Riverdave’s Journal

May 3, 2010 


“Ya Dawood!” she cried, hollering my name from the bottom of my front porch steps. While living in the Middle East in the 1980s my favorite food was delivered to my door once a week by an elderly Bedouin woman I called Sitt Maha.  She never knocked on my door, but always called me from the steps below while balancing her products in a large basin on her head. 


She proffered a liquid beverage of thick, sour, carbonated and slightly alcoholic, goat’s milk yoghurt. It was never pasteurized and was delivered fresh in a goat skin pouch which she poured into my awaiting jars. I often began my day with a tall glass of this delicious and fortifying beverage. It was a product that never knew refrigeration. The Bedouins had no refrigerators in their desert tent dwellings. 


I could also purchase yoghurt in the form of a dried white rock the size of a softball. It would keep forever in that state. When I was ready to eat, I simply rubbed water into the solid mass with my fingers and it rehydrated. Sitt Maha also sold cheese preserved in a salt brine solution.  All these fascinating dairy products she carried in a plastic tub on her head.  I loved goats too. When I happened upon a heard I often would playfully grab a young one by its legs and sling it around my neck while I walked with the young shepherd.


I was enamored by the Bedouin refrigerator-free lifestyle.  While growing up in America, what I  then considered to be spoiled milk, I  now discovered to be a delicious treat. For all practical purposes, the simple, time-tested Bedouin technologies of fermentation, dehydration and salting seem to work just fine. 


In the final year of my decade in the Middle East, being pressed by both personal health and environmental issues, I decided to choose a path of vegetarianism. I determined to avoid all forms of meat and to eat dairy products only occasionally as a special treat.


When I moved my family back home to North Carolina, my teenage girls were increasingly involved in high school dance programs. They found the cheese and ice cream that I kept stashed away in our refrigerator to be an unwelcome challenge to their slimming goals. They often scolded me when I brought home dairy products because they found them to be too great a temptation.


I  began to ask myself, “Why do I bother to own a refrigerator?”  Without meat or dairy, there was little justification for having this big rumbling machine taking up space in my kitchen. Visions of Arabia began to waft through my head. I began to contemplate going bedouin ...


The final blow to my American refrigerator lifestyle came most unexpectedly. In I998 I traveled to Peru to participate in an Amazonian herbal camp where I was placed on a two week diet of boiled manioc, frugivorous fish and coca tea. In addition, I was given a variety of medicinal herbs for purging and cleansing my body of decades of accumulated toxins.  


When I returned home, I immediately noticed that I had become extremely sensitive to any grating motor sounds or electrical hums. In their presence I now became agitated and unable to focus on daytime tasks or even sleep at night. I quickly pinpointed the main source of such sounds in my home environment - my refrigerator!  Somehow the Amazonian botanical medicines had me allergic to unnatural sounds!


With a deepening conviction, I edged towards a place of decision. I prepared myself for a life without a refrigerator in a way that one probably plans for an amputation of an arm.  I was born into a modern culture where the refrigerator was the undisputed king of the kitchen and I had never questioned its utilitarian or aesthetic value.


But my initial Bedouin exposure to the possibility of life without a refrigerator had planted a seed that had finally germinated in my mind. That seed had now grown to the point of confronting me with a clearly defined black and white choice.  To refrigerate or not to refrigerate - that is the question!  All it took was a simple call to a nearby used appliance outlet. Two husky men promptly arrived, paid me $100, picked up the bulky machine and hauled it away.  


The immediate void against my kitchen wall was palpable  I quickly found a simple wooden work table to fill the space. I began to collect empty jars to place on the table.  I filled them with various sorts of colorful dried beans, herbs and spices like I used to find in large sacks in the open air markets of the Middle East or Amazonian river towns. My now quiet kitchen also felt roomier and visually more attractive than before. 


Instead of hiding food in a refrigerator where it often accumulated to the point of mold and clutter, I could proudly display my dried edible treasures in clear glass jars and fresh vegetables in open bins. With one quick glance I could scan my kitchen and see my choices for a meal or decide when a shopping trip was required.  When my wife and I later built a log cabin, we designed a special pantry for these containers.  And for at least eight months of the year, our more perishable foods could be kept in a box on my back porch during the cooler seasons.  


I paused to consider what the negative consequences might be.  The only thing that came to mind was that on hot summer days there would be no cold beverage to drink. But I reminded myself that my Arab neighbors, even those living with refrigeration, would often sternly warn me of the danger to health when drinking ice cold beverages on a hot summer day.  Within the framework of their own traditional notions of health, there was never a good reason for exposing the throat or stomach to excessively cold beverages or food. We also made the discovery that so called “perishables” stayed in good shape at room temperature much longer than we had expected.


It was common knowledge in the Arab community that one should eat only that which is room temperature or warmed to insure proper digestion. I have since found this injunction against consuming cold foods to be embedded in many other traditional health practices around the world.  I think that today, the rush to buy refrigerators in most third world settings, has more to do with their socially pressured need to store and consume more meat than it does about eating cold products.


The biggest immediate impact of being frig-free was the quiet that immediately pervaded my home.  Without the rumble and hum of a refrigerator, a new sense of peace settled into my living space.  And instead of a resulting deadening silence, the air was filled with the sounds of singing birds, frogs and insects drifting in from outside.  Unnatural noise competition was removed.  And on the coldest of winter days, when the animal world was silent, I learned to revel in the wispy murmuring and crackle of my wood stove fire and the vastness of midnight silence. .


With the turn of the new millennium there came the growing consciousness of climate change.  Although my fridge-free home certainly did remove a modest chunk from my energy bill, the reward of reducing my home’s carbon footprint seemed even more compelling.  Enjoying the success of my frig-free experiment, I began to ask myself, “What other unhealthy and wasteful traditions had I inherited unchallenged as a participant in modern American culture?”


I think most of us know intuitively that in the coming years an expanding population feeding on finite resources will make life an even greater challenge. It is important that we prepare now for this inevitability so we can make the transition to a more streamlined lifestyle that insures a sustainable future on Planet Earth.  I find the frig-free option has much to offer those who choose to walk the path of sustainability and simplicity.  


Photo by Riverdave: Kitchen pantry in our cabin on by the Eno River