When my husband and I moved into my parents’ house a few weeks ago (yes, after a safe quarantine period), I had initially thought the hardest adjustment would be figuring out how we could all work from home without ringing each other’s necks. But in reality, all of our issues gravitated toward one location: the refrigerator. In particular, what went in it and what stayed out.
The day after we arrived, my husband and I helped my mom organize the fridge in the garage, which had been packed with the enthusiasm of a doomsdayer. A sack of potatoes in the produce drawer? Those could sit out. Oranges, lemons and limes? Remove those stickers, place them in a bowl and suddenly you have a lazy person’s centerpiece. Onions? Give those bad boys some room on the kitchen island. Et voila! There’s now extra space in the fridge for things that really need to be in it.
My mom was thrilled with our organizational achievement, but when she saw the fruit and produce that had been booted from their cool, cozy homes, she wasn’t as ecstatic. We went back and forth a of couple times, “Really? No fridge?” she’d inquire, hoping to hear a different answer from me. I was dead set on keeping those oranges in that bowl, but every time she passed my sweet little masterpiece, I could tell it was torturing her.
In my heart, I believed that this was not a personal issue, but a generational one: Baby boomers refrigerate everything because they grew up with the advent of the modern, exalted appliance. Why leave perishables out to go bad when you could pop it in a thermally insulated storage unit?
It was time to prove my mom and her beliefs wrong. See, dear Mother, potatoes actually get worse in cold temps. Per PureWow’s food editor Katherine Gillen, “Store [potatoes] too cold (i.e., your fridge) and the starches will turn to sugar, affecting taste and texture. Temperatures higher than 55°F will accelerate dehydration.” Onions, too, prefer dry, cool places like a cellar or pantry over a refrigerator. And oranges and citrus, well—
Oh dear God I was wrong. A quick read of our very own article on that exact topic, and I learned I was very wrong about the oranges and the limes and the lemons. Storing your citrus in the fridge is actually entirely beneficial and keeps the fruit fresh for weeks longer than if they were stored at room temp.
Am I just another millennial misplacing my efforts to over-correct what boomers had seen as progress: single-use plastics, frozen foods and over-teched appliances?
I had to find out if others like me were experiencing similar food-related disagreements upon moving back in with their parents. Brianna, a peer who’s hunkering down with her parents in Boston told me, “Oh my God, yes! But it’s more like passive aggression—we haven’t actually FOUGHT per se. But my mom insists on putting underripe avocados in the fridge. I move them to the produce bowl on the counter to ripen, and she moves them back to the fridge. It's like a daily dance.” Sounds like Brianna’s mom and mine would get along royally.
Dena, a 20-something sheltering in place on Long Island discovered an inventory issue, “Everything in my mom's house is expired (as in, three or so years past the ‘good by’ date). And most of it is edible but, oh boy, some graham crackers that were from the 2010s were definitely not.” And Sofia, holed up on her family’s farm is coping similarly, “Expiration dates, in general, are always a fight. My mom believes nothing goes bad, including pancake mix from 2012.” Are most expiration dates overly cautious? Probably. But why is there such a generational divide?
Why not keep nonperishables if you have the space and are saving up for the apocalypse? And come on, what’s more baby boomer than a fallout shelter lined with Campbell’s Soup? But expiration dates are one thing. Waste is another. Younger generations seem triggered by gratuitous purchases and stockpiling. Back to Sofia on the farm: “My mom buys a giant bunch of parsley every single week, and we never use it, so we just have a full drawer dedicated to rotting parsley.” And then there’s the energy waste, “And everyone in my family keeps the fridge door open while they cook, and it drives me insane.”
The kitchen seems rife with inter-generational aggression. But what about the dinner table? For Gen Z Charlie in Boulder, the battle pours over, “I don't really eat beef, and I tell my mom that every time I'm home…And since I've been home, she's made brisket, beef hot dogs, meatloaf, spaghetti with meat sauce and steak for dinner multiple times.”
Some might say, “Buck up, Charlie! If it bothers you that much, make your own meal!” But it’s not really about that, is it? It’s about control. When I guffawed at my mom for keeping onions in the fridge she said, “You do things how you want in your home, and I do things how I want here.” She then proceeded to list off things I did that bothered her, including, but not limited to: keeping food out longer than she’s comfortable with and putting halved lemons back in the fridge without covering them.
In the time of a pandemic, we’re at the whim of a virus we can’t see. We’re locked down in our homes (or our parents’ homes), but we’re also lost, floating in space waiting for answers or some semblance of normalcy. Of course we want to control our food—how much we have, where we store it, when we eat it and how we prepare it. It’s the one thing we all revolve our day around; discussing dinner, planning future meals and rationing fresh produce like the kitchen maids of Downton Abbey. On the day-to-day, food is the only commodity that matters right now: “I buy parsley, therefore I am.” It is how we exert a little control, whether it’s holding onto graham crackers from the Obama era or slowing down the ripening of an avocado.
No one likes to be told that they’re a product of their time. Baby boomers, millennials and Gen Z-ers all wince at the idea that our individual worldview has been molded and shaped by external forces or past experiences. But nothing proves us more wrong than an invisible danger locking us all up inside, with nothing to do but bicker over fridge space. We’re the product of our times as much as our parents are, and the generations that follow will probably laugh at our toilet paper stash and stockpile of Purell, just as we belittled our Depression-era grandparents for their frugal habits.
What goes in the fridge and what doesn’t? How long do nonperishables really keep? Should you really buy that much parsley? It’s all apples and oranges.
But, yeah, oranges should go in the fridge. (Love you, Mom.)