The Big Chill

Refrigerators have profoundly shaped the way we cook and eat.

C.P. Cushing/Classicstock/Corbis

Rich Allen is a refrigerator renovator in Tucson, Arizona, but he's no ordinary fix-it guy. He is the man to call if you want to install dual-temperature wine coolers inside a vintage 1909 wooden icebox, or if you want to get a working version of a jet-age Philco refrigerator that opens, vault-like, with a spin of its V-shaped handle. Once you've picked out the unrestored fridge of your dreams, Allen will customize it to your needs. He'll clean it, he'll drain any old refrigerants from the compressor, and he'll hide a new, high-efficiency unit behind it. He'll even have handles cast, polished, and gilded, if you want. For significantly less cash, Allen also sells new vintage-look refrigerators in colors like pink and teal, but he says his customers prefer restored machines over new ones at a rate of ten to one, and there's a six- to eight-month waiting list for his custom work. His craft, he says, is much like restoring old cars, except harder. After all, he says, car restorers "can buy all the parts for a '55 Chevy. We have to make them."

Allen is right to draw the comparison between cars and refrigerators: aside from the fact that brands like Kelvinator and Frigidaire were at one point subsidiaries of car companies, the two machines have played similarly significant roles in America's cultural consciousness. Both were promoted in the early part of the last century as symbols of modernity and self-reliance. Both have a history of being big, showy, and full of gadgets. And both have become so central to everyday existence that we can't imagine life without them. The fact that an entrepreneur like Allen can make a living, and a handsome one at that, renovating vintage fridges is a testament to how valued, even fetishized, this appliance has become.

And yet, people lived without refrigeration for centuries, and still do today, all over the world. I was reminded of that fact seven years ago, when my husband and I were visiting Stone Town, on the island of Zanzibar, in East Africa. We'd ducked inside the shady arcade where the city's main fish market is located. Laid out on butcher blocks and arranged in colorful plastic pails in the equatorial heat were neatly coiled octopuses, blue-skinned fish with what looked like parrots' beaks, and silvery fish as sleek as knife blades. There were no refrigerated cases and not a cube of ice to be seen. I knew that the fish had been caught that morning, but to me the scene seemed incomplete without cooler chests or at least a bed of crushed ice. To everyone else, it was as natural as could be.

Refrigerators remain a luxury of the industrialized world. The machines are not much good without electricity, and in places that don't have a reliable power grid, many people eschew highly perishable food or eat it very quickly after it's been harvested, slaughtered, or caught. Dried grains and pulses make up a big portion of people's diet in such parts of the world, as do plantains, squash, melons, yams, cabbage, and other produce that can keep for long periods without refrigeration. Meat and milk are often sold in dried form. Interestingly, when fridges do find their way into homes in many developing countries, they're often embraced only gingerly. In the book Fresh: A Perishable History (Belknap Press, 2009), which documents the spread of refrigeration in the modern era, the Dartmouth geographer Susanne Freidberg notes that the few people she met while doing fieldwork in West Africa who did have home refrigerators "usually just keep their drinks in them [so] that when guests come over they can offer them cold water, or beer. Not much food, not their leftovers."

Other kinds of simpler tools designed to keep food cool have caught on in some developing countries, however, a fact demonstrated by the zeer pot, developed by a teacher named Mohammed Bah Abba in the 1990s in Nigeria. The device consists simply of a large clay pot nestled into a second clay pot, with a layer of damp sand separating the two vessels. Foods stored in the zeer pot will stay cool for days, which explains why it's proved popular with African farmers, who use it to keep their crops fresh longer, reducing the amount of surplus produce that goes unsold.

In parts of the world where the refrigerator is commonplace, people avail themselves of it to different degrees. In France, you'll find butter, cheese, eggs, and even milk, which is typically sold in a shelf-stable form, left out on the counter, and fridges there tend to be smaller than those found in the United States. Similarly, your beer might not be ice-cold at the pub in London, and your tapas in San Sebastian will have been sitting out at room temperature. Nowhere does the fridge take up quite so much space, physically or mentally, as it does in America, the earliest and most enthusiastic adopter of the appliance. We instinctively stash everything in it—even items, like bread and tomatoes, that actually taste better when stored at room temperature. A fridge's contents are seen as a reflection of who we are; no televised tour of a celebrity home is complete without a peek behind the refrigerator door.

Refrigeration is a simple concept—cooling something to a temperature below that of the outside air—and has been around for millennia. Ancient peoples realized that evaporation had a cooling effect, so they used porous, absorbent ceramic vessels and damp fabric to chill foods and beverages. They also hoarded snow and ice: the Chinese gathered snow at high elevations or during cold months and stored it in deep pits in the ground, and Persians built domed, insulated icehouses called yakhchals. But such innovations ultimately had little impact on everyday life in the epoch before mechanical refrigeration. People still dried or fermented food to preserve it, or sought cooler storage places in and around the house: root cellars, butteries, window boxes, and so on.

By the 1800s, however, large cities could no longer meet their food needs by relying solely on produce raised nearby, and growers in remote areas like Australia, South America, and California had no way of getting perishables to big-city markets without food spoiling. The early solution to these problems was ice, lots of it; new technologies were developed for harvesting and, later, producing the stuff in great quantities so that food could be packed in it and transported. Ice soon became an everyday household convenience, too; by the middle of the 19th century, many well-off city dwellers owned insulated metal iceboxes consisting of a compartment for ice and one for food. Some were sold under the name refrigerator—a term coined in 1803 by a Maryland engineer named Thomas Moore. To keep their iceboxes cold, people depended on regular deliveries from the iceman, who became the punch line of countless bad jokes. "Icemen had the image of being grubby and surly and unreliable and coming in with a big burlap bag full of ice and dripping water all over the floor," Susanne Freidberg says. "Relieving inconvenience for the housewife was one of the big attractions of the electric fridge."

But that would take awhile. The first machines for refrigeration were invented around the time of the Civil War; they were mechanical and powered by means of natural gas or chemical reactions. The contraptions were unreliable and enormous and were used mostly by commercial operations like breweries and ice-making facilities. As unwieldy as they were, they employed the same basic technology home fridges use today: a liquid with a very low boiling point (sulfur dioxide and methyl formate were early choices) is boiled or evaporated within a closed system, causing its temperature to plummet, thereby cooling everything around it. Over the next several decades, the technology was improved, and refrigerating machines were adapted to be used on steamships and trains. By the beginning of the 20th century, gas-powered cold-storage warehouses made it easy for purveyors to store meat and other perishables for days or weeks. And yet, most American consumers still insisted on buying farm-fresh products themselves—the idea of fresh foods being stored and handled by middlemen was as alien to them as it is normal for us.

They would adapt soon enough, with the dawn of the electrical home refrigerator. The first versions, introduced around 1914, were big (often with a noisy compressor meant to be housed in the basement) and cost a bundle. But by 1927, a breakthrough was at hand. That year, the General Electric Company introduced the Monitor Top, an affordable, chest-high, enameled-steel refrigerator with an electric compressor perched atop the body of the fridge, which featured a small, aluminum-lined "freezer" compartment that got cold enough to make ice. (The first fully separate freezer compartments wouldn't come on the market until 1947.) The Monitor Top was an immediate hit. Other manufacturers quickly followed with their own innovations; in 1930, the Frigidaire company launched a comparable model, called the Hydrator, and Kelvinator came out with one called Four Way Freeze. By the end of that year, electric-refrigerator sales had surpassed those of iceboxes.

The advent of the home fridge coincided conveniently with shifts in the American diet. The discovery of the healthful benefits of vitamins in the 1910s and 1920s, for example, encouraged Americans to start eating fruits and vegetables in greater abundance and variety. Accordingly, print advertisements began depicting lots of gorgeous, colorful produce inside refrigerators. Indeed, the open refrigerator door became a sort of second threshold in the home, one that led to a vision of American plenty. Coldness took on a new aesthetic virtue, a circumstance that the essayist E. B. White alluded to in a wry 1932 New Yorker article: "We came on a great sight in East Twenty-first street: a stained glass window in the Rex Cole store—a heavenly refrigerator in stained glass, its door standing open, the religious light of Monday morning filtering through its shelves laden with broccoli, grapefruit, Grade A eggs and alligator pears. After all, why not? Refrigeration is our patron saint; the little cubelets of ice are our holy water grown cold."

Refrigerator companies spent much time and energy teaching Americans how to produce lovely food with their refrigerator, publishing cookbooks and employing home economists to proselytize on the ease, modernity, and healthfulness of a whole new range of cold cuisines. If you have ever been mystified, as I have, by the popularity of gelatin salads in the mid-20th century, consider their novelty at the time. Such a food would have been difficult to master before the arrival of the electric refrigerator—iceboxes were not as cold, and not as consistently so, as the new refrigerators. Anything gelatinous or frozen was portrayed as particularly elegant, sparkling like E. B. White's stained glass.

By midcentury, the majority of American homes contained refrigerators, and the look of the appliance began to change dramatically. First came the bright pink and pastel exteriors. Then came the phenomenon that the design historian Sandy Isenstadt calls "The Disappearing Refrigerator"—units designed to blend into modern home interiors like any other piece of furniture. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Sub-Zero, a Wisconsin company, made fridges with interchangeable panels to match surrounding cabinetry and also came out with a dining-room sideboard that was actually a camouflaged refrigerator unit for storing drinks.

Things were happening inside the fridge as well. Features like crisper drawers, lazy Susans, and electrically heated "butter conditioner" compartments became commonplace. And fridges got big again. With its double doors flung open, the Kelvinator Foodarama (unveiled in 1955) was nearly eight feet wide, the appliance equivalent of Cinerama. In the 1970s, many metal parts of refrigerators were replaced with plastic, and the exterior colors shifted from pastels and fake wood veneer to tones like avocado green and harvest gold that went with nothing so well as macrame and shag carpeting. Surfaces got harder and shinier in the 1980s: black refrigerators called to mind the sleek imported electronics that were filling American homes. And as the decade went on, a curious new phenomenon emerged: people began buying stainless-steel-clad fridges that evoked the all-metal look of the restaurant kitchen—a perfect embodiment of the soaring aspirations of American home cooks.

In recent years, many consumers have not contented themselves with a mere all-purpose fridge. Taking a cue once again from restaurants, they're installing not only their own wine fridges but also ones for aging meat and cheese. Joshua Applestone, a butcher-shop owner in Kingston, New York, who teaches butchering classes for home cooks, says he gets lots of questions about meat storage and dry-aging. His advice: "Go on Craigslist and get a cheap chest fridge from an old hunter." Then, he says, install a bar and hook for hanging the meat, set the fridge to 36 or 37 degrees, and maybe install a fan inside to boost air circulation. Still want a purpose-made dry-aging chamber? The models put out by Thermo-Kool start at $3,000.

Other consumers are seeking less fridge, not more—at least in terms of energy consumption. Along with washers and dryers, refrigerators have traditionally been the biggest energy hogs in the American home. Low-consumption models have changed that, but they don't solve a crucial problem: the fact that we all love to stare into our fridge, allowing cold air to spill out as we decide what to eat, thus forcing the appliance to work harder and consume more energy. This problem intrigued an associate professor named Ted Selker at Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus. In 2007, he conducted studies of the ways people used their refrigerators and came to the conclusion that one way to save energy was to let people see inside the refrigerator without opening the door. He designed an experimental model that displayed a full-size digital image of the refrigerator's contents on its door as a person approached it. Nothing so smart has yet hit the market, but several companies offer models with doors made of double-walled glass that accomplish the same thing. I wonder, though, whether rummaging for a snack would be quite the same without the satisfying sss-thunk of a refrigerator door opening up to offer forth the bounty within.