IMAGE: Owner of Defunct Amusement Park | Alpine, TX | 1-Person Household | Former WW II Prisoner of War | 2007. From You Are What You Eat by Mark Menjivar, “a series of portraits made by examining the interiors of refrigerators in homes across the United States.” Found via GOOD, where you can see many more photos from the series.
In America, 99.5% of households own at least one fridge. For many people who hear that statement, the surprising news is that 0.5% (1,520,299 households) don’t! What do those people do? Food processors, dishwashers, even ovens: most kitchen appliances seem totally optional. But living without a refrigerator seems slightly insane, if not completely impossible.
Of course, such dependence wasn’t always the case (nor is it still, in many parts of the world). In her excellent book, Fresh, Susanne Freidberg describes the inauspicious origins of the artificial cold chain, from ice plant infernos to frigoriphobie (the French refrigeration industry’s term for widespread public antipathy to cold storage).
During the first half of the twentieth century, however, the combination of technological advances, war (during World War One, Europeans relied on beef imported in refrigerated steamships to meet demand, while patriotic Americans were urged to conserve food and save leftovers using an icebox), urbanisation and suburbanisation, lifestyle changes, and sustained, pervasive marketing (“Kelvinated foods just fairly coax midsummer appetites!”) meant that by 1940, more than half of American households owned a refrigerator.
IMAGE: Midwife/Middle School Science Teacher | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household (including dog) | First week after deciding to eat locally grown vegetables | 2008.
IMAGE: Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily | 2008. Both images from You Are What You Eat by Mark Menjivar, “a series of portraits made by examining the interiors of refrigerators in homes across the United States.” Found via GOOD.
Perhaps to an even greater extent than the car, the refrigerator didn’t just become ubiquitous – it became essential. Freidberg quotes a 1931 article from Golden Book Magazine, called “The New Ice Age,” which speculates on what the world would look like without it:
If the stupendous system of food preservation […] which supports us were interfered with, even for a short time, our present daily existence would become unworkable. Cities with thousands of inhabitants would fade away. We would probably turn into beasts in our frantic struggles to reach the source of supply. It is not extravagant to say that our present form of civilization is dependent upon refrigeration.
The refrigerated cold chain played a huge role in reshaping the geography of food, removing the constraints of season, climate, and proximity in favour of monocultural economies of scale, astronomical food mileage, and permanent global summertime.
Freidberg’s book, however, concentrates on another, equally fascinating, impact of artificial refrigeration and food preservation: the ways in which they blurred “the known physics of freshness,” and undermined “traditional understandings of food quality related to time, season, and place,” creating a widespread mistrust, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding of “fresh” food that persists today.
IMAGE: Graphic Designer/Print Shop Owner | 2-Person Household | Founder of www.DeliverUsFromLiberals.com | 2008. From You Are What You Eat by Mark Menjivar, “a series of portraits made by examining the interiors of refrigerators in homes across the United States.” Found via GOOD.
It is that lost knowledge about fresh food – what it should look like, how long it should last, how we should treat it – that designer Jihyun Ryou wanted to reintroduce in her thesis project at Design Academy Eindhoven, Save Food From The Refrigerator.
Ryou’s initial research brought her to the same starting point as Susanne Freidberg: artificial refrigeration has radically redefined our relationship with fresh food, and not necessarily for the better. Her solution is a set of ingenious, wall-mounted storage units that draw on traditional, pre-refrigeration food preservation techniques.
IMAGE: Verticality of Root Vegetables, Jihyun Ryou. Found via The Ecology of Food.
IMAGE: Humidity of Fruit Vegetables, Jihyun Ryou
Ryou’s designs rely on information that used to be common knowledge: for example, that root vegetables such as carrots and leeks last longer when buried upright in slightly damp sand, mimicking their growing conditions. Meanwhile, fruit vegetables (peppers, courgettes, and aubergines, for example) benefit from moist storage, rather than the cold and dry environment in the fridge.
IMAGE: Breathing of Egg, Jihyun Ryou
IMAGE: Symbiosis of Potato + Apple, Jihyun Ryou
Before refrigeration and permanently lit hen houses, eggs were a seasonal phenomenon: hens laid their eggs in spring, and they lasted for a few weeks in barns or pantries. Since most people buy and use eggs within that window, and since eggs stored in the refrigerator easily absorb the odour of neighbouring items, Ryou proposes a separate egg shelf complete with freshness tester (a fresh egg sinks in water). Meanwhile, her apple and potato storage unit takes advantage of the ethylene gas emitted by apples in order to control sprouting in potatoes.
Leaving aside the potential food preservation benefits and possible energy savings, perhaps the most important aspect of Ryou’s food shelves is their visibility. By putting fresh fruit and vegetables on the wall, Ryou’s design would force us to actually look at our food. The result of this daily confrontation, she hopes, is that we would eat more healthily, waste less, and – intangibly but importantly – rebuild our relationship with these equally biological and perishable, if slightly less animate, fellow organisms:
In the current food preservation situation […], we hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology. We don’t observe the food any more and don’t understand how to treat it. My design looks at re-introducing and re-evaluating traditional oral knowledge of food. Furthermore, it aims to bring back the connection between us as human beings and food ingredients as other living beings.
I believe that once people are given a tool that triggers their minds and requires a mental effort to use it, new traditions and new rituals can be introduced in our culture.
Ryou doesn’t call for the complete elimination of the refrigerator, but her idea of redesigning domestic space to suit food (as opposed to redesigning food to suit our appliances) is pretty exciting. Unfortunately, her elegant designs are not commercially available, although they don’t look impossible to recreate with quite a basic set of carpentry skills.