Thriftiness is a dish best served cold.

A color advertisement from the 1950’s shows a smiling woman showing off a chest freezer stocked with food
“Deepfreeze Freezer” by dok1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I recently read this really interesting New York Times story about families with multiple refrigerators and freezers, and what that fact can say about socioeconomic class, and even race and ethnicity. That got me thinking about my own family’s fridge/freezer habits.

Growing up, our family had one freezer-fridge combo in the kitchen and then a big standing freezer in the basement (and later in the garage, when we moved to a house without a basement). The second freezer stored all the stuff Mom got on sale, made in batches, or that was part of our holiday preparations. Oh, and it was also the destination for all the bags of garden-grown collard greens or homemade beef stew or what-have-you that my great-grandmother would send us home with after a visit.

That said, there are probably items in that freezer (which just started to die after about 30+ years of use) that predate my high school graduation. In particular, there is a Ziploc bag of frozen walnuts in the shell that I’m pretty sure has survived for decades. Every visit home. I would look at them and think about tossing them, but I would get a weird wave of nostalgia and chicken out. Part of me wonders whether any bags of greens from my great-grandmother’s garden have survived the various moves and cleanouts. If they’re there, stuffed way, way in the back, they have outlived her. But they were lovingly made by her hands, which makes throwing them out an emotional prospect.

My great-grandmother had one fridge-freezer combo in the kitchen (through most of my childhood this was one that dated back to the early 1950s), and one standing freezer and one fridge-freezer in the basement. Then when she upgraded the midcentury one in the kitchen, it moved to the basement as well, and was used to store drinks. Keep in mind, most of my childhood my great-grandmother lived alone with my grandmother, and they both ate like birds. But my great-grandmother was the matriarch of a huge extended family, and people were always dropping by. So she always had a meal and sides on hand that she could quickly defrost and serve.

That huge garden I mentioned earlier produced everything from greens to beets to pears to green beans to tomatoes, and she froze whatever she didn’t eat or can. And I’m sure she gave away hundreds of pounds of those things as well. I have vivid memories of being asked to go down to the basement and take out from the freezer some ingredient we needed for dinner, and having to ask, “Which one is it in?”

Having a second fridge or freezer could be considered a marker of a particular, and possibly precarious, place in the middle class. It means that you have enough money to buy, run and store the extra appliance, even if you have to pay in installments. But it also can mean that you have survived lean times, and want to make sure that you have enough stored away to sustain you if they come again. It can mean that you’re well-off enough and respected enough that your family and friends can look to you as a source of food — either in terms of ingredients or a home-cooked meal — if they fall on hard times themselves. But it’s also a sign that you aren’t so wealthy or financially stable that you can just buy whatever you want, whenever you want, regardless of cost.

Spare forms of cold storage can also mean that you work a job with long or irregular hours, so you cook in batches so that your kids or spouse have something to eat when you’re not home or are too tired to cook. It can mean that you have just enough disposable income that you can shop sales and buy in bulk: 2 pounds of butter for $3? Better buy eight pounds! Ground beef at $0.79 a pound? Better stock up! Ooh, Costco has 5-pound bags of chicken nuggies! Gotta get those!)

And let’s not forget the role of the stockpiles contained in auxiliary fridges and freezers in denying your children impulse purchases. “You want McDonald’s? You got McDonald’s money? We got burgers and fries in the freezer at home.” “Oh, you want a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ice cream bar off the neighborhood ice cream truck? We got ice cream in the freezer at home!”

Our multiple fridge-freezer-buying habits also say something about the way that Americans shop for food. If you’re living in a place where the nearest supermarket (or the nearest affordable supermarket) requires a drive of at least 25–30 minutes each way, you’re probably not shopping every day. When you do shop, you shop for the entire week or two weeks or even the whole month (barring a few of the most perishable supplies like bread and milk). And providing you have access to a car, it’s not a big deal to do one massive shopping trip and stick everything in the trunk.

Compare this to when I lived in Bonn, Frankfurt, and Berlin, Germany, where there were usually two or three supermarkets within walking distance of my apartment. I had no car, so I didn’t buy more than I could carry in my backpack and a couple of reusable shopping bags. That meant I bought less and shopped more often. My apartments all had fridge-freezers in which the freezer part was much smaller than the American ones I was used to. One freezer barely had enough room for a couple of tubs of ice cream. But most of the food I was purchasing was fresh and cooked the same day or within a few days of when I bought it. Every once in a while I’d make a big batch of something, and wish I could freeze it for another day. But without a full-size freezer, I had to either eat it every day until it was gone or let some of it go bad.

The comments section of the Times’ story had several folks who seem to believe that having more than one refrigerator or freezer is a symbol of American overconsumption and food waste. But in my experience, it’s just the opposite.

What’s your fridge-freezer tally, readers? Has it changed during the pandemic?

Stephanie Siek is a writer and editor who loves cats, cookie dough and aborted alliteration.

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