To Fridge or not to Fridge? That is the Question

Well at least it was in the beginning, when we first bought the boat. At that time in the summer, the absence of a fridge in my life was one of the things that disturbed me most about boat life. How do you feel if you have to throw one pot of hummus in the bin? Mildly irritated; by the third or fourth time? Utterly desolate. For a vegetarian who likes sandwiches you can imagine what this meant to me.

 But hummus was just one of many things that I have had to siphon out of my diet, or learn to adapt to and eat in a new way, in order to accommodate my new life on water. Such changes ranged from mild re-adjustment (making sure I didn’t overcook) to out and out system change (not buying hummus, not eating my favourite breakfast of muesli and yoghurt in the morning). So there have been some undeniable sacrifices.

But I found a very helpful article on the internet which put my tribulations about fridgelessness into perspective. The author of this article spent her time on a cruiser boat in the Amazon for half of the year: conditions were humid, tropical and wet. If she could survive without a fridge – and she was assured that she could – why shouldn’t I? After all, England’s climate – with our mild summers and chill winters – is far more favourable to those without fridges than the subtropics of South America.

The article explained that it was much easier to survive without a fridge than you imagined. Probably three quarters of the food in your fridge doesn’t really need to be there. The author explained that some fruit and vegetables are more perishable than others, and fresh meat isn’t a good idea. In general, dairy products will experience a quick turn-over.  But life without a fridge is very manageable once you learned the “ABC” of what works and what doesn’t.

My experience of living on the boat has shown her to be correct. There is no reason this shouldn’t be the case, after all, the fridge as we know it is a recently modern invention – the ungainly birth-child of a post-war boom in the American economy. Before this statement piece of bourgeois domestication – people made do with larders and cellars, pantries, and if you were very lucky – an ice-house. Ice houses became yet another eccentric addition to the Victorian upper-class garden grotto. Small, conical and compact with domed roofs, they were packed with ice and snow and then insulated with materials such as sawdust and hay to keep the ice from melting. I saw a lovely example of one myself in Kew Gardens, almost by accident, while we were wandering around an outdoor sculpture exhibition last summer.

This digression reminds me that at one point ice cream represented the sine qua non of luxurious food – the pinnacle of man’s triumphant, though fleeting conquest of natural improbability. In the 18th century ice cream was served on the banqueting tables and feasting platters of kings and queens, flavoured with fruits and natural extractions. Even in the Victorian period it was a rare luxury and children would flock to the stalls of Italian emigrant vendors covering the streets Maida Vale and Little Venice, to buy their penny-licks.  As I learned from the Canal Museum in Kings Cross Wharf, these tiny capsules contained ice that had been lugged all the way by ship from Greenland. It is strange to think now, that at one point frozen water was such a rare and expensive commodity. In short, centuries of experience had developed ingenious schemes for preserving and artificially prolonging the shelf-life of food – drying it, salting it, smoking it, pickling and preserving it.

Veganism is a strong advantage to those who choose boat life, as the things that tend to go off fastest are obviously meat and dairy products. In fact, if I were a vegan I don’t think I would ever require the use of a fridge. For me, the biggest thorn in my side is milk. Mind you, in winter, milk on our boat kitchen has the same life expectancy almost, as refrigerated milk, because it is so cold. I can keep cheese in biscuit tins and it survives at least a week, and my butter, kept away from the cat in its butter dish on the top shelf, can last more than a fortnight. 

I have learnt over time that the best way to keep food is to jar it and contain it. Because of the humidity and condensation on the boat, paper packets and semi-open film packets of food quickly fall victim to mould. Not just a trendy gimmick – it is genuinely necessary to have a good store of tinned veg, dried pulses, cans, tins, wheat, grain, corked and vacuum packed neatly in jars. Nothing without skin should be openly exposed to the indoor elements of the boat. So a well and lovingly maintained boater’s diet tends to consist of the wholesome stuffs of life.

Perhaps there are some boaters who do have fully functioning fridges on their boats – but I am yet to meet them. Your average fridge requires too much energy to run on a nomadic (“cruising”) boat that is not plugged into the mains in a marina or permanent mooring. Marine fridges, specially adapted to run on 12v circuits do exist, but they are at least £500. Even then, leaving a fridge on all day will drain your battery. It is a matter of compromise and priority. Would you rather run a fridge or your computer? Or charge your phone? Something has to budge.

This is a good example of the ways in which you are changed by living on a boat. Fridgelessness is not a tragedy – but it does define certain patterns in your daily routine, as does the constant quest for energy.  Believe me, boaters are like energy vampires. If you see an individual sitting in a pub, charging his phone, computer and ipod, chances are, they are a boater. So boaters are more guilty that most of committing that commercial impropriety so hated by the hospitalities industry – the I’ll-swap-you-one-cup-of-tea-for-an-afternoon-in-your-gaff syndrome.

No one sees the stark equivalency between energy and value quite as clearly as the boater. Power is something you ration and collect, like tokens in a game. So for me, a fridge represents a level of power expenditure above and beyond the benefits it brings. And the result? A type of practical creativity and experimentation with substances; the occasional mouthful of acrid tea. But also, an awareness and newfound respect for certain edible products – a new way of feeling and understanding food.

I have disgorged myself of the status symbol of modern man, the disembodied machine-belly. I am free from the insatiable appetites of, the fridge.  

 

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