Notes from two years without a fridge
A small, practical response to energy poverty and our suffering guts
My brother’s jaw was clenched as his face produced a tense smile, the suppressed panic clearly just beneath the surface. He was the general manager of a huge Kroger supermarket, and Alex and I decided to visit him while we were in town for the holidays. The job is stressful by nature, especially as GM; he was constantly reminded that the shareholder comes first and everyone else is just in the way of profits. This day, however, a few days ahead of Christmas, my brother was just doing his best to keep cool in front of the customers. Underneath the cacophony of busy holiday shopping was a faint repetitive beeping that signaled the refrigerator system needed attention. By the now I’m sure it rang like church bells in my brother’s ears. I noticed the makeshift barriers put in place to keep people away from the lettuce, carrots, and broccoli. My brother quickly explained that at some time in the night the fridges had shut off, and that because no one on the night shift had told him in time, he was fucked. Everything was considered too dangerous to sell and now he was in the middle of dumping out thousands of dollars of fresh produce during the busiest week of the year, in front of hundreds of customers growing more anxious at missing out on half their grocery list for holiday dinner. This was his personal hell, but it was also an illustration of the fragility of the national cold chain, the temperature controlled supply chain that moves America’s entire stock of fresh food from global farms to individual homes. A single mistake and suddenly everyone’s food becomes poison. For the majority of our lives Alex and I have relied on the fridge to keep our food safe - I’m sure everyone reading this can relate - and the fridge takes up disproportionate space in our lives as the necessary food keeper. But for the last two years we have not had such a luxury; it wasn’t our choice, but we have been able to respond by fermenting and preserving our food, in simple recipes like sauerkraut, sourdough bread, salted kale, and countertop sofrito, we are actually healthier because of it.
Blackouts are part of life in Puerto Rico and have been for many years. (You’ve probably heard the global hit about them. If you haven’t, the music video1 is important.) Updating and maintaining the infrastructure in Puerto Rico has never been a priority for the U.S., and a jumble of restrictions against autonomy has resulted in an energy grid that is decades beyond its expiration date. Blackouts that last days or weeks can, and do, come at any light rain, gentle breeze, or sunny Thursday. And then a year ago the current pro-statehood administration privatized and outsourced control of the grid to Alberta, Canada and Austin, Texas, surging both the blackout rates and the costs customers pay to sit in the dark. When the blackouts damage people’s appliances, they dump their broken fridges in front of the capitol in protest. The point is that things are really bad now, but they have been bad, and Hurricane Maria leveling the entire grid in 2017 didn’t help.
As we are all acutely aware, rising global temperatures comes with more frequent and stronger storms. Storms are the biggest cause of blackouts in the states. In the last three months of 2022, over 26 million people across the U.S. were affected by storms that knocked out electricity for atleast a four days. From the evidence collected by PowerOutage.us, a project that monitors outage information from over 800 utilities across the nation, at any given moment, between 30,000-100,000 households are experiencing a blackout.2 They seem to surge just after sunrise, as the electricity load starts climbing. This number doesn’t include people who have had their electricity cut because they did not, or could not, pay their bill, which remains high with or without storms to blame. It’s estimated that roughly ten percent of U.S. households, around 17 million, received an energy disconnect/delivery stop notice in 2015, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and in the same year 25 million households went without food and/or medicine to pay energy bills.3 These households are considered energy poor.4 Energy poverty describes anyone without secure access to electricity and fuel, and specifically includes people who have an income lower than average and are affected by fuel prices that are higher than average. While storms do not immediately cause energy poverty, they exacerbate the issue, along with unjust energy transitions that allow wealthy people to access green energy while distorting the costs for people without such privileges. A recent article from the University of Michigan reviewing the U.S. federal response to energy poverty explains that “Low income households spend roughly three times as much of their income on energy cost as compared to non-low-income households…Yet, for the United States Government, energy insecurity and energy poverty are nebulous terms that do not exist in any statutory capacity. In other words, the federal government has not formally recognized energy poverty as a distinct problem.”5 This dramatically limits how affective responses are. There are two different programs to support paying energy bills and/or updating infrastructure to deal with the affects of energy poverty, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Neither are appropriately funded and as a result, an estimated 40 million households remain income-eligible for energy efficiency assistance yet unable to receive it. As a result people lose food, income, time, necessary medicines, and if they rely on life saving electric devices, could die from even a short time disconnected.
So I have known since childhood that when visiting abuela, sometimes you wake up and the electricity is just out for no reason at all. Keep the fridge shut and just play outside. Open the freezer and risk a whooping. If it goes on a week, in the unabated tropical sun, hope for anything perishable - really hope for returning to a world that is beyond the immediate days too hot to think and nights too dark to move - wanes. That’s why anyone who can afford to buy (and run) a generator does. My grandparents still use one my parents sent in the 90s which pours familiar noxious fumes into the house through the night. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you can hear the start of a blackout by the growing chorus of generators starting up and sputtering out.
The primary focus of the generator is to keep the fridge cold; it also heats the water, maybe lights the stove, runs the tv, fan, lights, AC, and so on, but the fridge is most crucial. I remember sitting in the lobby of the Richmond City Health Department waiting for a meeting sometime around Thanksgiving and watching the loop of an educational slideshow on the tv monitors. It said that turkey dinner, left out even just two hours after it was done cooking was already dangerous. Now imagine two months without electricity, or, as my grandma experienced after Maria, six. The point is that even having access to electricity and a refrigerator does not promise that luxury will always be functioning. So our situation of houselessness is ultimately not that different, in terms of steady fridge access, from most people in Puerto Rico.
Firstly, we are not luddites who gave up refrigeration so we could flex about our carbon footprint. Secondly, we don’t have some gadget or new technology we use as a fridge substitute so this is not about survival skills. The situation is much less flashy - we happen to be houseless because of many events detailed here6, and what we have is some practical knowledge, pulled together through trial and error, informed by the know-how of people who’ve lived millennia without Freon. In fact it’s only been the last 80 years that people, mostly people in the West and with enough money, have depended on constant refrigeration in their home, and refrigeration technology has largely stayed the same since. Further, fridges are actually quite bad at their only job; their skills in food preservation are limited to merely a slight deterrence of rot for some days or weeks, as evidenced by every time someone deep cleans their fridge. Even in the fridge, many foods wilt, sour, or mold quickly, and the foods that don’t spoil after a month in the fridge would probably do equally as well out on the counter. However it is convenient, a luxury that promises access to fresh fruits and vegetables from the opposite side of the planet, but also holds onto leftovers until the weekend. As far as actually keeping food good for a long time, however, there are much better, cheaper, ways of doing so. The simple steps we’ve begun to practice keep our kale and herbs good for months and our tomatoes and bananas good for years.
Fortunately, yet not by sheer coincidence, the long serving methods of preserving foods are incredibly healthy for us. They have gotten humanity through winters, storms, and famines, yet another reminder to listen to the elders. And as we have collectively developed them, they have collectively developed us, becoming sources of life that cannot be found in other places. For example, sauerkraut, the result of salt preserving cabbage, produces vitamin B-12, a necessary vitamin that is otherwise only naturally available in animal products. The cellulose mushroom, the “mother”, that makes kombucha preserves fresh tea by turning the liquid into a living ecosystem. And fermented wheat flour, “starter”, cultivated in place of instant yeast, makes our sourdough bread more digestible than modern loafs.
This list of storage methods is useful both to people who need refrigerator alternatives - be it energy poverty or natural disaster that’s in the way - and people who need some gut health support. The gut biome, the living environment of millions of microorganisms in our gastrointestinal tracts from stomach to intestines, influences most of our health. The health of our gut affects the strength of our immune system, it determines how well our body takes in nutrients, and in many ways it is a reflection of and in communication with our brain, sometimes named the second brain, and is responsible for thoughts, hormones, and emotions. Basically, the healthier the forest in our intestines, the healthier and happier we are, and gut feelings are real and should be trusted. The waste of a healthy gut holds about 90 billion microorganisms per gram. The guts of people who take many antibiotics, or consume a limited highly processed diet can be barren. When the gut becomes ill, the entire body suffers. An unhealthy gut ecosystem, lacking in population and diversity, is associated with cardiovascular disease, asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, suicide, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune disease. In Puerto Rico there seem to be as many gastrointestinal clinics as fast food joints that warrant them. One third of Puerto Rico’s cancer deaths are from gastrointestinal cancers, which, because the symptoms of gut issues like discomfort, diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea, and lactose intolerance are ignored until too late, come with end-of-life complications which are more severe than most cancers.7
The easiest blame is the diet; the traditional worker’s breakfast includes deep fried empanadas and hot coffee in a styrofoam cup, and more generally overall the diet is a variation of other western diets, heavy in processed starches and meats. “Modern diets contain more processed foods and less fiber, both of which can alter the gut micro biota population and function, leading to changes in the immune system that can create inflammation,” explains Dr. Rupa Marya and Raj Patel in their recent book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice.8 It deeply explains how poverty and poor gut health are connected in many communities, making it clear that blame really belongs to the systemic characteristics of life in poverty: including low access to fresh, tasty, and healthy foods but also enough clean water, having limited or no support in caring for children and limited or no free time to cook between multiple jobs, and ultimately the relentless stress caused by all of the above. Feeling this stress, especially early in life, can alter gut microbiomes for entire lives and future generations.
Mississippi is the nation’s poorest state and has been for a long time. When Dr. King went down to Mississippi, upon seeing the devastating poverty, he put voting rights to the side to focus on the much more pressing issue of peoples’ health. Today a whopping 20.3% of Mississippians live under the poverty line,9 nearly double the national average, and the side effects are clear in health analyses. A 2019 study in a small Black Mississippi community found that 25% of the children tested had intestinal parasites and that 80% had elevated intestinal inflammation, yet the children largely reported no symptoms of gastrointestinal illness. The rural community relies on the nearby Dollar General or gas station for groceries, but they also experience frequent flooding and infrastructural neglect which leads to sewage backups, an easy way to spread intestinal parasites. The parasites and inflammation constantly attack the immune system, and even without overt symptoms, can eventually lead to chronic diseases and fatal diagnoses, especially when they are present starting in childhood. In an interview with the author, professor Tara Cepon-Robins gave a bit of clarity to the findings. “Black Americans tend to experience higher rates of certain gastrointestinal cancers and studies have looked at how different populations immunologically respond to infections with bacteria, like H. pylori. These are not genetically determined responses, but likely based on immune priming. What might be occurring here is that the immune response is basically primed by these external experiences, like poverty, experienced and systemic racism, and lack of resources and healthy food access—all of that can contribute to your immune profiles by increasing inflammatory responses and altering how you respond to pathogens, which can lead to these higher rates of intestinal inflammation and gastrointestinal issues,” Robins explained.10 Another factor for this poor rural community may be contact to the microbes of agricultural soil depleted by chemical farming (as easily as by the wind, for example), which has been shown to affect the microbes in our bodies. The urban poor likely fare no better, with multiple water shut-offs in the last year, Jackson, MS parents are suing their city over suspected lead in their water and subsequently in their children’s bodies. Who knows what water alternatives people turn to when the faucet is no longer an option.
In Puerto Rico, the story is even more grim. About half of us live under the poverty line, more than twice that of Mississippi and more than quadruple the national average. The median household income is $21,967, less than one third the U.S. average, $70,78411. (Keep in mind that the cost of living is also incredibly high here). The poorest counties across the U.S. largely have two things in common, they’re either home to large prisons or are part of Indian Reservations. The very poorest county in the states has a median household income of just over $25,000 a year. For some perspective, the very wealthiest municipality (county equivalent) in Puerto Rico has a median household income of just $24,000. And the poorest is the neighboring mountain town of Adjuntas, with an average income of just $11,680 per household.12 Here in Utuado it’s around $16,000. Meanwhile Puerto Ricans pay higher electricity rates than New York, and therefore the entire country is energy poor. Poverty is a policy decision. This means that gut issues, too, then are policy decisions. There’s also enough evidence to link the very dynamics of colonialism, in which Puerto Ricans have no say in where their food, water, and electricity ultimately come from, to many issues of chronic inflammatory, such as gut issues, as people are metaphorically forced to stomach something they cannot digest. The inflammation caused by U.S. rule also produces a high prevalence of autoimmune disease here, and we have the highest lupus rates in the world.13
Modern stresses are more ambiguous and detached from visible threats than ever in our history. Faced with today’s daily stresses of jobs, rent, and bills, especially in the life-threatening scenario of losing any of those three, humanity’s fight or flight response has become alienated from our straightforward neurobiological origins: take a swing at the threat or get yourself out of there. In most cases neither are a real option, leaving us stuck in the stress without an appropriate response. Think of a dog inside a cage that is being swarmed by a pack of dogs from the outside. The dog is technically safe in the cage, yet the life-threatening stress from all directions can be overwhelming, if sustained it can damage the body, inflame the immune system, cause lasting mental and emotional injury, and even damage our DNA. Dr. Marya explains that “biologically speaking, stress is a state of real or perceived threat to homeostasis. It is provoked by psychological, environmental, and physiological stimuli that create a cascade of hormones, nuerotransmitters, and cytokines working together to restore homeostasis. The stress response is a tightly choreographed interaction between the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems. It addresses actual or potential damage and is intimately integrated with the inflammatory response.”14 In small bouts, stress is motivating, even healing, but in large abstract, unrelenting waves, stress is deadly.
‘Tis the same with the person trapped in a shit job, with a shit living situation, or in a shit ton of debt. Running and other aerobic physical activity has been proven very useful in responding to such stress, because it simulates the “flight” option, providing a vent for the stress and ultimately protecting us from harm to the brain and total physiology while helping us develop new brain pathways that improve our stress resiliency. But this isn’t always an option, and it still doesn’t pay rent. When the abstract threat remains, it eventually takes its toll. In the case of Puerto Ricans, we live within a shit colonial system where the people who have made the decisions for us and our loved ones for generations live in a different country, speak a different language, and have repeatedly proven to bend the rules away from justice.15 Such a situation causes relentless blackouts that literally threaten our food and medicine at any moment. In such conditions, making food that can exist outside of the fridge, outside of the geopolitics beyond our control, and outside of the affects of the inevitable next blackout, becomes a potent form of self-protection.
I mean that both hyperbolically and literally. Fresh cabbage does not have a relatively rich microbiota environment, but when grated and salted, a swath of beneficial microorganisms quickly colonize and establish themselves throughout. D-phenyllactic acid (D-PLA), an anti-bacterial metabolite found in high concentrations in sauerkraut, upon entering the gut, rapidly activates the hydroxycarboxylic acid HPA3, which is an immune cell responsible for regulating the body, maintaining the healthy, yet delicate balance of homeostasis, throughout changes in energy use and diet.16 Therefore sauerkraut literally protects the body from harm when the lights go out.
None of this is original, it is merely calling back to the brilliance tried and tested before us. Fermentation, dehydration, preservation in oil and vinegar or salt and chili peppers. None of these methods require electricity, canning, smoking, or any difficult or expensive process. They are all simple, cheap, and can be done with a few simple tools, most of which are considered “trash”. If there are any concerns about having the proper space to do these, rest assured that we are able to do it all from the loose idea of a “kitchen” we have under a tarp next to our tent.
Fortunately, the mainstream has begun to welcome the long held knowledge of the health benefits of freshly preserved and fermented foods, yet unfortunately the processes of being able to ferment and preserve at home still allude and even frighten many people. As a result people are paying an arm and a leg for probiotic foods that can be produced at home for pennies.
Last weekend we gave a private workshop to our neighbor who has been dealing with intense gastrointestinal issues. By her telling, years of seeking refuge into various pills has destroyed her health, and now, in her early 30s, she struggles to stomach anything besides starchy root vegetables. Anything from artificial food coloring to conventionally grown broccoli makes her body erupt in pain and keeps her in and out of the bathroom all day. It is so bad that she cannot hold a job, despite her household needing the added income. We assume that her gut environment has been destroyed by years of pharmaceuticals, and now the low nutrient, low fiber diet avoids pain but is doing very little to regenerate the damaged landscape. We taught her everything on this list, sending her home with kraut, bread, and kombucha. Yesterday she stopped us as we were on our way home to tell us that she’d had a zoom call with a nutritionist who spent the whole hour explaining the usefulness of those foods to her gut health. We are glad our neighbor is getting this useful information from multiple avenues, and that the recent western medicine ideological shift is reaching everyday people, but what the nutritionist spent no time explaining was how to make any of these necessary medicines ourselves, ignoring the financial inaccessibility of the suggested treatment. Alex wrote us a grant to allow us to give a similar workshop to the wider community because gut-related health challenges, just like blackouts, seem to affect everyone.
What is clear that this information about keeping good food safe may be very helpful, and up here in the mountains, the poorest region of the island, this knowledge is more necessary than ever. Still, the trends of poverty, lost crops and blackouts due to climate change, and food related illness, especially illnesses of the gut, are increasingly recognizable worldwide. So for the second half of this piece, I’m going to break down a few of the workshop topics for yall here.
We start with sofrito that can be kept at room temperature, then explain the benefits of green papaya salad, followed by the health of sauerkraut and other methods of preserving leafy greens. We get into preserving the harvest with a solar dehydrator and explain making flour from bananas and plantains. And we wrap up with kombucha and stove top sourdough bread.
We will be making a bilingual zine to accompany the workshop, which will soon be available as a free download at BuenoCompartir.Substack.com but the rest of this article, with the results of years experiments plus accompanying research come for the cost of a fancy cup of coffee.