Saturday, March 2, 2013

Survival #6: Appeasing the Fridge Gods

Having grown up largely without electricity, I'm constantly amazed at how many intelligent people I meet who seem to think that the only way to keep food from spoiling is to put it in a refrigerator. Their faith in refrigerators (and expiration dates, too) is so strong and unquestioning it's almost religious. They have no idea how our family could have gone without one for all those years, without either shopping three times a day or dying of food poisoning. (We shopped every two to four weeks, and none of us died of food poisoning.)

So how did we do it? The key is to remember what causes food to spoil. It's not heat and it's not time; it's bacteria. 

The reason the refrigerator works is that it slows down the rate at which bacteria reproduce. But refrigeration is not the only way to combat bacteria. In fact, it's not even the most effective method. But if you're going for cold, there other ways to get it:
  • Gas refrigerator. Yup, it actually burns gas, like a stove. Use fire to make ice.
  • Mudroom. This is one of those green and frugal things traditional New Hampshire people do whether they have electricity or not. At certain times of the year, mudrooms (those unheated rooms between the two doors of a heat-preserving airlock system) are the same temperature as a refrigerator. Put your food in a tightly-sealed plastic bin and save on the electric bill (or the gas bill, maybe.)
  • Icebox. It's an insulated box, similar to a refrigerator except that it doesn't chill the food. You put ice in there, and that's what keeps it cold. The fascinating thing, to me, is how New Englanders managed to have any ice to put there, even in the middle of summer. They cut it off the ponds in the winter and stored it in slabs in an ice house between layers of sawdust. The presence of all that ice together and the insulating power of sawdust actually preserved the ice for all those months.
  • Springhouse. This is a tiny food-storage building built over a spring. The cold springwater keeps the interior cold. Our family employed the same principle by lowering sealed buckets of food, inside a frame, into our hand-dug well.
Next week: "Pease Porridge in the Pot"

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