Chilling — Thoughts on Refrigerators

by Manuela Heider de Jahnsen

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[This article was originally written in German.]

It is nighttime. Bare feet flitter across cold tiles. A yank. The light goes on. Ice cold air rushes out. The nibbler has reached her goal: the refrigerator opens its frosty insides invitingly.

What did people used to do when they were sad? When opening the refrigerator and spooning chocolate spread out of the jar wasn’t possible?

Maybe they wrote poems back when cold beer could only be enjoyed socially at the bar on the corner? When ice cream was a summer phenomenon while looking upon the Adriatic Sea?

It is daytime. The refrigerator swings opened and closed, rhythmically like a windmill.

Breakfast: milk, bread and cheese; for a snack, yogurt.

Midday: salad couscous from yesterday, parsley from the crisper and “fresh soup” in a plastic container — it needs warming up but works as gazpacho, too.

Afternoon: strawberries with soy cream and the rest of yesterday’s smoothie.

Evening:chicken broth with pre-cut salad and soy sprouts and marinated chicken breast, for dessert store-bought tiramisu and a cold bottle of rosé for watching TV later.

A normal day: cooling level four, two in the crisper. The freezer is storing everything, from Christmas leftovers to surprise cake. And all the unlabeled things nobody can identify. Frozen unknowns, forgotten.

People used to go to the market. Food had to be brought home on an almost daily basis. If it was all eaten up it was all gone; leftovers had to be thrown away. Today we spare ourselves those extra trips.

We have gained time because we add to what’s already there once or twice a week, sometimes once a month, only to put most of it in the dark refrigerator, eat some of it and get rid of over half of it due to forgetfulness, overbuying or aversion. In fact, we work a part of every day to be able to buy food we energy-intensively store and grow in environmentally critical conditions, disposing of it in turn with energy we pay for. Almost every piece of fresh produce we in big cities buy has been chilled in order to survive long transport routes and storage. Mostly uninterruptedly so, but not always. We open those doors wide and the refrigerator gobbles up our time in its singular way, urging us to buy more, store more, hoard more. The produce we stuff into it is more colorful than that which goes unchilled – it is unsoiled, without insects, scentless.

The refrigerator distances us: from responsibility, from the products themselves. We see only parts of that which we buy. Of fish the stick, (what kind of fish has such 2x1x4 cm dimensions?) Of soil, how does the soil always end up on the carrots? Of fruit (smoothies are all similarly pasty), of the landscape (why does the cow give milk and what does the calf end up getting?), and of the region: why weren’t there any strawberries yesterday??? The refrigerator frees us from concern with climate change and crop failures because everything still seems available. Things that go in the refrigerator shine beneath their plastic wrap, which used only once will continue to float in our oceans for generations to come. Fruit lies in a bed of crystal clear plastic, covered in delicate wrap, vegetables in branded bags, butter in tin foil, bread in a plastic bag, anything to preserve what’s left of the flavor before the refrigerator smothers it in its pervasive odor.

The refrigerator distances us from hunger! By that I don’t mean hunger in disaster areas, I mean the everyday kind of hunger after hard work. There is always something within reach that doesn’t have to be peeled, cut or boiled. The refrigerator invented appetite.

This is how we snack our way through the day, always grazing, always ready. Eating as distraction, eating because we feel like it, out of boredom, as compensation, to stay busy. Eating as an antidote to fear. The refrigerator has changed our environment by enabling long-term storage. It has changed us, our eating habits. Where we used to pour our guests a cup of tea, they now ask for soda. Where we used to poach pears for dessert, now we offer store-bought frozen cake.

Refrigerators are intimate. One look in the fridge gives us a good picture of our hidden vices. What do we see? Do we really want insight into our chilled hidden treasures?

Now, I don’t want to abstain from the refrigerator. I would just like it to be perceived anew as an influential transformer of our habits and preferences. That Amazon, Google and Netflix record our lives and shape our habits still bothers us every so often. In this vein, the refrigerator comes a surprise: it has changed our eating habits, preferences and sense of taste so drastically that it first made overeating to the point of endangering one’s health possible at all.

Indulging in ice cream every night has only been possible since the freezer was invented. Lactose intolerance only becomes an issue when from an early age we are in the habit of consuming excessive quantities of milk products. Lukewarm soft drinks don’t taste good. Strawberries in winter wouldn’t result in allergies. Food allergies would be less common had we not blindly placed trust in one cooling chain. And the oceans wouldn’t be so overfished. Refrigeration seduces us. It entices. It is our core.

We don’t have to throw the refrigerator away, but we can approach it more consciously, with more love. And we can go to the weekend markets to see all of the beautiful things as they are whole: cheese, fish, chickens, the dirt on the carrots, the lamb’s lettuce in spring, the peaches in summer, the quince in fall and the turnips in winter. The many fresh herbs and curved cucumbers. The sun-ripened tomatoes. Bread without a plastic bag around it.

And with these products we’ll make our friends a meal that doesn’t taste like refrigerator, but rather carry the fragrances of the earth and sun. Not pre-packaged and square. Fleshy and wild. The leftovers can go in the fridge.

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