WASHINGTON – My refrigerator died on a Saturday. I ignored the early signs of trouble with it — a Kenmore unit just four years old, yet suddenly unable to keep milk from spoiling or ice cream from melting into sugary soup.
Though I held fast to slim hopes, an unsympathetic repairman sent by Sears offered none, and the Kenmore could not be resuscitated. By the time you read this, my family will have survived for three weeks without freon-chilled produce, dairy products, tofu or soda.
This isn’t a bad-customer-service sob story. As the weeks fly by — as I grow to enjoy walking the dog to the store each morning to spend $4 on two 3 kg bags of ice for a cooler, and as my 2-year-old daughter forgets about yogurt — I have to ask: Who needs a refrigerator?
It’s a relatively recent invention, after all. If Socrates and Plato ate frozen dinners, they pulled them from pits filled with snow; if the founding fathers wanted their Madeira wine chilled, they had ice that was cut from frozen lakes and stored in insulated icehouses. Humankind would have to wait for electricity to store its arugula and fish sticks at a specific temperature.
When the refrigerator did appear, it was a luxury. In the 1920s, when a Model T Ford cost as little as $260, the first Frigidaire cost roughly $750. Fridges remain a big-ticket item, often the most expensive kitchen appliance. I bought my Kenmore on sale in 2008 for $1,900. A comparable replacement costs at least $2,000. And that’s a pretty modest model. One refrigerator appropriate for my large kitchen costs almost $6,000.
Since I’m not a Top Chef, I’d have trouble spending that much. Still, few Americans try to get by without a refrigerator — 99.9 percent of U.S. households have one.
But maybe the 0.1 percent knows better. Refrigerators complicate kitchen designs, break renovation budgets, burn fossil fuels and force us to contend with Sears’ sometimes unreliable “Customer Solutions” center. They don’t prevent Americans from throwing away 40 percent of the food we produce each year. And they change the way we eat, often for the worse.
For most of the past month, I’ve followed food writer Michael Pollan’s three-pronged exhortation in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” My other alternative is a highly processed junk-food diet, but I can’t feed my toddler only Oreos. But fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products spoil, and our family can’t do one weekly shopping trip anymore. Without a refrigerator, we shop at least every other day and try to cook and eat our purchases within a few days.
This means we have less food in the house, so we eat less. Unless we order Thai take-out — much of which is wasted since the overstuffed cooler doesn’t have lots of room for leftovers — we eat more healthfully.
Then there’s meat — or the lack of it. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1995 and a vegan on-and-off since 1998, so I don’t have much truck with dead animals. But even if I did, modern carnivores need an appliance that keeps meat uniformly chilly. I’ve pulled milk from the cooler and taken a chance if it smells funny, but would hesitate to play the same game with a pork chop. And since meat substitutes can be as difficult to store as the real thing, I’ve ditched them, too.
Fridge-free life closes many doors, but it opens others. If the Maytag on order never arrives, I might eat more raw food. I might get a dehydrator and make zesty pineapple-banana fruit leather. I might pickle and can. I might garden. I might buy and share an industrial-size walk-in with my neighbors — we could store the unit between our back yards to chill essentials such as medication and strawberry shortcake ice cream bars. I’d definitely have a smaller supply of the fried, fatty, sugary, microwavable, wastefully packaged foods that often end up in deep freeze.
If I’m avoiding frozen pizzas and bean burritos, am I saving any money or helping the planet? To find out, I called Reinhard Radermacher, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland. The German-born editor of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers’ HVAC&R Research journal, Radermacher confirmed that Europeans get by with much smaller fridges than Americans and said the appliance doesn’t devour much energy.
“The conventional wisdom is that a refrigerator consumes as much as a 50-watt light bulb,” he said. “Over the last 30 years, the refrigerators have become so energy efficient that they are a relatively small energy consumer in the household.”
According to Radermacher, unplugging the Kenmore will save about 700 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. At about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, that’s roughly $90 Pepco won’t get — small savings that don’t justify daily ice runs.
Cost considerations aside, could industrial society function without a refrigerator in every home? American yuppie urbanites surrounded by supermarkets are uniquely positioned to jettison the fridge. If they get biodegradable diapers, bottled water, groceries and raw milk delivered, why not ice for iceboxes, just like Granddad? Giant and Safeway let us ignore sound advice to eat local by bringing us tomatoes in January and wild salmon from Alaska. We could at least consume these luxuries before they go bad.
I’ve been haggling to get a new fridge since the old one broke. Though my kid enjoys filling the cooler with ice and now insists on drinking “icy water,” I don’t want to continue this experiment.
But my family could survive it. Two weeks into my fridge-free life, I picked up a bag of produce at our local farm share. When I fretted that my okra, green beans, heirloom tomatoes and squash would rot, the woman behind the counter pointed out that they would probably do fine on the kitchen counter for a few days.
She was right.
Justin Moyer is a Washington Post writer.