Life Without Refrigeration

By , January 15, 2010

As outside temperatures creep upward from the low teens we’ve had lately, our food is migrating once again, from the bedroom windowsill back to the cooler.

We have no refrigeration on the homestead. We use a shelved box set into the wall of our enclosed porch (commonly called an “arctic entryway” in Alaska) that is familiar to my parents’ generation. I think it used to be called “the cooler,” although in this modern age that term implies a plastic thermal box. The old fashioned cooler relies primarily on shade and air circulation to keep foods cool. In very hot weather, I imagine chunks of ice, purchased from the Ice Man, would be set on top of the box to help. In very hot summers, we use tubs of seawater and a canvas sheet. Draped over the outside wall, evaporating water helps cool the box. Mostly, we watch for spoilage, buy small quantities, and use it before we lose it. We also adjust our eating habits seasonally, to lessen the need to keep leftovers or other perishables. Cooking always means heating thoroughly to prevent food poisoning, as we did even when we lived a “normal” life.

In winter, the opposite conditions keep us busy. Mostly, we enjoy longer shelf life for perishables. Pots of leftovers can be stored on the floor of the arctic entryway, with proper precautions against rodent invasion. During cold snaps, the box won’t insulate well enough to keep liquids from freezing. Anything left on the porch becomes a popsicle in short order. When that begins, we move food to the bedroom sill.

The cabin’s master bedroom is an add-on to the original structure. The woodstove’s warmth doesn’t penetrate well there, and the less insulated windows allow the room to grow quite cool. Luckily, this is how we prefer to sleep: cold room, warm quilts. A jug of milk or other perishable, while not cooled to refrigerator temperatures, stays fresh for a long time.

In our modern world, we’ve lost sight of how long food can last without refrigeration. I remember reading a time scale printed on the back of a milk carton, and being amazed by the number of days milk could be expected to stay fresh at room temperature. When you factor in the margin of safety against litigation this display incorporated, the chart showed what a luxury a refrigerator actually is.

We have a variety of thermal coolers on hand for overflow. We sometimes fill the bottom with seawater to help cool food. Sometimes these also insulate food against freezing in the cold snaps. Our root cellar averages about 40-45° year ‘round, so it’s a good back up through hot summers.

I’m not advocating getting rid of your refrigerator, I’m only observing that the machine isn’t as necessary to life as I’d grown up believing. If we could figure out a way to use a refrigerator here economically, we might consider it. Some day we might try one of the myriad cooling schemes suggested by friends and family, if we decide the results would justify the expense and effort. But for now and so far, we’re doing okay without it.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

2 Responses to “Life Without Refrigeration”

  1. Charity says:

    I found this post via the link on the recent crab related post. I have lived without refrigeration at a few different points in my life – including Peace Corps as well as when I stay out at my Oregon place now. I have thought a lot about some type of cooler with a bit of cool running water through it in the shade, but worry more about bears than my yogurt going bad on me.

    But I wanted to share what I hope to do at some point – convert an old chest freezer to a small refrigerator. This guy’s experience is it takes .1Kwh/day.
    They sell the general appliance temperature controller put together or as a kit; but I’m sure you could figure it out yourself with your electrical experience.

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Charity, this is amazing! Looks like he’s doing this open source, so the plans are all there. I see it’s 12 volt compatible, too. The hardest part about it might be hauling a chest freezer to the land, but it could be worth it. They’re always being given away free around here, it seems like. Thanks for the lead!

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