For about a decade I have been quoting architect Donald Chong’s line that small fridges make good cities; people who have them are out in their community every day, buy what is seasonal and fresh, buy as much as they need, responding to the marketplace, the baker, vegetable store and neighbourhood vendor. In Europe, most people have small fridges, mostly 24 inches wide. In America, they are often twice that.
Meanwhile, writing on the Kitchn website, Dana McMahan describes how she lived with a small fridge in Paris and loved the experience.
How magical to store some rosé, a bit of charcuterie, a little fruit, some macarons, those delicious French yogurts, some water (even the water tastes better there!), and to have just a little bit of space still available. Opening that tiny fridge made me happy.
So she went out and bought one for her home in the US. “Then I went grocery shopping. In America. And it was all downhill from there.”
Fast forward a year and a half: Instead of opening the fridge with a dreamy smile of anticipation, I do so with a grimace and often a curse word or three, as I plunge my grasping fingers into a morass of Rubbermaid containers, giant gallons of milk, equally giant wine boxes (until I figured out you could remove the plastic bag from the box to save room, albeit making it look like there are bags of bodily fluid in the fridge), and leaning towers of condiments more likely than not to topple when I try to extract the soy sauce for the grocery-store sushi I bought. I bought this grocery store sushi, by the way, because I don't cook anymore ... because I can't fit anything in my blasted refrigerator.
This is the fundamental problem- the stuff we put in our fridges. Visiting TreeHugger Bonnie’s apartment and fridge in London last week, I noticed that the milk bottle was half a litre, that the packages were all smaller, and that there in fact wasn’t all that much in it. She lives in a third floor walkup so you don’t want to be dragging big jugs of economy size stuff up the stairs. They have a nice 2013 vintage car but don’t use it in town for shopping, so it only has 9,000 miles on it in four years. They just happen to live in a city where they can walk to stores and shop daily. Their flat has a Walkscore of 95.
Dana doesn’t have that option. I don’t know where she lives, but she complains:
I imagined we'd go to the store daily, French-style. But then the last remaining grocer in my neighborhood closed, meaning it's now an event to go to the store, one in which we must stock up so we don't have to go again for quite some time…. So to expect a Paris-style fridge to serve my real-world needs was, well, just not very realistic.
And I realized after reading this that for ten years now, I have got it exactly backwards when I say Small fridges make good cities; You have to get the city and the neighbourhood right first, living in one that is walkable, where you can find the butcher and the baker and the grocery store.
Instead in much of North America we get the vicious circle where people drive big SUVs to the big box food store to fill up their big fridge because they don’t have the option. But as Dan Nosowitz wrote in a now deleted Gawker article:
Bigger fridges encourage unhealthy eating habits. Brian Wansink, a professor of nutritional science and consumer behavior at Cornell and the former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, did a study of warehouse club shoppers that showed that families that have more food in the house eat more food. If your freezer is large enough to house the family SUV and is full of ice cream because you bought it in bulk on a deal, you're going to eat more of that ice cream than if you'd just bought a single carton for your sensibly-sized freezer.
So all told, we get an obesity crisis, a food waste crisis and a carbon crisis; what a story our fridges can tell. And in the end, I find that small fridges don’t make good cities; it’s more accurate to say that good cities make small fridges. That's what we should be aiming for.