Life without refrigeration: Your ancestors did it

Meps in Flutterby's galley
Meps in Flutterby's galley
Meps in Flutterby's galley
Meps in Flutterby’s galley

About five years ago, I wrote an article entitled, “No More Fridge-Free Living,” about how we decided to stop buying expensive ice for our icebox and put a cheap dorm fridge in the cockpit of Flutterby. It was a temporary solution, but we used it while we refitted the boat for two and a half years.

When we launched the boat, instead of returning to the expensive, messy ice solution, we simply lived completely without refrigeration. This generates a lot of incredulity from most people, who consider refrigeration a necessity of life.

But our ancestors didn’t have refrigeration, and our ancestors didn’t all die of starvation or food poisoning. Barry and I have now proven that it’s still possible, having lived without refrigeration or ice for the past three years.

Here are a few of the things we’ve learned along the way:

  1. Super-cold food and beverages, which most people are used to, suppress your taste buds. It takes a little while to get used to the flavor and mouth feel of things at room temperature, but there are those who say it’s a lot more healthy and less of a shock to your digestive system.
  2. A little bit of mold won’t kill you. It won’t even make you sick. It probably won’t even affect the taste.
  3. Cheese is wonderful at room temperature, especially hard cheeses like Parmesan and Romano. We buy plastic-wrapped, 8-oz bricks of cheddar, monterey jack, or mozzarella cheese. They have never molded in their wrappers, although sometimes they get soft and deformed. Once opened, they keep for a few days, which is how long it takes us to eat one. Cream cheese in foil wrappers keeps for a long time unopened, but you have to eat it in a day or two when you open it.
  4. Good quality organic milk in half-gallon waxed paper cartons can sit on the counter for over 4 days in moderate temperatures. For us, a half gallon is the right amount for coffee and tea and cereal and the occasional cream soup. If the weather is hot, we’ll drink a few glasses or make pudding to use it up more quickly.
  5. A quart of unsweetened yogurt will keep for several weeks unopened, and once opened, for over a week. The trick is to eat some every day. If we go a few days without eating it, we have to scrape off a layer of mold, but it still tastes fine. I bet the single-serving sweetened ones would keep a long time if you didn’t open them.
  6. The best vegetables come from farmer’s markets where they have not been previously refrigerated. Eggplants, cucumbers, red and green peppers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and chayote all keep long enough not to be a challenge. Cabbage and onions and garlic keep nearly forever. Sometimes, we buy things that don’t keep very long, like mushrooms, green beans, asparagus, or bagged spinach, and we use those things with 2 or 3 days.
  7. Fruit comes in varying stages of ripeness, so we always have something fresh on hand. Oranges and apples and grapefruits keep forever, bananas and pears and kiwis and stone fruit can be purchased hard and allowed to ripen. Berries have to be eaten within a day or two of purchase.
  8. For condiments, the trick is to buy small containers and make sure they don’t get contaminated. For example, I buy mayonnaise in squeeze containers, so it doesn’t get contaminated by a dirty knife or spoon. It keeps for months.
  9. We are not vegetarians, we just tend to eat a lot less meat than most people. There are many shelf-stable meat products, such as salami, chicken, tuna, salmon, proscuitto, and bacon. They’re high in sodium, so I use them to compliment and enhance meals, rather than as the main dish. When we go to the grocery, we can pick up enough chicken or steak for that night’s dinner. We often get our meat fix at restaurants.
  10. One of the biggest challenges of the no-refrigeration lifestyle is leftovers. I usually cook only enough food for one meal. If I cook enough for two meals, we always eat the leftovers the second day, never letting it sit any longer.
  11. Without refrigeration, our diet includes lots of whole grains (brown rice, steel cut oats, quinoa, cornmeal, etc.), dried foods (all kinds of dried fruits, but also dried mushrooms, peppers, and seaweed), and beans. Plus canned goods — corn and tomatoes are staples, but we enhance flavors with coconut milk, olives, artichoke hearts, mandarin oranges, and pineapple.
  12. When I go to the grocery store, there are entire aisles that I don’t even have to look at, because I simply don’t buy any frozen foods at all. Once in a while, I look at the frozen foods in amazement, because they are so novel to me. Do people really eat that stuff?

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