The Privilege of Refrigeration

Leftovers. It’s not a word that is often said with zeal or affection, but perhaps it should be. Leftovers are a relatively new option for humans. Until about a hundred years ago, leftovers may have been fed to the chickens or pigs, composted, attracting cats or rats, or simply became garbage. In the human timeline, 100 years ago is yesterday and that is when the home refrigerator became a real option for many families. The science of using cold temperatures to preserve food had been in use for many years before this, but not in the sense that it was widely available for the general public in the form of an electric appliance. The refrigerator we know today went through many inventors, engineers and patents to arrive at its modern appearance.

Until the late 1920s, commercial refrigeration was only used in much larger capacities like breweries and refrigerated rail cars. Unfortunately, the earliest refrigeration was made possible by the use of dangerously volatile chemicals such as ammonia, sulphur dioxide, and methyl chloride. In the years between refrigerated warehouses and the invention of safe in-home electrical refrigeration, people used ice boxes in their homes to keep perishables, such as milk, fresh. Ice box exteriors were wooden, the inside lined with tin or zinc. The space in-between held some kind of insulation, like cork or straw. Ice blocks would need to be replenished daily if the items stored within were to remain safe and palatable.

Gone like the milkman, the rat catcher, and the lamplighter, the job of the ice cutter also has disappeared into obscurity. Ice farming was a dangerous endeavor. Men with horses scored the ice and ice cutters with sharp blades cut through the thick frozen water. Cut into blocks, it was loaded onto wagons and then shipped, much of it by train, to a multitude of destinations. Ice was in high demand, and shortages were called “Ice Famines.”

The Oxford Ice House, according to Oxford Treasures Then and Now by Douglas Hanks Jr., was located at “Town Point,” where the present Tred Avon Yacht Club now stands. It was owned by William Seth Jr., McKenney Willis’s grandfather. A seafood business was also located there. Each year Mr. Willis sent a schooner to the Kennebec River in Maine for large blocks of ice, which were then transported to Oxford and stored in the house covered with sawdust. Under those conditions ice would last well into the summer. The icehouse was destroyed by fire in 1904. Photograph from the Sara Benson Collection.

According to a Baltimore Sun article, “In August 1906, the average Baltimorean would have better luck watching hell freeze over than finding a place to eat ice cream. An ice shortage had hit the East Coast, affecting New York, Washington and Baltimore. The temperature was up, and the supply of ice was down. In such times, frivolities like ice cream were the first to go… But there were more serious consequences. Meats spoiled. Sick people in hospitals burned up with fevers. Fruit sent along the coast in ice-chilled trains was left to rot by the ton. Poorer families watched the food in their iceboxes go bad.”

Humans have been trying to preserve food for years, and not just in the last few centuries. In the less humid areas of Eastern Pakistan/Northwest India region people have been keeping vegetables cooled for thousands of years using a Zeer. A Zeer is a clay-on-clay pot that uses evaporation for cooling. A clay pot is placed within a clay pot and wet sand is placed between the two. Vegetables are placed inside the inner pot and covered with a cloth. As the water in the wet sand evaporates it creates a cooling effect keeping the vegetables in the inner pot cool thus increasing their shelf life. Spain’s rural areas have a similar way to keep water cooled. They use botijos, a specially designed clay pot with two holes, one to fill with water and one to drink from (don’t touch your lips to the pitcher – that is very much frowned upon). Evaporation is again the scientific mechanism that keeps the water cool inside, which is very refreshing on a hot day. Before modern electrical refrigeration, both of these clay vessels helped cool drinks and vegetables in hot dry climates.

It’s fun to see a Frigidaire Corporation’s 1929 booklet on the finer points of refrigerator ownership.

Fast forward to 1929 where Chapter 18 of a Frigidaire recipe book I have in my possession extols the virtues of leftovers: “The subject of ‘left-overs’ is a hackneyed one, and because of this, few of us tackle the combining of odds and ends of food with the same zest with which we approach the preparation of food fresh from the grocer’s or butcher’s. This idea has permeated the minds of the family so that often they do not greet these warmed-over or made-over dishes with great enthusiasm. Considering the food in our Frigidaire as offering possibilities of labor-saving and time-saving dishes, they can be made as inviting and as appetizing as when they made their first appearance. They also afford important food value for which we have paid, and have spent time, energy and fuel in preparing.”

February doesn’t offer me much in the way of inspiration. It is generally cold, and my gardens have been abandoned. I am thankful it is the shortest month of the year, so the mental challenge it exhorts on me is at least cut by two or three days. I found myself particularly challenged in the winter of 1994. If you lived here then, you might recall the ice storm. We lived in an old farmhouse with a Kerosene heater, so we were warm, but no electricity rendered our refrigerator and freezer useless. The one benefit was the substantial cold on our unprotected back porch which soon became home to a colorful array of coolers, with lids left open as no ice was needed. We trapped the cold in at night by closing them, which kept the raccoons out. In that winter, the finite blessings of February would be recognized greatly in that we were blessed to be able to preserve our food.

In February, I rely on my freezer and dry and canned goods in my pantry for meals, supplemented by fresh produce transported in from far off states. The availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in the bleak midwinter is a product of a distribution chain enhanced by technology and various energies not widely available more than 100 years ago. Much like the refrigerator, year round produce availability is new on our time line. We are so reliable on our modern food system that if it was to fail, many individuals would find themselves lost for a solution. I think about this often in the winter when I pull out items such as string beans I blanched and froze in the prime of summer. Canning aside, how differently would my kitchen operate without a freezer, or dare I say it, a refrigerator?

So back to those leftovers. For a multitude of economical and sustainable reasons, February is a great time to explore your freezer and pantry. Open those jars and cans, heat up that lasagna in the back of your freezer, thaw out that roast and throw it in your crockpot, make soups with leftovers. Create with what you have and see how little you can waste. Right now I am playing the how long can I not go to the grocery store game. It’s a challenge, so far I’ve given in to only eggs and milk. How long can you sustain your household with freezer, pantry and a new found perspective on leftovers? Better yet, cook two nights worth of meals in one night and microwave the leftovers for energy savings. The microwave is yet another blessing that makes utilizing leftovers so easy, how did we ever get along without it?

According to the International Energy Agency, about 775 million people on earth today live without electricity, which means they most likely don’t have refrigerators. It makes me appreciate my refrigerator and freezer a whole bunch, how about you?

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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