The Fridge: A Window Into the Soul?

Google Search the words “fridge” and “dating,” and a page will load with 3,600,900 hits. The top choice will direct you to the “Check Their Fridge” website of dating guru, John Stonehill. Unsure about your future romantic partner, nervous about your next date, or eager to predict your relationship compatibility? The next time you are at their home, take a quick peek into the fridge. According to Stonehill, the contents inside – the leafy green vegetables, open salsa jars, take-away containers, and/or pop-open beers – may reveal the truth about the person you are dating.

Check Their Fridge” is here to stay: over the next 12 months, ABC News will develop a segment based on the premise of Stonehill’s website. And like its already-established future, Stonehill’s principles seem to have an entrenched history. In 1825, French epicure Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” In the 1920s, nutritionist Victor Lindlahr developed Brillat’s ideas as the first “Catabolic Diet,” with the idea that “90% of diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” During the 1960s, the slogan was adopted by champions of the organic food phenomenon and later, through the 1990s, by the Slow Food Movement. Between 2004 and 2007, the British TV Show “You Are What You Eat” used computer programming to ominously predict candidate’s obese appearances in 10, 15, and 20 years. The moral judgment inherent in the saying is not lost; social scientist Julie Guthman critiques it for “disparag[ing] others and plac[ing] blame in many of the wrong places.” Be that as it may, food has increasingly come to represent our social, political, economic, moral, and religious identities.
So, yes, food is important, but what is it about the fridge that is so special? Why not the pantry, breadbox, cereal drawer? And why the voyeurism? There’s an intimacy involved in peering into a fridge, in a way similar to – or perhaps more so – sneaking into a friend’s clothes closet or rummaging through a colleague’s work desk.

In 2007, American photographer Mark Menjivar spent six months traveling around the United States, documenting the contents of 60 different fridges in 20 different communities. His photos are large (20×200 cm) and dramatic; seemingly unedited, they speak as direct, honest representations of American larders. Menjivar includes only a few identifiers – the occupation, location, and household identity of those he features. The fridges highlight huge range. Some feature only frozen meat and Russian vodka; others overflow with leafy greens, rugged eggplants, and ribbon-y carrots; still more are stocked with half-eaten take-out containers. Some are organized (color-coded Tupperware included); others are so dirty they forced Menjivar “to close the door three times during the shoot [due to the smell].” The fridge owners are similarly diverse – one’s a Florida divorcé, another a nocturnal bartender, and then there’s a former WWII POW, followed by a famous documentary filmmaker couple.

Limited descriptors always demand a story, but the wide-open fridge door seems to do more. Centrally situated in any house, the fridge is opportunistic to outsider violation. Piquing curiosity, it begs the construction of narratives and the passage of judgment on the owner. It gives just enough information to build stories, but not enough data to confirm or destroy such runaway imaginations.

And there’s something about seeing living food preserved inside. Food grows and buds, it flowers and ripens, but it also decays and rots, peels and molds. Food is anthropomorphic, maturing from a naïve state, interacting with its environment, and ultimately decomposing. At the most basic level, food has a life. And the fridge celebrates this – but it also arrests it. Fridge drawers and doors present food, but sub-freezing temperatures also halt food lifecycles. Delayed in decomposition, the foodstuff becomes a natural product in a seemingly artificial environment, preserved in a synthetic state.

As such, the fridge literally creates a moment in time. The pause button is hit, limbo is constructed, and existence becomes liminal. A frozen frame, the fridge boundary straddles life-and-death, evoking power, meaning, and mystery. Anthropologist Jean Jackson argues that humans have long been obsessed with the intersection of these ambiguous continuums, which “challenge and threaten the naturalness of culturally constructed categories.” Perhaps it is this aspect of the fridge that is so telling of the owner – and, according to Stonehill, their dating agenda. It is that the identity is almost there at our fingertips, if the lines a little blurry.


About Isabel Beshar