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February 16, 2021
What’s in Your Second Fridge?
Article-Second-Fridge-Culture

A spare Frigidaire (or three) is more than just a space for storing kimchi jars and beef shanks, but a lifeline for many.

When the food writer Rick Martinez moved from his Hamilton Heights apartment in New York City to his sunlit dream home in Mazatlán, Mexico, he was suddenly on the hunt for a new refrigerator. With a big cookbook project underway with Clarkson Potter and an endless lineup of video and recipe development jobs in the queue, he figured he should renovate his kitchen (it being his office and all). He retiled the backdrop, bought locally made Mexican ceramics to line his workspace, and has been eyeing a new Viking stove to replace the one that came with the house.

But when he went shopping for a new fridge to replace the little LG Smart Inverter GT32BDC humming in the corner, he noticed one thing about all the models at the local appliance stores he was visiting: They were small. Very small. At least compared to the spacious icebox he had had in his Manhattan two-bedroom, and certainly compared to the cavernous Dream Fridge™ (a Samsung) that sat in the heart of his childhood home in Texas. As he tells me in a recent phone call, “I could literally crawl into that Samsung refrigerator and close the door. It was probably the size of my New York apartment.”

The Martinezes had a second refrigerator as well, out in the garage. In 1974, when Martinez’s father went hunting and brought home deer meat, the family froze the leftovers in the spare garage fridge. Only thing is: Everyone forgot about it until 1988. “We gave that venison to the dogs,” Martinez adds. “Because, no, of course we didn’t eat it after 14 years.”

The lore of old food dying in the depths of garage-freezer hell is long and tall. The ownership of second refrigerators in the United States has steadily increased since 1997, as has food waste at an alarming rate. The two may be linked, sure, but for Martinez, the prevalence of extra fridge and freezer space in American households might be a product of a larger phenomenon that he calls “reverse guilt.” “There’s this weird stigma around empty refrigerators,” he says. “Think about all the times you’ve gone over to someone’s house and saw only beer and a quart of milk in their fridge. You sort of feel sorry for them. And so, if you yourself have a cavernous fridge, and an extra one at that, you want to fill them with shit. All kinds of shit.”

This mythos of the second (and third and fourth) refrigerator tells many stories depending on where you live around the States, and with whom. It tells the story of American consumerism, greed, and excess, to be sure, but it also tracks some of the thriftiest and creative pantry cooking and reveals what a general love and respect for food—and the determined preservation of that food—looks like. If a packed fridge is some kind of symbol for suburban prosperity, cooking savvy, or apocalyptic preparedness (or perhaps a mix of all three), then what does a packed second fridge say about the way those home cooks approach dinner? I set out to find out.

Unsurprisingly, states with the highest predominance of second refrigerators can be found primarily in the Midwest, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). For the cookbook author Amy Thielen, who currently operates four separate fridges in her home in rural Minnesota near a township called Two Inlets (population: 211), organization is key to making sure each square foot of extra cooler space is used wisely. She recently added a new kitchen to her oasis in the Upper Midwest, where two side-by-side refrigerators reside to hold the everyday ingredients: all of her summer bread and butter pickles, jars of kimchi from a local friend’s Korean grocery-slash-thrift store, at least three dozen eggs, gallons of milk, and a quart of cream—always.

The fridge on the right has three produce drawers, which Thielen tells me have been lifesavers during the pandemic. She likes to bundle all of her base vegetables (potatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, leeks, celery, parsley, and “at least two or three cabbages, more green than red”) in plastic and store them in the produce drawer so they’ll last longer. She also makes sure to keep the top shelf low enough that she can stand “a half-gone bottle of white wine upright” at all times. “I try to keep the left side of the kitchen fridge free for leftovers, but they end up getting mixed in wherever the awkward storage containers fit,” she admits. “I have a fantasy of getting organized, but I’ve let that go. If the door shuts, I’m happy.”

“There’s this weird stigma around empty refrigerators.”

Fridge number three in the Thielen household is “tucked away behind the staircase” in her former kitchen, which comes in handy for cookbook work and for local fundraisers. This is the fridge where she keeps all her fall root vegetables, which she pulls out of her garden: carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, and the like. “At first, I thought I’d be able to phase this fridge out sometime during the fall, but it never cleared out,” she says. “It’s where I put large chunks of meat I buy. Where I thaw frozen chickens. Where I stash the good white wine I buy for the holidays. At first it was, ‘after the photo shoot, I’ll turn it off.’ Then ‘after Thanksgiving.’ Then ‘after Christmas.’” Then, it never happened.

Thielen’s fourth fridge is, as she calls it, “the prettiest one.” Sitting on the screen porch of her house, this “round-shouldered GE fridge from the 1940s” comes in handy during the hot and humid Minnesota summers, when she and her family sit on the porch and use the fridge for cold beverages. She bought it years ago from a man named Burt at Harvala’s Appliance for 20 bucks and a case of something “regular” (not imported). “Probably Miller High Life,” Thielen adds. One common misconception about old refrigerators is that they help families save electricity, but the outdated technology actually makes them major energy blights. “It costs a lot in electricity to run, so I guess the joke’s on me! But it has one of those long, Art Deco–shaped lever handles and is as heavy as an old car, and I love it.”

For Jocelyn Ramirez, a Los Angeles–based chef and the founder of Todo Verde, her second fridge, which she keeps in the garage, was paramount when her main fridge malfunctioned. She was able to transfer all the food from the first refrigerator to the second, thereby saving bags and bags of fresh produce and other perishable groceries. “I felt so grateful for that second fridge,” she says. Growing up, too, Ramirez remembers having a spare refrigerator in the garage, which stored frozen cheese rounds that her family would bring back from Mexico, or big cakes and ceviche for parties, or ripe avocados and oranges from the trees that grew in their yard.

“When I see other people’s home fridges half empty and mostly filled with drinks, I wonder how they survive and if food and culture mean anything to them. I can tell a lot about a person by looking in their fridge, I guess,” she says. “I never really gave it any thought, but I think the second fridge is so important, because it feels like you have an abundance of food, even if other things feel a bit scarce.”

When Carlos C. Olaechea, a columnist at Saveur, was laid off from his day job back in March 2020 and all his freelance writing assignments were killed, he had to pivot to support himself and his husband, John. So he decided to sell homemade empanadas all over Miami, from Boynton Beach to Cutler Bay, out of his own personal home kitchen. Word of his amazing empanadas got around, and The Kelly Clarkson Show interviewed him in a segment on pandemic career changes. As Olaechea’s empanada business grew, he had to switch up his kitchen arrangement, which originally involved a single immoderately stuffed refrigerator. This later evolved to a second “empanada fridge,” which he bought for a couple hundred bucks at a used appliance store and parked right outside his house under a covered patio. “It actually doesn’t add to the electric bill that much, but the humidity does make it a little grungy looking,” he says.

If you yourself have a cavernous fridge, and an extra one at that, you want to fill them with shit. All kinds of shit

This was a big change in mindset for Olaechea, who spent the first few years of his life in Peru, where the fridges were much smaller, and people went to the market every day. As the months went on, he found that the second fridge was able to serve so many other purposes beyond supporting his empanada business: It’s where he stores wet-cured meats, large-format sheet cakes for birthdays and holidays, bottles of cooking wine that he doesn’t use that often but still wants the option to use, and all of his Costco hauls, including whole pork loins, tons of butter, bulk walnuts and pecans, and big tubs of mayonnaise. (“Things I never want to think about running out of,” he adds.)

For Olaechea, owning a spare refrigerator freed up his home cooking drastically. “I like that all these things don’t have to clutter up my main fridge,” he continues. “The second fridge lets me have more cooking projects and lets me be less precious about specialty ingredients that aren’t shelf-stable. I can buy them and expand my cold pantry for miles.”

When James Park, a social media manager at Eater, recently returned to his hometown in Pohang, South Korea, for the first time since 2014, he realized what a pack rat his mother was. He spent multiple days on the floor of his mother’s kitchen, sifting through 10 to 15 old jars of gochujang and doenjang among her home’s multiple refrigerators. Park’s mother, like many in Korea, doesn’t just have a fridge in the kitchen. In a smaller, less-insulated room adjacent to the kitchen (where the temperature gets especially cold in the winter), Mrs. Park keeps a separate kimchi refrigerator, one dedicated solely to an avalanche of red plastic containers filled with baechu kimchi, chonggak kimchi, and kkakdugi. “She never makes them herself,” he tells me. “They’re all sourced from elsewhere. And they’re always in those red containers, never white.” (Because white plastic stains.)

This second fridge holds all of these kimchis at an ideal temperature lower and steadier than a regular fridge would. LG, for instance, sells a model that can keep food at approximately 33º Fahrenheit, one degree above freezing. In case it helps paint a picture: This temperature allows for the same kind of slow fermentation you might get from burying an earthenware pot of freshly made kimchi in the ground to last through an icy Korean winter.

Speaking of ice, Mrs. Park has an extra freezer, too, where she stores pounds and pounds of various “mysterious powders,” as Park calls them, which are completely unidentifiable through the frost and definitely unlabeled. For Park, these Korean pantry ingredients may be his mother’s way of holding onto the past, or at least keeping the option open should she want to revisit it. “It was shocking to see all those random condiments that my mom had saved all those years,” he said. “She doesn’t cook, so it’s not like those ingredients ever get used. She doesn’t even know what they are anymore, but she doesn’t throw them out either. Which is very . . . her.”

Sabrina Brockman, the owner of two Grandchamps locations in Brooklyn, still remembers when her old ex-boyfriend’s Korean mother finally bought her first kimchi refrigerator. “She was so proud of it and wanted to show it off,” Brockman tells me. As a new technology that wasn’t invented until 1984, the kimchi refrigerator became one of the hottest commodities for Korean households, a sign of status, by the 1990s. But for Brockman, who grew up in Queens, owning a second refrigerator was just the way it was. All of the families around her not only had spare fridges, they also had entire second kitchens, usually on another floor of the home. “I guess that’s just how the houses were built then,” she adds. “Maybe they were meant for multiple families.”

Now residing in Brooklyn, Brockman and her husband, Shawn, only have one fridge. But they do have a spare freezer where they keep extra food. “We’ve been cooking more at home because of COVID,” she says. Riffling through her freezer stash, she lists the contents for me: a commercial-size box of jalapeño poppers (“way too much”), seven-and-a-half pounds of stuffed potato balls with beef and pork, a bag of frozen shrimp, scallops, “and . . . burgers. We eat good here,” she laughs.

“When I see other people’s home fridges half empty and mostly filled with drinks, I wonder how they survive and if food and culture mean anything to them. I can tell a lot about a person by looking in their fridge, I guess.”

Brockman has another “second refrigerator” in the Bed-Stuy location of Grandchamps. But instead of using it for the restaurant, she rents it out to Brooklyn Supported Agriculture, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) service that sources and packages local produce for residents in Brooklyn and Queens. “We had gotten to know them, and they were being squeezed out of their old space,” she says. When Brockman noticed this a couple years ago, she reached out. She said, “Look, we have extra space. You guys use it, it’s yours, and we can come up with an arrangement.” For a small fee, Brooklyn Supported Agriculture has access not only to the spare refrigerator, but also to the kitchen space, which has been helpful for packing the CSA produce. They expanded significantly during COVID because of this.     

I remember calling Steph, one of the guys that runs the program at BSA, and telling him that the work they did was really important to the community,” Brockman adds. “Rather than retreating from the pandemic, I felt that they could lean into what they were doing even more.” Which is exactly what they did. After setting up these operations at Grandchamps, BSA got a packing contract with a partner to help scale up their business, resulting in new jobs for the neighborhood.

“Without that extra fridge space, we couldn’t do our work in the way that we do. It’s practically free for us,” confirms Steph Wiley, who cofounded Brooklyn Packers, the worker-owned labor cooperative that runs the CSA. “Grandchamps has always been a great friend, not only to our business but also to our family. They live down the block from us; our kids play together. It’s a great relationship.” Thanks to the support of their neighbors at Grandchamps, the Brooklyn Packers are able to feed close to 200 people a week. For Wiley, this community support is an essential piece in the puzzle of his business’s success, not least in the face of COVID. “We had to pivot a lot, which led to great opportunities to feed hundreds and thousands of people over the most critical parts of the pandemic. In the summer, we were sending out 4,000 boxes a week through our work. We couldn’t have gotten to that point without Sabrina and Shawn.”

Eric Kim

Eric Kim is a food writer and recipe developer based in New York. His debut cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, will be published by Clarkson Potter in March 2022.