Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Refrigeration elation

Baby, it’s cold inside

By
August 25, 2011

I got into a weird mood recently, a mood that led me to page through old magazines manically cutting out pictures of refrigerators. I wielded my orange-handled scissors as if someone’s life depended on it. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the magazine-fricasseeing mood passed, and I was left with a pile of paper images of stainless and enameled steel doors, only one of which was open.

Refrigerators, for reasons we all more or less understand, are not the most welcoming doorways. Nonetheless, they are portals into the national psyche. And despite several plucky Web interventions, I don’t think they have received the attention they deserve.

When refrigerators figure in a marketing strategy, they are frequently accompanied by a woman in high heels and a clingy, expensive dress. I am not going to get into a whole neo-feminist deconstruction of women and kitchens today, but I would like to know how the image of a woman in pearls and heels has persisted in our kitchen culture so readily.

Others have become as fridge-obsessed as I am in the last decade. Brandon Smith, egged on by Orion magazine, kept a record of the contents of his refrigerator for a little while. In 2009, other folks also helped the online community see the humble machine from multiple perspectives, including its historical and technological baggage. I always knew that we had ice boxes before we had refrigerators, but I did not know how refrigerator coolant is activated. An engineering miracle keeps our food from killing us. We should give some thought to that at least yearly.

Refrigerators from the meat-pie tent at the Scottish Festival in Kalamazoo (photo by Austin Williams via Flickr).

Do you know anything about how much energy your refrigerator consumes? If it’s more than 15 years old, its energy consumption is probably considerable. But look at the thing: it’s huge. How can its awesome energy footprint surprise us?

Others have decided to live without them.

So here’s a weird idea produced by my weird mood: Let’s launch a national refrigerator-awareness month. Even a week would be a good start.

Inside and outside, crisper to ice-maker, the refrigerator embodies our daily food life. You want a Rorschach test worth the ink? Look in your refrigerator, right now. What do you think it’s saying about your relationship with food?

Despite its looming physical presence, the refrigerator is an object almost universally ignored. How many novels feature a refrigerator as a character? I know it sounds ludicrous — and if you’re vaguely embarrassed for me now, think of what my husband sometimes has to endure — but if I take seriously the notion I have already shared on Culinate that the most ignored influences are the most powerful, I have to wonder how something so big can take up so little of our imagination. What could we understand about our behavior that we are not even looking at right now?

A National Refrigerator Week would be an opportunity to talk about energy efficiency, the relationship between shopping habits and spoilage, the art of refrigerated-goods arrangement, the mark-making of children that so often bedizens those wide doors.

We could have feng shui workshops to help us orient the machine in a new kitchen, and a musical podcast of humming summertime refrigerators. We could swap our unwanted condiments and perhaps even begin to see our individual refrigerators not as isolated machines in free-standing houses, but as nodes in a network of cooling and storing that dot the blocks we live on.

You’re right. You are much more than the sum of your refrigerator’s contents. But that is exactly my point. Most of us have not spent time reckoning the other layers of self that our refrigerators reveal.

We, like our refrigerators, appear to yield our secrets when our doors are swung open and our half-eaten jars of mango chutney are revealed. We are not always willing to admit that we have double walls and trapdoors that only specialists can access, that some of our engines sit elsewhere and wait only for us to become interested in their workings.

That is a notion that a National Refrigerator Week might bring into the open.

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