A reader recently asked about living without refrigeration:
We use an old fashioned “cool box,” a vented cabinet on the shady side of the cabin.
What do you do in the summer?: In April, our days are warming up but our nights are still cool; we’re transitioning from keeping fresh foods from getting too cold back to keeping them cool during the warmer months. The link includes a few hot weather techniques we’ve employed. The cool box is usually adequate. If not, we have the root cellar and a smaller pit cellar closer to the house. Both maintain near refrigerator temperatures. They’re less convenient, but at least food stays fresh longer. We rarely need to cool the cool box, nor have we routed our water supply through it to provide a cooling coil.
Do you cook more than you eat at one meal?: Almost always. Luckily, we’re the sort who enjoy the same meal days in a row, so we commonly eat a dish over consecutive days until it’s gone. Michelle is adept at changing a dish with spices and presentation. A main dish might be served in several distinct ways before it’s gone. At each meal we decide whether what we have should be used up or go for another meal.
Leftover longevity partly stems from the raw materials. Any ingredient already has a relatively long shelf life, or it wouldn’t make sense to bring it to the cabin. Exceptions are obtained for, and are used immediately to a specific purpose.
Eating fruits and vegetables in season helps. A Washington apple bought in autumn won’t be warehoused over winter, as one purchased in spring will. The closer to picking it’s purchased, the longer it’ll last until used.
A hierarchy of use extends food’s usefulness. Celery that’s no longer crisp enough to appeal still adds much to a soup. An apple past freshness tastes fine baked. How a food is used depends on what stage it reaches before use. Occasionally, we lose something, but not completely, as it can still be composted.
We take safety precautions. We cool leftovers as quickly as possible, usually by placing outside on a rock in the yard for awhile before being stored in the cool box or the porch. The cold rock steals heat very quickly. Everything is thoroughly reheated before being served again.
We watch for signs of spoilage: mold, critter contamination, and small bubbles, effervescence that can indicate fermentation. Home canned jars with bulged or unsealed lids are discarded. We’re cautious—a case of food poisoning out here can’t be treated promptly.
Milk is our biggest concern, as we balance availability against using it before it spoils. Now that Michelle makes yogurt, if we don’t get through a gallon before it starts to turn, we can still use what’s left. She even makes soft cheese if it’s gone further. Still, we often purchase milk on sale because it’s close to pull date, and use it up normally before it begins to go bad.
Do you keep condiments: We had to laugh at this, because it often seems as if that’s all we keep. We are Americans after all, so it’s only natural that many days out of each month our “refrigerator” space will hold nothing but condiments. Ironically, very few condiments actually need refrigeration, so it’s kind of a wasted use of the space. Yet, old habits die hard. Also, we don’t use them much, so they sit around longer.
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