I’ve often marveled at the difference in fridge sizes between the U.S. and other parts of the world. But when you look at the way different cultures approach refrigeration, the discrepancy starts to make sense. In American households—including some I’ve lived in myself—we refrigerate everything from honey to hot sauce to eggs, none of which require such treatment. Unlike cultures that market daily for their edible needs, Americans, by and large, have a habit of shopping less frequently but bigger, justifying the “need” for massive fridges (plus: we buy in bulk, fear bacteria, package products more robustly, and commonly over-buy—all generalizations, but ones that nonetheless harbor grains of truth). The ever-increasing popularity of one-stop supermarkets in nearly every part of the world is changing the pace at which people shop, so fridge sizes are on the rise everywhere, but they may not be as necessary as we’ve long assumed.

For example, which products from the following list—coffee, mustard, peanut butter, pills, ketchup, jam, bananas, tomatoes, cheddar, potatoes, pickles, camera film, vinegar, onions, butter, liquor, grapefruit and bread—require refrigeration? Technically, none. But how many of these are languishing in your fridge (or mine) at this very moment? Probably at least a couple, right?

I have started changing habits. I no longer keep butter in the fridge, and love how spreadable it is. I’ve also taken the cheese and fruit out, and find they have a lot more flavor eaten at room temperature. Eggs have escaped their cold little plastic cage, and I really like looking at my vegetables—plus, I use them up more quickly that way. If anything, I need more freezer space, to preserve seasonal gluts before I figure out how to use them up. (I wonder what the carbon-footprint police have to say about that?)

Anyway—now I can actually see what’s in my fridge, and use it up before my Tupperware starts breeding microcosms of mold. Come summer, some of these—the cheese, for instance—may make the quick U-turn back into the icebox, but for now, my redistribution feels just like spring cleaning.

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008