides or chemical? Was it a local farm or a corporate farm? Did the food come from a yours or a friends garden? Did you get the ingredients on a trip to the forest to forage for edible native plants? For a real Portland foodie these are all questions that float around as you eat. Not just the taste, but the process, and the community impact of our favorite foods. Last night we made delicious Artisan Herb Sourdough Bread, the the night before we had crab. In the summer I enjoy a nice apricot salsa with lime and chile, homemade tortillas, a refreshing mint lemonade-
At this point I think it’s important to mention that my family has lived two years now without refrigeration or an oven in our home. And that home, for us, has been briefly a 1971 VW camper van and a 1978 Cape Dory sailboat, 28 feet long. Cooking space is minimal. So how do we do it? How can you do it? Why should you do it?
Why should you do without refrigeration? To me, this seems obvious. I’ve always been the kind who, if I could find a way to minimize or conserve, I implemented it in my life. Like many in my generation I grew up in the mid-80s, early 90s when environmentalism became a household word.
As I came into adulthood, I attended a fairly liberal college in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. During that time I was lucky enough to be able to take classes and attend conferences that lined up with what I was discovering my values to be: conservation. I learned about alternative energy, and the dangers of reliance on fossil fuels. I learned about over consumption in our society. I learned about the idea of Peak Oil, that someday soon, the oil will run out, about climate change and the damage done by using what fossil fuel remains, and about how if everyone used resources like my country did, we would need five earths to sustain us.
Standard refrigeration is bad for several reasons. There are chemicals used in the manufacture as well as the use and disposal of refrigerators that are incredibly destructive and unhealthy. Not just potentially for you, the consumer, but for the workers who build them, and for the people who live where ever they end up disposed of, which all too often now is in Africa.
However, chemicals aside, the electricity use of refrigerators should be enough to make you think. When I lived in the UK most people didn't have what we in the US would consider standard refrigerators, and especially not ones with the large side or bottom freezers, or extra freezers in the garage, and things like that. In the UK a “normal” refrigerator was what we would consider a “dorm” or “mini” fridge and they used it for the entire family. They had taxes on electricity, so they were very mindful of consumption, being very careful about using things such as washing machines, dish washers, or even dryers. Even in wet Scotland people would hang clothes out to dry on sunny days, and on the radiators on rainy days, and that was standard across classes. They turned off lights and used far less appliances and many homes even had ways to turn off individual electrical sockets when not in use. Yet here in the US, we guzzle down electricity.
A typical US refrigerator uses as much electricity per year as nine Ethiopians. That fact alone is shocking, but then consider, where is that electricity coming from? Do you live in an area where your electricity comes from burning coal? Are you lucky enough to live in an area with alternative sources such as hydro, wind or solar? Even in the “green” city of Portland, which has a relatively high percentage of it’s power that comes from green energy sources as diverse as hydro, wind farms, geothermal, solar, and tidal generators that they have been testing on the grid, still more than 40% is fossil fuels. So if you have a refrigerator, you have a significantly large carbon footprint. Or, to put it another way, you could say that if you have a refrigerator you have at least the same carbon foot print as about 3.6 Ethiopians (depending on how energy efficient a fridge, what foods you get and their source, etc).
Of course there are other ways, as far as electricity goes. My family has our own solar panels, and at the time of writing this we are contemplating our own wind generators. However, when you own the system, and have to monitor the electrical output, and upkeep and maintain everything yourself, you really start to form priorities. We decided refrigeration wasn't a priority for us when we moved into the VW. At that time, we didn't even have the solar panels, so we only had electricity if we charged our devices in the 12 volt converter, or stopped somewhere with electricity. We cooked over campfires and camp stoves and sometimes even just boiled water to drink or cook with. We gather the things we ate. That wasn't a huge change, having spent so much time in Portland, with friends that brew beer, and pick berries, and trade the venison the hunted at potlucks for the cheese another friend made. Knowing how to cook, and cook things that were delicious, even in spartan conditions was our priority. Refrigeration was never tied to that.
The VW came with an icebox, and we just used it as a cupboard. We learned that hard cheeses lasted a long time, and softer cheeses lasted if you wrapped them properly. We got lots of canned foods, as well as flours, sugar and coffee; things that wouldn't spoil. We kept fresh fruits and veggies and ate them in a timely manner so they wouldn't spoil, and bought or gathered things seasonally. I think that is actually something my mom or my grandma taught me when I was younger and I forgot until I relearned it as an adult.
The secret to no refrigeration is fresh, in season, local food. Maybe even food you gathered like those berries or the wild apples or the clams you dug when you found the perfect beach. Food is about making time and focusing on now, and what’s around you. It’s making every meal a thanksgiving for the beauty of nature, for the bounty of friends and community. The secret to no refrigeration living is in repurposing that band tee that doesn't fit, into cheese cloth for the smoked gouda you got at the farmers market. The secret is going shopping more often and not forgetting what you bought, and not having a mindset of just forgetting your food and forgetting yourself and forgetting the bike ride to the market and being a robot. It’s cooking a pizza in a dutch oven over a camp fire or your fire pit or your friends fire pit and drinking home brew that your friend made, and your other friend brought crab to put on the pizza. That is why you would want to do it. Because if you care about your food, and your self and your community, it’s just naturally the next step.
All our friends within about 5 minutes of talking to me about boat life always ask me “How do you do that?”. I’ll tell you. You have to be committed, not just to lowering your dependence on electricity and your carbon foot print, but on making food a big part of your life. I don’t mean get fat and over eat and get heart disease. I mean, learn about it, appreciate it, food is intense, its social, its cultural, it’s science. If you want to live without a refrigerator and even without an oven, like we do, but to enjoy the same level of satisfaction with your meals you’ll need to understand the science of how cooking works. You’ll need to experiment to find what works for you. You’ll need to figure out how long foods will last unrefrigerated in your climate, or see if you enjoy various methods of preservation from canning to pickling to brining. Those may help you enjoy different foods at different time, but it depends on tastes. Also consider that things like kefir, yogurt, and cheese were developed as ways to preserve dairy. Which means that although we have been trained to refrigerate all those items, in many places they are unrefrigerated and do just fine.
Take a look at the items in your fridge and see what really needs to be there, and then decide if any of those could be substituted for anything else. Do you eat meat? Could you eat less? What about cured meat such as salami that doesn't need refrigeration. Or canned tuna. What about just getting meat the day you want to use it? Would this change your diet and would it be for the better? Remember, that if you end up eating less meat, frequently it is less expensive.
Do you live in a place where fishing or hunting is a possibility? We have a fishing license and we also have friends and neighbors who drop off their extras with us. If you plan on subsistence hunting/ fishing and not just sport hunting and/or fishing it’s worth the cost of the license and equipment, especially since you’ll be reusing the tools.
As far as other equipment, we use our pressure cooker and our dutch oven to do everything from pizza to bread. Upcycling an old, clean t-shirt into a kitchen cloth to be used as a hand towel or a cheese cloth is also useful. Wrapping some cheese in something breathable like cloth instead of plastic keeps it fresh much longer. The same is true of mushrooms. Having jars and reusable bags for when you go to the farmers market, friends garden, or forest to forage is a great idea. keep them on hand, you never know when some kind person will be there to share. Conversely, if you know you have some food thats going to go bad in the next day or two that you won’t use, this also prompts you to put it in an old jar, and share with a neighbor, coworker, or that person you see everyday begging. Food makes us all a community.
On a nice summer day, refrigeration sounds nice, but sometimes the taste makes the difference. Putting fresh mint from the forest or garden, in food or even beverages gives a coolness to things that is very pleasant in summer. And for fellow boat dwellers, we like to tie a couple bottles over the side and let them dangle in the water until they get cold, or wrap it in a damp cloth and let evaporation work for you.
So when it really comes down to it, how do you do it? Not us, but you? Take stock of your fridge. Plant a garden, even if it’s just one plant. Buy local, share and trade with friends. Learn new recipes, practice new ways of cooking. If you have old grandparents alive, ask them. Many of them had to make due without refrigeration when they were young. Try new types of foods, especially what would be considered “ethnic” dishes. In many places refrigeration is not the norm, and the cuisine reflects that. You can find new favorite dishes that won’t require refrigerated ingredients. Shop for groceries more frequently. Eat seasonally. Learn what is native to your area and edible. Many places have groups, classes and workshops about this. Learn to love spices. Try eating three proteins a week that aren't meat. Then move it up to four and keep going. It’s ok to like meat. But it’s also good to know your nutritional options.
Learn to cook, and if you already cook, do more recipes from scratch. Always think, ‘…but could I make that myself’? Can you grow it, can you grind it, can you harvest it, can you crush it, roast it, preserve it? Learn about yeast and baking soda and the different ingredients to understand why cooking works, why taste happens, why things grow when and where they do, and how food is so incredible and scientific.
Going without a refrigerator is just a part of being intimately involved with what goes into your body, with learning new skills, with supporting your local community and enjoying life.