Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Urban Foxfire/Unplugging the Fridge

Had a new comment come in on one of the "unplugging your fridge" threads, so I'm going to take this opportunity to answer a number of questions on that topic.

First of all; let me point out that Vanessa, of Green As A Thistle ACTUALLY -oh-my-gosh- UNPLUGGED; on May 17.

That's 20 days ago- and not only is she apparently NOT dead, from starvation or food poisoning; but she's actually- um, feeling pretty frisky.

And, her blog post there about unplugging got 30 comments; a lot for this blog.

For those of you new to this thread, it started here.

Before I get to the questions, I want to plug an idea that came to me a while back-when trying to answer a question on Colin aka NIM's blog.

I live in the woods. When I moved here 30ish years ago, one of the best sources of information was the Foxfire Books . By far. Multiple stories from old-timers who'd DONE what they were talking about, for years. Much of the construction of the Little House came right out of Foxfire One. It was enormously more useful than sources like the Mother Earth News - which alas tended to be full of tremendously enthusiastic "success" stories; from people who'd done what they were writing about - once; probably last month.

Most folks live in cities. That's not going to change, maybe ever.

Where are the Foxfire Books about life in the city?

Very seriously; there are lots of older folks who lived without refrigerators- or water, or heat, or airconditioning - in the cities. But we are losing them. And their knowledge and experience is priceless.

SOMEBODY reading this- needs to launch an Urban Foxfire project. REALLY. I'm talking to YOU. :-) More than one; really; living in Boston is not the same as living in San Diego.

You could get funding! And Save Lives, in the years ahead.

Ok, questions. I'll start with the newest first, since Isle Dance posted just a day or so ago, and is possibly still hoping for an answer sometime soon. Here we go.

May 21, 2007 3:05 PM  Isle Dance said...

"Could I really get away with keeping a bulk jar of Mayo out of refrigeration? Do I want to risk testing this out? Of course, in the future, I'll ideally make a fresh batch as needed, so that would solve the whole dilemma."

Eee. Mayo scares the heck out of me, since many times it contains egg; which spoils very quickly. One of the tactics that works very well when fridgeless is to change spoilage-prone foods from "daily staples" to "occasional luxuries". Just buy a small jar of mayo that you can use up before it spoils. I guarantee you'll appreciate it as much as if you'd had the BIG jar. Being less common makes you notice it far more. Cheaper, too.

"Once a week I buy a bulk order of cooked poultry (a temporary thing) but see myself keeping some free range in the freezer in the future. So, I'm guessing I really do need a small freezer drawer, at least. Or?"

If you're really going to stash meat, you've GOT to either freeze it- OR CAN it, or DRY it. It'll depend on your preferences. Taking chances with unrefrigerated meat is very likely to get you into the hospital sooner or later. I've canned chicken- it works pretty well, taste wise. It takes quite a bit of energy to can, of course; but once canned it can sit on your shelf for a year, with no problems; likely longer. Drying chicken?? hm. Not so sure. Lots of folks dry beef; I've jerked beef and venison; no problems there. I HAVE had a "freezer locker" in town sometimes; used to be that every small town had a "locker plant"; much less common now, but still out there. That can be a good solution too. And/Or - eat less meat in warm weather. We do- and in fact, it's AMAZING how much more interesting a hamburger is when you've been living on new potatoes and peas and applesauce and peanutbutter and radishes for 4 days. :-)

"Do you recommend a particular cooking pot brand that seems to work best for unrefrigerated meat cooking/storage?"

Not really- what you want is stainless steel, or cast iron for stews; always with a lid that fits VERY well. Leaky lids will let that random bacterium in, and start things spoiling. Good old cooking pots are awfully easy to find in garage sales/auctions. I don't use teflon anymore.

"I keep a week's worth of fresh organic fruits and veggies in a low, cool cabinet. However, fruit flies can be an issue (even if stored in sealable containers). Maybe I've just not found the ideal container? I've assumed this means I should really be refrigerating these things to avoid the hassle."

Yep, fruit flies are a pain. For me, the best tactic has been to totally clear out the population of flies, by not having ANYTHING available for them to live on for a week- then start over. If you are careful not to let any fruit/potatoes start spoiling, you can go a long time before the flies get back in. Putting fruit into sealed containers is perhaps a way to make it spoil faster- some will ripen much quicker if their own "exhalations" build up around them; ethylene being a major one. There's an art to it, and vigilance is more than half the battle.

"One of my favorite Mother Earth News articles (about fifteen years ago) displayed instructions on how to build an outdoor underground/stream fridge. I've always wanted one...but there are lots of rats on islands...ew...I might be too girly to deal with them near my food!"

I don't have rats- I've got raccoons, which are kind of like rats on megasteroids. The trick is to make your storage TRULY SECURE. If they are NEVER able to GET food there; they will not hang around. If your storage is - ALMOST good enough- what you have is an animal feeding station. If they CAN get in; they'll hang around constantly until they do. If a coon finds out that one time in 10 there is catfood left on the porch- he'll visit the porch EVERY night, and poke into everything, looking for that catfood. You can have NEVER; or FOREVER with the critters.

I have a good rule there, related to my Aggressive Passive Design Principle- if you're building something like your stream cooler, and you find yourself saying "hm.. MAYBE this will be strong/good enough..." - - - IT ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH. Build it so there's just no question.

May 21, 2007 11:00 AM  tansy said...

"i've been playing around with this myself. if it were just me and my kids i could do it but the other adult would not be receptive to the idea."

You could sneak up on 'em- "just for this week, dear..." :-)

"question on the eggs, how do you know when they've gone bad, the smell? do they instantly stink?"

Not necessarily. If you use your eggs within one week, there's RARELY any problem. When you're dealing with 2 week old eggs, what you do is crack them into a separate bowl- one at a time, before you add them to whatever you're cooking. Once cracked, a spoiled egg is very obvious!

April 5, 2007 5:30 PM  Robbyn said...

"Do you use fermented foods often, and if so, do you have a good resource so that a person like myself can know if how to keep foods safe? Seems we've lost a lot of collective traditional knowledge in our age of "progress".

Hey, exactly! Urban Foxfire time! I'm a cheese fan; Spice is a yoghurt fan. I've made pickles and sauerkraut at various times. All those are pretty safe; if your cheese has gone bad, it's usually obvious; and cheese in fact keeps beautifully with no refrigeration- as long as you're fairly constantly USING it up. Any good cheese store will sell "cheese-keepers" that are designed to keep it from drying out as it sits on your kitchen counter.

The whole point to fermented foods is that we intentionally get a "friendly" microorganism started in it- and then that bug keeps other bugs out. Mostly works. But there's tons of "art" to all fermenting- ask any winemaker... or cheesemaker. Fun, too, though.

April 11, 2007 11:04 AM  Robbyn said...

"Do you have any suggestions for my climate? I'm in Florida, and needing ideas. "

Ah. Yep, different climates have different problems and solutions. I lived in the tropics a couple times as a kid, so I am familiar.

"Unfortunately, we have acclimated to AC to the point where it will take our eventual move to acreage OUT of the city (where we can safely keep windows raised for ventilation) and a period of time to get used to the "untempered" hot temps. Any suggestions?"

Boy oh boy. Needs a book. Hm. "Miami Urban Foxfire Book..." :-) The tropics I lived in were pretty wet/humid, so not so far from Florida. A big part of the problem these days is that architects have totally embraced airconditioning/massive power use. Buildings are constructed with NO thought to anything else, which makes it very very difficult. Most native architecture in such regions is "open" - often just a roof, with mat walls for storms, but otherwise open on all 4 sides for the breeze to blow through. And the mosquitoes, if you built too near a swamp. Not to gloss over the problems.

I DO know from multiple times visiting home during college that your body DOES adapt to non-airconditioned um, conditions. And it takes several DAYS. When you're used to leaving the airconditioned house for the air-conditioned car to go to the airconditioned mall or store- it's a shock to live in the real world at first. Bloody hot! But in 4 or 5 days suddenly it will feel mostly comfortable. It will NOT happen in one or two days.

"Also, do you preserve your food for the times it's not so readily available? We don't live in a forageable area, for the most part, but I'm trying to gather ideas of how we can shrug off our dependency on modern "musts." To us, this spells freedom, whatever OUR choices will be throughout the process."

We DO can vegetables, and have salted meat in the past, as well as having a freezer-locker. Drying stuff is good when it works; we eat a lot of dried apples!

I recently learned something interesting; and perhaps useful- a major reason breadfruit was such an important foodstuff in Polynesia was that it could be fermented. Buried. Taro, also- good Hawaiian poi can be pretty tangy. So those folks certainly ate stuff fresh- but also stored things up for the thinner times.

Ok- getting long- nuff for now.


Anonymous said...

Hey Greenpa,

I'm doing just dandy without my fridge so far! It's great to get these tips, though...

Everyone keeps asking about how to store mayo, meat, eggs, dairy -- I just say, don't eat it! Use olive oil, butter or ghee instead of mayo, and if you really need some chicken, buy one, cook it that night, eat half of it, then eat the rest the next afternoon in a sandwich or something... same for dairy -- if you live in the city, at least, you can just pop next door and buy an individual cup (those huge packs of yogurt always seemed to go bad sitting around in my fridge anyway).

And I'm all for using the seasons to my advantage -- fortunately, I live where there are four of them; but in fall/winter it'll be great -- I can store tons of stuff on my balcony.

Doing well so far!

Isle Dance said...

Thank you!! :)

Greenpa said...

Vanessa- hiya. Glad to hear! Couple things-

Eggs- DON'T need the fridge!! Like, EVER. Just sitting on the counter, they'll be FINE for 10 days- or more. How do you think the CHICKENS do it?? An egg is DESIGNED to not spoil- and they're good at it.

Meat- your balcony made me remember another trick I use. Do you have a barbecue on your balcony? I've got one with a good lid you can close to get more smoky flavor. It can work very much like the closed pot of soup- if you cook more than you're going to eat, let it cool a bit; put the extra meat inside the barbecue in a place that's NOT very hot; then close the thing up tight; close all the vents.

That will put the fire out, pretty quick. Saves your charcoal- AND- leaves you with a sealed sterile container. The meat will cook a little more- be prepared for things close to jerky, if you're not careful. But TASTY! Great in salads, sandwiches, spaghetti- And it'll keep in there for a day; or TWO. For one thing, it leaves the surface of the meat sealed, and dry- a very poor place for a bacterium to get started.

We do this all summer, as a way to keep meat for several days. Not dead yet!

Anonymous said...

Hey Greenpa. I hope you don't hold it against me that I am holding on to my fridge :D You got me feeling pretty guilty for a while there... But I managed to rationalize out of it. I think that people should just buy smaller fridges. My micro-fridge is more than enough for 2 people, and it only uses 100W at max, and it's pretty old. Aren't there fridges like that in the US?

Anonymous said...

Regarding mayo--

My mother tells me that her mother used to buy gallon-sized jars of mayo for their family of six and didn't refrigerate them. I have no idea how fast they ate it up. My mother continued this tradition, buying the regular-size jars for our family of four, and we kept it in the cabinet, not the fridge. Not one of my immediate family has ever gotten food poisoning of any kind to my knowledge, much less from the mayo.

There are RULES for unrefrigerated mayo that you've gotta follow.
Rule 1: the mayo knife touches nothing but mayo.
In other words, don't use the knife to spread mayo across the meat and tomato on your sandwich, then put it back in the jar. It can touch dry bread, but nothing else. If the knife touches something else by accident, it is dirty, and you need a fresh mayo knife.
Rule 2: Any food made with mayo should be refrigerated.
It's other food that seems to make the mayo spoil, apparently. You make a ham sammitch, the mayo is touching meat, and needs to be refrigerated. Potato salad, egg salad, anything like that definitely refrigerate immediately. Keeping your mayo in the cabinet doesn't exempt these thing from needing to be chilled. (No idea how you'd handle this if you're going fridgeless, I'm just telling you the rules we used when we had a fridge and didn't use it for mayo.)
Rule 3: If the mayo ever gets put in the fridge, then it has to stay there until it is gone.
I think this one was mostly a hedge against folks who didn't know the rules. Only visitors to our home would put the mayo in the fridge, and they might have also broken rule one, so just in case, it stayed in the fridge if they put it there.

I'm sad to say that I've given up keeping mayo out of the fridge--hubby is too nervous about it, and if I don't refrigerate it, I need two jars or he doesn't get any. Oddly, being out of the habit has made me slightly squeamish about it myself. I think my mother might have given it up as well (after 50+ years) because she said they weren't eating the mayo fast enough when it was just the two of them.

One trick that unrefrigerated mayo can do which is quite handy is camping. Buy a small, unopened jar to take with you, follow the rules, and it is one less thing you've got to make space for in the cooler.

No Google blog, but I'm R.M. Koske, and I've been enjoying your posts.

Anonymous said...

Tip on keeping the eggs: don't wash them until ready to eat. Eggs have a natural coating that will help preserve them longer. (Yeah, I know. Ironic to get this kind of tip from a strict vegetarian! Go figure.)

Anonymous said...

I'd heard that fresh-from-under-the-chicken eggs didn't need refrigeration, but bought eggs (from the megastore) are washed, and the washing means the DO need refrigeration. They don't wash them in Europe, so no fridge there, but here they need to be cool. I shouldn't be posting, I should be working, so I can't google right now to check, though.

R.M. Koske

Greenpa said...

Alina- I'm outraged!

No, I'm not. :-) Sorry you were feeling guilty- that's not the idea! Somewhere in here I have talked (I think) about efficient refrigerators- they CAN be made, you just have to really look hard for them here in the US, and you have to be aware the people selling them tend to lie. "Oh, it's the most efficient possible!" Not even close, usually.

RM - WOW! Fabulous information- exactly the kind of thing that should go into the Urban Foxfire books- real experience, over years. I love the "mayo only" knife- that's excellent "sterile technique", right out of a microbiology lab. I guess maybe my own fear of mayo could be just based on what my mother told me-it's awfully hard to argue with your experience.

Chile and RM on the eggs- yeah, washing does decrease the keeping ability; but doesn't really mean they MUST be refrigerated. Unwashed- keep for 15 days unrefrigerated usually; washed, keep for 10, unrefrigerated, 20 refrigerated. They LOVE that 20- gives you lots of shelf time. Those were the rules I learned, and I'll bet other folks have other rules.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, I also follow the 'sterile knife' (or spoon) rule. Ever since I was a kid. And not just with mayo, but also with cream, and even with jam. I'm really paranoid about that. That's also the reason you shouldn't drink milk out of the carton :D and that's why I've been known to flip out on my boyfriend when he does that. Yes, that's my story and I'm sticking to it! :)

Anonymous said...

Regarding ultra-efficient fridges, this fellow's project

seems really wonderful. He's reworked a chest freezer to be a refrigerator, and it uses (according to the article) 100 watt-hours a day.

My link isn't to the real meat, but to an article about the meaty article - the original article is a PDF, but you can get to the PDF from the Treehugger article.

I want to try building one of those ultra-efficient fridges, but I'm not sure where I'd put the thing in my apartment.

Glad you thought the mayo info was useful, Greenpa. I'm a little sad that I'm getting paranoid about doing it now, and I don't know if I'd be able to bring myself to store washed eggs at room temp, but it is good to have the info. I may try it someday.

Alina, I don't tend to be quite as fussy about non-mayo items, but I'm fairly fussy. Imagine my horror when hubby not only uses the same knife for peanut butter and jelly, but also stirs the jelly vigorously before spreading it! The jelly he eats gets moldy in what seems like weeks, but if I buy a flavor he doesn't like, mine lasts forever. Ah, well, I love him, and we'll muddle along somehow.

R.M. Koske

Anonymous said...

Greenpa, this talk of efficient refrigerators makes me wish I still had one we built about 12 years ago. We ordered a compressor and constructed our own super-insulated 8 cu.ft. chest refrigerator. We were off the grid and powered it with deepcell marine batteries charged with solar panels.

The fridge worked just fine even though it was outside with summer temperatures often 100 degrees and higher. We sold it to our neighbors when we left our land. I wonder if they still use it.

Nom, nom, nom! said...

I can't understand why it took me so long to wander over here from No Impact world.

About this Urban Foxfire thing (which is so genius): last night I got to thinking. "Most people can't really do what it takes to unplug all by themselves," I thought. "It's hard unto impossible. And communal living blows--you have to give up too much autonomy and attend a lot of tedious meetings all the time. No one will sign up for that, so we're doomed."

But this morning I thought, "No, wait, that's wrong. We're not doomed." Because there's already a semi-communal neighborhood system set up all over the place and people have signed up in droves despite the fact that it's almost as unbearable as real communal living: there are a million infuriating rules. It's just that the rules we have now are exactly backwards from what they should be.

What if we had green condominia? In order to get in one, you'd have to agree to give up your private vehicle (which could be turned into a jitney or entered into a carshare) and be okay with no refrigerators, no elevator, no A/C, and composting toilets. Each condo would have a balcony garden. On the roof would be some small agriculture, the solar panels for everybody's laptops and to heat water for showers/laundry/dishes, and NIM Commenter Jeff's idea: the _Mosquito Coast_ ice plant that would supply everybody with ice for their ice boxes. Maybe it would be possible somehow to design the building to circulate air--perhaps using the elevator shafts?--to make it possible to live in the building in the summer without dying of no A/C. Or maybe there is a way to condition air economically: not refrigerate rooms and people.

Instead of each person individually brewing vinegar, everybody in the building could contribute the scraps to make barrels of vinegar in the basement, which everybody in the building could then use for cleaning and cooking. Instead of garbage chutes there could be compost chutes. The CSAs and local dairies could make deliveries every day. And instead of blowing everybody's condo fees on doormen and elevator maintenance and somebody to water the lobby ficus, you'd spend the money on technicians to maintain the ice plant and people to mind the vinegar factory and tend the rooftop garden and goat herd and drive the fleet of jitneys.

Ditto with the suburban neighborhood associations: there could be green ones, where nobody has a car and you get fined for planting waterhogging trophy grass instead of native plants, or for using a leaf blower or a mower instead of the contracting with the neighborhood shepherd to bring over the sheep as stipulated in the contract you signed.

Would green rules be MORE annoying than the rules people are already having to follow? I doubt it! I can't think of anything more dispiriting than having to spend a thousand dollars and hundreds of hours a year maintaining an inedible monoculture in my front yard only to get fined because I forgot to edge my sidewalks or in some other way produced a substandard lawn that failed to send my neighbors into pleasing golf reveries. I for one would rather be forced to compost my doody.

Anonymous said...


You are so incredibly generous with information that I feel greedy asking this...but will you post about your root cellar sometime in the future?

Isle Dance said...

I have to second the root cellar request...oh yeah!

*em* said...

I know this comment is a little late, but have you ever heard of The Elder Wisdom Circle? Perhaps the folks over at EWC ( can provide some Urban Foxfire info.

Anonymous said...

Urban Foxfire is a good idea. I've often been struck by how the good advice I've been able to find, almost always targets either rural living, or wealthy liberals looking to feel a little less guilty. I can crib some good advice from each, but lots doesn't help. But I think you've got the tip of the conceptual iceberg here. I've lived mostly in small towns, it isn't much like city living, but not much like rural living either. I've never lived in a suburb, but I'll bet there are a lot of folk living in suburbs who would like to be greener than they are and are having trouble finding coherent advice for how to do so that doesn't involve moving into the countryside. If a Townie Foxfire, or even a Suburban Foxfire were possible I think they'd be well received. Likewise, I think its important to give advice for lots of intensity levels. I ain't gonna be anywhere near as green as you this decade, but I'm greener than I was a five years ago, or last year, and I'm hoping to be greener next year. So much of the advice I've seen targets either the ultra-green end of you and the 90% austerity folks, and such, or the beginner you-can-do-a-little end, say 10% austerity, without much in between. I would guess that our family moved from about 50% to 60-70% austerity this year, and is hoping to move to 70-80% by next year, but I doubt we'll ever make it to 90%, or much past 80%, without moving to a rural location and becoming full-time homesteaders. Maybe suburbanites can't make it past 50% without leaving the suburbs. But STILL I'll bet there are suburbanites who are trying and would be willing to try other things if they were given coherent advice moderately tailored to their situations. It seems to me that helping people that are living at 20% austerity get motivated and get practical advice on how to get to 30%, is almost as valuable as helping folk already living in the 80% range make it to 90%. Maybe that stuff is out there and I just haven't seen it, but it's also possible that this is a hole in the movement that someone with experience should fill.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

You CAN make chicken jerky. We preserved a bunch of chicken from our freezer after Katrina that way.

You just gotta cook the chicken first. Cook in a mixture of water, soy sauce and spices is how we did it. You want it just done - not falling off the bone.

Then cut in thin pieces and dry.

Anonymous said...

As a 19 year old college student in a small, very urban apartment, I've been fridgeless for a while now. I'm a strict vegetarian, so there aren't really any animal products to even worry about. A few wilty veggies are the only issues i've had.

Having read through the Foxfire books, and being constantly astonished by the amount of information that the kids i spend time with every day lack, i love the idea of an urban foxfire project.

I remember i brought some guys out to my parents' home. My mom cooked them big from-scratch meals (most of the girls i know don't even know how to cook pasta) and my dad took them raccoon hunting, and helped them with the skinning and tanning. Almost two years later, they still talk about it. Dozens of kids around here, male and female, have asked me to teach them about basic nutrition and cooking. There's such a hunger for the knowledge that 98% of our generation didn't get from their parents (at work) or grandparents (in a nursing home in a distant town).