I find it interesting how many things people take for granted these days. Refrigerators and freezers, for instance. I can still remember what it’s like to live without a refrigerator or a freezer for years at a time, and because I can remember what it’s like, I have sworn to never take a refrigerator or a freezer for granted.
By now, you should be asking the obvious question: “Wait a minute… how do you live for years at a time without a refrigerator?”
One word: Icebox.
Now you’re thinking: “How quaint!”
You, my foolish, ignorant friend, have obviously never used an icebox in your life. If you had, your response would be more like: “Ugh. Been there, done that. NEVER AGAIN!”
There are a few things you need to know about iceboxes. The first is that they are a lot like the weather. The temperature varies. We kept our icebox directly outside the back door, and during the summer, our milk always tasted warm. In the winter, it froze. I don’t mean just the milk froze… everything froze. Ever try to fry a frozen egg? (A friend of ours fittingly described it as tasting like a cross between a fried and a hardboiled egg). Did you know that mayonnaise is never quite the same again after being frozen and then thawed? And milk doesn’t freeze solid – it separates out into slush and milk. I’ve eaten many a bowl of cold cereal topped with slush from the milk jug.
So why didn’t we just keep the icebox inside, where the temperature wouldn’t vary so much? It would make more sense, wouldn’t it?
Technically, yes. But there are a few other factors to throw into the mix.
First of all, our icebox was big. It had to be big enough to fit not only the food that needed to be refrigerated, but also the ice to keep it cold. Although it probably could have been crammed into the house, it would have been a bit of a squeeze…
Secondly, ice melts. And that water has to go somewhere. Once again, theoretically draining the water could be accomplished in the house. However, keeping it out back allowed us to simply leave the drain open all the time and not have to worry about draining and cleaning it all the time, except for when the drain got clogged with all the sawdust (the boys never did learn to clean all the sawdust off the ice before they put it in the icebox. We also had to keep a cloth nearby to wipe the wet sawdust off things before we brought them into the house).
Probably the biggest factor that kept the icebox outside, though, was the smell. We cut our ice off our pond in the winter. In case you didn’t already know this, pond water isn’t the cleanest or best-smelling water to be found. As the ice melted in the icebox, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess where that ice came from. And all the wet sawdust didn’t help matters, either. I don’t know why or how, but the combination of pond water and sawdust really does smell like a dead, rotting animal.
So, yes. The icebox had to stay out back.
Besides the temperature problem, it wasn’t really that big a deal to not have it in the house. Although there was that one night when mom stepped outside to get something from the icebox and heard an animal rustling around nearby. Dad grabbed a gun and had someone hold a light while he shot it. Turns out it was a skunk… The smell of skunk is actually a good deal worse than the smell of an icebox, as we had constant proof of for the next month or two.
Now, if you’re one of those people who is under the impression that an icebox can keep frozen foods frozen, let me at once correct you. An icebox can do no such thing. I mean, think about it. In the summertime, it couldn’t even keep our milk cold. How is it going to keep something frozen? Ice (as in, actual ice that you can put in a cup, and drink when it melts without it killing you) was an unknown luxury. Ice cream, even if you put it directly on top of the block of ice, melted very quickly. We didn’t have ice cream very often. If someone was downtown around suppertime, they might pick up a half gallon, and it would keep reasonably frozen for an hour or so in the icebox, but then it would have to be eaten. It’s a good thing our family is so big. We had a method of cutting the ice cream up with a cleaver so that each person got a certain proportion of it. (Not only does my family cut ice cream with a cleaver instead of scooping it, but we also eat it on plates with forks).
So for the most part, we did without a freezer. We canned a lot of things that most people freeze. However, we did butcher (or get someone else to butcher) a cow every winter. Butchering a cow means a lot of meat. Grandma lived next door, and her house had electricity, so we used a freezer in her basement to store that meat. So I guess we did have a freezer, it just wasn’t exactly easily accessible. Mom would have to send someone over to get meat out of the freezer once or twice a week.
All in all, I wasn’t sorry to see the icebox put out of use when we finally got a refrigerator and eventually a freezer. I’m not sure what exactly prompted mom and dad to buy a refrigerator. It may have had something to do with dad sinking the tractor in the pond one year during the annual ice cutting fiasco.
But that’s another story…