A Moveable Feast

What Have You Got in the Fridge?

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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How the refrigerator keeps generational attitudes towards food intact

I ASKED AN ARYA Samaj priest who had come to officiate at a death anniversary what he had in his fridge. He looked discomposed and said “a vegetable”. He muttered that they cooked the next day’s lunch the previous night, and stored it in the fridge. “My wife teaches in a school, so she is not able to cook it fresh,” he explained in an apologetic tone. I could understand his sense of guilt at eating stale food. I sometimes eat chana or pasta the next day but I don’t feel good about doing so.

The source of our guilt lies in how our cultural or religious upbringing treats leftover food. In my case, it was upbringing: if the food was cooked in the morning, my father refused to eat it at night.

In the priest’s case, it was a guilt associated with religious practices. Hinduism has strong proscriptions on consuming stale food, which is considered to be polluting and detrimental to the human body.

Though rolling over leftover food is not. There is a peculiar practice in Kukke Subramanya temple in coastal Karnataka, Made Snana, translated as leftover bath, which involves devotees rolling over the leftover food of Brahmins. The belief is that this practice will cure and protect them from skin diseases and remove family curses. In response to concerns by Dalit and lower caste groups that the origin of this practice lay in forcing people to take on the evil and sin of the upper castes, and that it was caste-based and an affront to human dignity, the Indian Supreme Court recently banned the practice.

The notion of ‘staleness’ has become more ambiguous in our technologically advanced age. What is construed as stale food in an age where technological innovations such as the freezer can keep food fresh for days and months? Our attitude to the fridge reveals a lot about generational attitudes to food including what we preserve, what we consume, and how long we keep food before deeming it uneatable.

Those in my mother-in-law’s generation, who grew up in the 1950s when the fridge was a new invention, have a believer’s fervour about its ability to preserve. Along with food, batteries, perfumes, rubber gloves and tablets are also stored in the fridge. Their view of the fridge is no different from my generation’s view of the internet—a magical object capable of doing anything and everything asked of it.

Then you have the subsequent generations who, with a less rose-tinted view of the fridge, use it for the purpose it was designed for—to store food. They are more leery of the fridge’s ability to preserve foods for too long, and the attitude is—use quickly, and don’t keep anything for more than a day or two.

Gen-Xers and Yers have a different relationship with the fridge. It is a ‘go to’ place for grazing, or a quick lunch or for an impromptu party. Store-bought dahi (which the older generation would never have), packaged peas and milkshakes share the fridge with pizzas in the deep freeze, as well as other instant foods like parathas and fish fingers. Their conception of leftovers is simply food that has become inedible or has passed the consume-by date. For many Gen-Xers, who cook on the weekend for the whole week, the fridge, or more accurately the freezer, is a lifesaver. When defrosted, the dish becomes ‘fresh’ rather than a leftover.

The attitude to leftovers is also determined by the cuisine. Some dishes like chole, rajma and meat dishes taste better the next day. Scientific studies show that foods that do improve have an important commonality; they include a multitude of ingredients each one with distinct aromatic properties—such as onion, garlic, peppers, herbs. Aromatic ingredients undergo a larger number of reactions that produce flavour and aroma compounds which in turn react with the proteins and the starches. In general, as the food cools and is left to sit in the fridge, and then re-heated, some of these reactions continue to take place resulting in improved flavour. Street food occupies the other end of the spectrum, where freshness enhances its taste. It is cook and eat immediately; cook, store and eat is a surefire route to the Delhi belly.

The source of our guilt lies in how our cultural or religious upbringing treats leftovers. In my case, it was upbringing: If the food was cooked in the morning, my father refused to eat at night

Not surprisingly, companies selling appliances and packaged foods have been conducting research on what consumers buy and store in the fridge. A Godrej appliances study reported in The Hindu highlights different personality traits of a fridge user. A simple question—do you know what is in your fridge?—can throw up different types of personalities. Those of us who do—either because we graze or because we check to make sure no food more than a day old is in it—belong to the ‘fridge obsessive’ side of the continuum. A majority of Indian consumers belong to this category, says the study, because over 53 per cent of the respondents knew precisely what their fridge contained, and about a fifth of them would suffer sleepless nights if its contents were not refreshed every day.

But that is not all. If you are among the 44 per cent who empty and clean the fridge before going on vacation, or wipe and clean food items before putting them in the fridge, then you are a fridge spartan. Then there are the fridge negligent types (don’t know and don’t care), the fridge raiders (snackers with an extensive array of junk food stored there) and ice-box hedonists (freezer stocked for impromptu parties). While these are simple categories that have very little science or rigour attached to them, they do touch on a deeper aspect, that is, our relationship with the storing of foods. Historically, the problems associated with storage and the subsequent decay of food were transformed into tools of social and economic insurance. In many tribal communities, food is given away to kin or allies as a way to forge social bonds and community ties, and with the expectation that the kin would repay the gift when the giver experiences hardships.

The personality traits vis-à-vis the fridge highlight an interesting divide between the current generations and the older lot. Guilt caused by religious or cultural mores plays no role in the Gen-Xers attitude to leftovers. Instead, technology brings its own version of guilt connected to the concept of an ideal body. A study by Charles Emery, a psychologist at Ohio State University, highlights the relationship between having too many fridges and obesity. Emery conducted research into how the way food is set up around the house influences how much people eat and their obesity levels. The study team visited the homes of 100 central Ohio volunteers to document how home interiors, food storage areas and other architectural features, such as stairs, affect access to food. Their study involved observing the home environment, food-buying patterns, eating habits and psychological well-being of 50 obese (average body mass index of 36.8) and 50 non-obese individuals, between the ages of 20 and 78. They found that although the amount of food obese and non-obese participants kept at home was similar, obese individuals stored food in many locations outside the kitchen—a bowl of nuts, jars with biscuits and other munchies, and mini- fridges and freezers in other parts of the house like the bedroom and the study. In short, obese participants had food and fridges visible in their favourite hang-out places at home and were playing out the Hannibal Lecter phrase—we covet what we see every day.

Having too many fridges is not a problem in India since to run a fridge one needs an uninterrupted power supply. When half of India’s population receives power for less than 16 hours a day, statistics reported by Euromonitor and others about the low levels of fridge use in India is not surprising. Only one in 10 homes in rural India has a fridge, and only around 27 per cent of all Indian households owned a fridge, against an Asia-wide average of around 65 per cent.

Add to that the disturbing statistic that Indians waste as much food as the whole of the United Kingdom consumes, while having the highest numbers (194 million) undernourished in the world in 2016. According to the United Nations Development Programme, up to 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted. About 21 million tonnes of wheat are wasted in India and 50 per cent of all food across the world meets the same fate and never reaches the needy. Globally too, about one-third of the world’s edible food is lost or wasted annually, while the challenge to feed the projected world population of 9.3 billion people by the mid-century will require 60 per cent more food than is currently produced.

In a country where hunger is ubiquitous, technology has helped connect those who have surplus food with those who don’t. In October 2017, the government introduced a web-based platform, the Indian Food Recovery Alliance—to connect those who want to donate food with those who can distribute it. Food recovery agencies, such as No Food Waste, Feeding India, India Food Banking Network, Roti Bank, Annakshetra, Giveaway India and Robin Hood Army feed an average of over a lakh people per day in more than 70 cities. It is better to share your food immediately, than be like the ant in Aesop’s fable who stored it for a rainy day.