On the Tyranny of the Refrigerator

© Jihyun Ryou

Awhile back, I posted some alternatives to food gathering.  In researching that post, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many alternative sources for finding groceries.  But no matter where your provisions originate, the question persists: what is the best way to store it once you are home?  Last year, we managed to successfully reorganize our dry foods storage, but the fridge can be a black hole.  So much so that there are times I open mine with trepidation over what is going to fall out onto the floor.

Artist Jihyun Ryou addresses this issue with her brilliant design project, Shaping Traditional Oral Knowledge, where she created five beautiful storage solutions for various foods that take into account the history of how they were stored before refrigeration was ubiquitous. It is a perfect blending of the oral history of food storage (i.e. the habits of your grandmother) with modern design.  In one example, she stores apples and potatoes in a symbiotic container: the potatoes in a dark box (as they like it), with a perforated top for apple storage.  Apples – like many other fruits – give off ethylene gas that hasten the ripening and subsequent over-ripening of certain types of produce.  However, their effect on potatoes is different: instead, they keep potatoes from sprouting.  Thus, Ryou’s solution is to store apples and potatoes together, but away from other foods:

© Jihyun Ryou

Another interesting food storage issue she addresses is that of the egg.  How do you store an egg? Most would say inside the refrigerator and, indeed, many doors come with a space made just them, but current wisdom dictates that eggs should be stored in the carton inside the fridge, not in the door.  Ryou, counters that eggs can and should be stored at room temperature and created a solution that includes a freshness tester based on the time-tested method of seeing if it will sink or float.  A bad egg will float, and a fresh one will sink :

© Jihyun Ryou

Unlike in Europe, where Ryou lives and works, the U.S. mandates that eggs be washed before being sold, which strips them of their protective coating and makes room temperature storage less reliable.  So, unless you are lucky enough to get your eggs straight from your own hens, this method might not be so viable here.  Still, I love the way it looks.

The point of this project is to get people to re-examine their assumptions about how we treat food and Ryou also keeps a Tumblr site where she invites people to post their anecdotal wisdom on how to store food – some intriguing (store a chili pepper in your rice to prevent bugs), some questionable (cover your eggs with vaseline to block the pores), but all fascinating. Her work asks you to consider the way each type of food wants to be treated, but also succeeds in conveying the visual beauty of food.  By displaying it on the wall, you can see what you have and are more likely to use it.  If these were for sale, I would be first in line.

In reconsidering food storage, there are number of issues to take into account beyond refrigeration:  Do you wash your produce when you buy it or wait until you use it? Do you use plastic or not?  Do you treat your herbs like flowers? Or wrap them in damp paper towels?  A quick trip around the internet will give you multiple answers to these questions, but here are a few sources I think are helpful:

  • Food52 recently ran a couple of useful posts on food storage, organized by counter, pantry and refrigerator.  It’s a good outline on what to store where, but relies heavily on plastic containers and bags.
  • The Berkeley Farmer’s Market was the first to eliminate plastic bags as part of their Zero Waste initiative back in 2009. They have published this handy guide for plastic-free food storage Berkeley Farmers Market Tips for Storing Produce .
  • Last but not least, the Zero Waste Home, has a lot of great advice on waste-free food storage, my favorite being freezing bread in pillowcases!
  • And if you are wondering how long something keeps, check out Still Tasty!

I am inspired to spend the next few weeks rummaging through the fridge to re-think what we are keeping in there. For full disclosure, here is how it looks today:

So let the excavation begin! For more fridge-related voyeurism, check out artist Mark Menjivar’s portrait series on people’s refrigerators entitled, You Are What You Eat.  It speaks volumes.

  1. #1 by Helen Topcik on April 15, 2012 - 1:04 pm

    So interesting, especially since coming home after 10 days away to expiring yogurt and wondering whether it is still safe to eat. Eggs at room temperature? I don’t think that would work for me, but apples and potatoes together–great idea.

    • #2 by domaphile on April 16, 2012 - 9:57 am

      Helen – your fridge is epic!! And the freezer, too! The nice thing about the apples and potatoes idea is that you don’t really need the cool wall shelf to do it. We’re just going to store them in a bowl. xo

  2. #3 by Hilda Alfonso on April 15, 2012 - 10:26 pm

    Although its a bit of a challenge.I’ve alleviated our fridge overload by buying only for the day. It’s difficult to find the time to shop daily. But, I don’t overbuy anymore & am able to avoid having items go bad. It helps that we live next to such great markets! I
    realize it’s not the case for everyone.

    • #4 by domaphile on April 16, 2012 - 9:56 am

      Hi Hilda! Buying for the day is the ideal – what people used to do before refrigeration, right? Plus, the routine of the daily shop probably informs how you eat. I think it is hard to get out of the habit of having tons of food on hand, I know we are struggling with that very thing.

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