June 14th, 2016
“What’s in the fridge?” is the refrain. But a Korean woman practicing design in the Netherlands would like us to change the question to something along the lines of “Why in the fridge?” Her name is Jihyun Ryou and several years ago, she began thinking about how this most necessary and ubiquitous appliance had, while tirelessly preserving food, also lead to a certain kind of rot.
Her musings became an art/design project that she initially called “Shaping Knowledge,” before settling into “Save Food from the Fridge.” Its idea was to recapture folkways of food preservation and make them, quite literally, visible. The result of this — ancient wisdom transformed into minimalist Scandinavian design — I personally find rather droll. It’s like finding Ikea in a Charles Dickens novel.
A couple of examples.
Ryou makes the distinction of “fruit vegetables” such as zucchini and peppers which are sped to their doom by storage in the refrigerator. Keeping them on the counter doesn’t do much better, because dryness harms them as well. Ryou’s solution is a container with a reservoir of water beneath the fruit veggies, which slowly evaporates creating a humid microclimate for them. Similarly, she has a lovely ceramic bowl for apples that has a double bottom, turning a fruit bowl into a microclimate generator.
Potatoes get a counter-intuitive treatment, being stored in a darkened box topped with apples. We’re told to never store potatoes and onions together because of the way that ethylene gas from the onions causes the potatoes to sprout. Apples, too, produce ethylene gas, but they also produce alcohols that which inhibit the the formation of sprouts.
Celery and brassicas such as cauliflower and cabbage are treated like cut flowers, resting in water in respective vases. And then there’s my favorite: The Verticality of Root Vegetables. Proceeding from the assumption that — just like a skyscraper works better when it’s upright instead lying flat — vertical veggies such as carrots and leeks do better when stored the way that they grew. This leads to them being “planted” in containers with damp sand.
It’s all quite witty and one of my summer projects is to experiment with her approaches. But my interest is more than simply in something both clever and beautiful. Pondering her installations got me thinking thoughts that — although I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the relationships between culture and food — I’d never quite gotten around thinking.
Ryou’s art project effects a fundamental transformation of foodstuffs from “stuff” into something much more specific. Key to her art is visibility, keeping foods from vanishing into the opaque hole of the fridge. Treating a cauliflower like a flower arrangement is not just an aesthetic trick, it also makes us realize that “a cauliflower” is actually this specific cauliflower, an individual.
This is a fairly radical thing to do. Any culture that views brand recognition as a state of grace values homogeneity — predictability — as a core virtue. The heart of branding is the notion that this specific thing is always the same and so, not really specific to any iteration of itself, not specific to anything really, outside of its brand identity. It’s a pervasive world view, and food doesn’t get a pass. Instead, we look for and favor homogeneity and nowhere it is more clear than at the door of the fridge.
The stage is set at the checkout, where items destined for the “refrigerator” are grouped. More often than not, that logic holds sway at home and those “perishable” items are tucked into the dark, opaque box with all the rest of the organic matter whose decomposition you’re hoping to delay. (Is it just me, or is there an echo between the refrigerator and the casket?)
Refrigeration, like almost all labor-saving technology, is inherently reductive; the fridge stakes out a generic “optimum temperature,” regardless of the fact that a single temperature and humidity is optimal mostly for the marketing department.
It’s hard to believe, but the fridge wasn’t the rule until after WWII, when all that excess industrial capacity turned refrigeration into a new must-have consumer good. I don’t want to tar the whole notion of cold storage; whether you look at it from the point of view of food safety or just taste, it’s a grand thing. But we seem to have this problem with machines designed to help — instead of accepting the aid, we have an irresistible impulse to stop thinking and hand it all to the machine. And that is a problem, as the zucchini in my fridge will attest.
This, I think, is what Ryou is after, gently questioning our need to not only stuff any potentially destructible food into cold storage, but to abandon our agency. It’s a question that comes at just the right moment, now that smart fridges are on the horizon, consumer product sirens, singing their song of convenience, and hoping that no one notices the surest way to come off as smart is to make sure that your competition is dumb.