I have one of the most wonderful mother-in-law’s I could have ever hoped for (and I’m not just saying that because I fear she may read this). She loves having her family around her and has always treated me as one of her own sons. She runs a tight ship and insists on having everything in its place and order is paramount. This is why there’s been one thing that’s been very difficult for me to reconcile through the years, namely that of warm milk! Yes, you heard me right, warm milk.
You see, my wife has six siblings and now that they’re all married, when we get together there’s quite a crowd. Whenever we eat as a group and milk is part of the buffet, often the milk jug is left out on the counter for hours. Now I don’t know about you, but when I pour a glass of milk, I expect it to be ice cold. I love cold milk. Now on the other hand, for me there’s nothing worse that expecting a crisp, cold swig of milk and end up with a mouthful of room temperature milk. If I were alone, I would definitely spit it out.
Now with today’s technology, we’re very accustom to our dairy, produce and meat products coming out of the fridge cold. But what if we didn’t have a fridge or our fridge didn’t work, how would we keep our food cold and keep it from spoiling?
Well, one way to address this problem is to look at how our forefathers kept things cold. In England in Victorian times and before (and probably in other countries too) not everyone could afford the luxury of delivered ice – and anyway poorer people could only afford to shop for the bare necessities every day and these got quickly gobbled up by the much larger households of the time!
What people needed was a safe place to store food overnight or until mealtime. This was usually called a ‘cool pantry.’ The pantry was often located on the coldest (North) facing wall of the house/cottage, and often had a tiny window high up. This window was often protected by a sort of metal sieved screen to keep the flies out. On the inside, the walls where shelved, and on the shelves were kept perhaps a jug of milk or cream, cheese in a specially shaped china wedge, perhaps a ham or other cold meat, rashers of bacon, a pot of butter or a few slices of cold pie or brawn. The cooler temperatures in there would have been enough to keep the food cool for 2/3 days (we probably wouldn’t risk it nowadays!)
Before electricity, there were a few different ways of keeping food before refrigerators. Most recently (just before modern refrigerators became very common) people used iceboxes. These were like refrigerators but instead of being cooled electrically, they were cooled by having actual ice in them.
Before that was available, people had cool cellars and some had ice houses where ice could be stored (under sawdust or straw) and kept cool for much of the year. These places could keep some food cool.
But mostly, in those days, food was preserved some other way – by smoking, salting, or drying it.
Most houses used to be built with cellars. A cellar was dark and cool, and food could be kept there so it wouldn’t spoil. People also canned fruits and vegetables, and preserved meats in barrels with salt. The wealthy had ice houses, where they stored ice and they were also cellars. They would have an icebox in the house, and put the blocks of ice in there.
If one lived close to a stream, placing some food items in a screened container in the cool stream water would offer the refrigeration needed to preserve many food items while keeping animals from eating the food.
But what if you don’t have a cool cellar or access to ice or a cool stream, how then could you practically keep food at least cool if not cold. The answer is evaporation. Check out these videos on how you can make your own evaporative cooler called a Zeer Pot to help preserve your food.
It may be worth your time to spend a few dollars and pick up some unglazed terracotta pots and experiment with your own Zeer Pot refrigerator now so you’ll know what you options and limitations are in the event of an off-grid survival situation.