From Chapter Eleven : Cold Comforts
The refrigerator -- the reason we get to eat fresh foods all year long -- has taken the place of the hearth as a symbol of the comfort of food. The image of a woman's face lit by the fire as she stirs a cheerfully bubbling pot has been replaced by the image of someone's face lit by the refrigerator light as he or she peers in, looking for something to munch on. Fires and hearths were beautiful and inspired hundreds of poetic images, but few poets have composed verses about refrigerators, which are ungainly and ungraceful. In fact, to compare someone or something to the homely refrigerator is a common form of humorous derogation. The associative power of food, however, is such that, despite the refrigerator's aesthetic deficiencies, we are comforted by its hum much as people were once comforted by the crackling of the fire, and when we open a malfunctioning refrigerator to find darkness and warmth we feel an emptiness that is something like what people used to feel when the fire was dead and cold.
Despite how important our refrigerators are to us, practically and emotionally, most people probably under-use or misuse these splendid machines. Experts on home food storage would like us to rely on them even more than we have been accustomed to, and to be a bit more careful in doing so.
Refrigerator and Freezer Temperatures
Generally Speaking. To keep your food safe and ensure its long life, you must keep your refrigerator cold. The USDA says to keep your refrigerator at 40° and your freezer at 0°F. Other food-storage experts say that your refrigerator compartment is best maintained at temperatures above 32° and below 40°F, say 34-38°F. The ideal storage temperature for many refrigerated foods, in fact, is as close as you can get to 32°F without freezing. But according to the 1999 Food Code (a U.S. Public Health Service set of model regulations for food services without the force of law), studies show that home refrigerators are far too warm, with typical homes showing refrigerator temperatures between 41° and 50°F, one in four with temperatures over 45°F, and one in ten showing temperatures of 50°F or higher!
Because it is so important, and so difficult, to gauge whether your refrigerator is actually in the safe temperature range, get a thermometer for your refrigerator and another one for the freezer compartment. "Refrigerator-freezer thermometers," which register temperatures from 70°F down to -30°F, can be bought at a hardware store or home center. The thermometers will tell you quickly when something is going wrong and will help you select the desirable control setting. If you do not have a thermometer, you can tell that your refrigerator is too cold if milk or leftovers get ice in them. It is too warm if you notice that milk turns sour too quickly or that things do not feel quite cold to the touch.
Frequently opening the refrigerator raises its temperature, so you should avoid doing so unnecessarily. The refrigerator may also tend to warm up in hot, humid weather. The more foods you crowd into your refrigerator, too, the warmer the foods may be; crowding interferes with the free circulation of air. Aside from these factors, your refrigerator may also have warmer and colder regions inside, depending on its type and design.
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
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