I live in a quilted home of brick walls, mosquito screens, windowless spaces, and a palm leaf roof in northeast Colombia. You may see an iguana munching a mango on my porch. Once you transcend the sheer weirdness and come inside, you may realize something else strange: I have no refrigerator.
I have been living without a fridge (freezer and air conditioning) for six months now. This is even funkier because my house leans on a sub-tropical mountain–essentially the opposite of the cool climates conducive to natural refrigeration.
Why did I do this? First, most 24-hour refrigerators use an enormous amount of electricity, draining power and dollars.
Second, the environmental impact: most use coolants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping greenhouse emissions and contributing to global warming. Refrigeration essentially enables our insane global food system, allowing fruits in southern Mexico to unnaturally land in the northern U.S., instead of relying on locally grown produce. Packaged food is an epidemic, one that would be significantly less possible without conventional refrigeration. Third, I wanted to experience daily life more like my ancestors. And finally, I just wanted to see what would happen!
Using a Zeer Pot for Simple Refrigeration
Because of the tropical climate, I was unable to implement more traditional refrigeration alternatives like a root cellar, cold room, or ice house. My first attempt at alternative refrigeration was a Zeer Pot. An ingeniously simple system with pan-cultural roots invented by a rural Nigerian to keep food cooler in hot climates.
Basically, you fit one clay pot inside another, fill it with wet sand, place your food inside, cover with a wet cloth, and place it a cool dry area. As the water evaporates, the pot will cool. You need to keep the sand moist, which requires some watering each day. There are some great Zeer Pot tutorials.
I used my Zeer Pot for 3 months before throwing in the wet cloth. While it helped some, the excessive humidity, despite the heavy breeze, prevented the necessary evaporation for significant cooling. My pot is now home to basil and moringa.
What else I learned from six months without a fridge:
1. Reduced electricity, waste, and muscular compost. I realized significantly reduced electricity use and cost, along with less non-organic waste (one full 16-inch trashcan weekly). My compost also grew like a well-fed teenager!
2. Hyper-local, hyper-fresh. Fresh produce can’t survive forever, and there are few nearby restaurants, so I needed to rely on local markets more, thus supporting the local economy and building community. I have the advantage of living near a family-owned store that sells most of my basic food needs. I buy fresh bread from my neighbor weekly, and other goodies from neighbors to support them and diversify my diet.
3. Develop greater attunement to food life cycles. For example, refrigerating bread can help it last a few days longer, but will actually make it go stale much quicker. Fruits like apples, mangos, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, and pineapple will last many days without refrigeration. Vegetables like garlic, ginger, onions, potatoes, certain squash, turmeric, and leeks all do well out of the fridge for long periods of time. Your nose begins to learn what is good and what isn’t.
Think about where the produce is grown as a helpful indicator for how it will fair in your climate. Broccoli and strawberries could never grow in my climate, and indeed they don’t last 24 hours’ sans-refrigeration.
4. Creative storage. Hanging baskets are a wonderful and stylish way to store food where creatures can’t reach. Tying up herbs to dry will prevent them from rotting and give a rustic aestheticism to the kitchen.
After many, “What, they eat that too!” moments, I’ve learned to just put anything I can into jars and containers: coffee, nuts, rice, pasta, flours, seeds, spices, etc., which also helps maintain freshness.
Making jams and marmalades are great options I didn’t do enough of– though I did make a lot of homemade chocolate peanut butter!
Drying and dehydrating fruits is crazy fun, delicious, and storage friendly.
5. A more natural diet. The no-refrigeration diet is more natural. You eat fresh everyday and rely much more on dried foods like seeds, nuts, and dried fruit that are nutrient rich and more aligned with our ancestors’ foraging diet.
I was also inspired to do more wild fermentations like kombucha, wild sourdough bread, and honey mead.
1. It’s a ton of work. More work than most modern folk can sanely tolerate. Constant cooking, cleaning, storing, frequent market trips, and trial and errors are a major time suck. If you live in cooler climates or have a community/family, that will certainly help significantly.
2. Food limitations. Forget about delicious soft cheeses, most undried meat, dairy milks, and most nut milks won’t last long once opened or homemade. I make mostly oat milk (just some oats, water, and blend) each day.
3. Practicality. Besides the joy of saving leftovers, my homesteading neighbors intelligently freeze their seasonal abundance for harsher upcoming seasons. While this can be done more naturally like in cold rooms, having refrigeration really opens up a lot of positive practical possibilities.
4. Bugs and critters. When your food lives out there with you, the critters do, too. There will be multiple skirmishes, if not epic battles, with fruit flies, ants, cockroaches, mice, etc. Ants of several varieties have been my biggest foes.
To not use toxins, I experimented with many natural deterrents. Ants don’t like cinnamon or coffee, and I use a vinegar essential oil spray that works to keep bugs away (until the next day), and makes the place smell nice Many of these are also effective in the garden.
In conclusion, life without a fridge is very hard and very rewarding. I have decided to purchase a very small fridge for select items, and maintain most of my non-refrigeration practices to maintain a more natural balance while still enjoying some benefits of technology.
Chris Ponzi was once afraid of ants. Now he is an award-winning writer and poet whose work and life focus on healing and regenerating our connection to the earth. He holds an English Literature degree from UCLA, and is certified in permaculture design, nature-based practices, and is a trained meditator-mindfulness practitioner. Connect with Chris at www.ChrisPonzi.com and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.