The Refrigerator Buyer's Dilemma
Our old refrigerator is dying.
It's about 15 years old, so I suppose it has a right to die. Still, it depresses me to think about it. On a list of indispensable appliances in the modern household, fridges have to be near the top. When it malfunctions, it's like your heart beating irregularly. It's really stressful.
The door doesn't close properly any more, because the wooden cabinet front attached to it has warped over the years. We have to give it a strategic kick at the bottom while holding onto the top to make the seal stick enough. The light stopped working a year ago. Water (condensation, I suppose) is leaking so regularly now that I have to mop it up every day. The standalone thermometer stuck in there still says the temperature is holding at a steady 10°C, but I'm skeptical. Things seem to be spoiling faster. My water bottle doesn't cool as quickly. The freezer compartment is a already a total goner. (Fortunately, we have a separate locker-style freezer.)
So it's time to buy a new one. And this is where I face the Refrigerator Buyer's Dilemma (riffing obviously on The Omnivore's...)
As I browse the makers' catalogs and the appliance store web sites, I am confronted with a bewildering array of choices. But it's becoming increasingly clear to me that I must compromise.
Refrigerators circa 2006 seem to be divided into three rough groups:
- The basic model. This is the one I'm most familiar with, having been a home renter until the last few years. You have your small freezer compartment, a basic refrigerator below it. It cools stuff, and that's it.
- The streamlined, energy-efficient model, with ratings from the electric company. In Switzerland the best rating is A++, and most of the basic ones are A+.
- The feature-laden model, also called "American Style" around here. These are the ones with all the gadgets - ice makers, ice and cold water dispensers, special vegetable compartments, and the sub-zero compartment.
My eye is drawn immediately, longingly, to type 3 fridges. I'm like that passive-aggressive wife in the Home Depot ads who bumps a glass against a plain fridge door and says, "That's funny, our ice dispenser is broken". I want the stainless-steel front double-door American style fridge with wide, deep shelves, ice dispenser, automatic ice maker, water filter (a necessity here since the water is very hard), and most of all, the sub-zero compartment. I salivate after that subzero compartment, that's supposed to hold fresh meat and fish at an ideal temperature just around zero degrees celcius.
The problem is that all of those American Style fancypants refrigerators have the worst energy ratings.
When you live in a small country like Switzerland with precious little in the way of native natural resources, and mind-blowingly beautiful nature surrounding you, you get just a bit more aware of things like conservation and recycling and not trying to make your ecological footprint any bigger than it has to be. Since I can't get out of the travel habit (you know that flying makes your ecological footprint really spread out) I try as much as possible to minimize my footsize in other ways. Sorting stuff for recycling, composting the veg scraps, using public transportation as much as possible, things like that.
But the serious foodie/amateur chef in me yearns for what those feature-laden behemouths can give me. A vegetable compartment that has a dehumidifier! Extra-wide shelf for holding a whole, frosted sheet cake! But getting one of them would make me so ecologically incorrect. I might feel a twinge of guilt every time I open the door.
I stopped to consult good old Mary Frances again. In Two Towns in Provence, she describes her food shopping pattern living in a small town near Aix. She had no refrigerator (no refrigerator at all!) so she had to shop for food every day. The fruit she would buy in the morning would already start rotting in the late afternoon, unless she turned it into a sort of compote and stored it in the cool cellar. She bought meat or fish every day, and used it up that day. The same with the milk for her daughters.
I also recalled a passage from that so-trashy-it's-fun novel, Scruples by Judith Krantz (Judith Krantz!). The heroine, Billy, goes to spend a year or something at the home of some countess in Paris. They, also, do not have a refrigerator. (It's set in the late '60s I think.) They have a sort of cooling locker, ventilated by an opening to the outside wall on the back, where the cook keeps her daily food purchases. So streamlined and simple. I wish I could do that. Why exactly do I need 6 kinds of miso and so many jars of mystery glop lurking in that dark box anyway?
To be a good home cook that doesn't need to cater to a big crowd often, perhaps a small, energy-efficient refrigerator is the way to go after all.Fresh, ripe produce is at its best the day it's purchased, as is fresh meat or fish. One shouldn't be stuffing the refrigerator with days' worth of food. Shopping every day, or even every other day, is a bother, but it's a small change one can make towards better tasting food at home.
Still, I yearn for that big fridge. I picture myself dressed like Donna Reed with an adorable apron, whisking out bowls of pre-made delights, and of course that large sheet cake, to oohs and aahs from the crowd. Never mind that I have a dinner party of more than 6 only every other blue moon.