Citizen of the Refrigerator Posted on September 12th, 2009 by


Photo by Stuart Spivak

Peg and Lisa write: Have you ever returned a container to the fridge that was so nearly empty no reasonable person could have denied its emptiness—and all because you didn’t want to throw it out? Because doing so would mean admitting you’d taken the last of some precious or staple foodstuff? Because doing that would leave you open to being charged with selfish disregard for your fridge mates?

Have you ever “helped clean out” the refrigerator by eating your fridge compatriot’s takeout leftovers instead of your own, because they were tastier than yours?

Have you ever fed perfectly good food to the dog, because you just knew your fridge mate was about to suggest “leftover potluck” for dinner?

Have you ever opened a container, sniffed it, and then immediately returned it to the furthest back corner of the refrigerator—the back corner that can’t be seen, ever since the lightbulb burned out a couple months back?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you, my friend, may have abdicated the rights and responsibilities of Refrigerator Citizenship, and it is time for you to take a citizenship refresher course.

In a democratic living situation, the refrigerator is the commons of the household, akin to the public square in a nineteenth century village, or a public beach in a contemporary city.[1] The fridge supplies sustenance, health and wellbeing to the household. It is also one of its most time-sensitive spaces; perhaps nowhere else do things turn from useful to useless to downright repulsive as quickly as they do in the refrigerator.

The refrigerator is the locus of rights, privileges and responsibilities. In many a relationship, it is a highly contested site, the setting for fierce, pitched battles over who spilled what, who left what to mold, and who ate my pad thai. Thus, the most appropriate language in which to understand occupants’ relationship to this household commons is citizenship.

To become a naturalized citizen of the U.S., one must pass a test about the governance and history of the United States. Refrigerators don’t exactly have governance structures, but they are nonetheless structured systems, and their contents most definitely have histories. Both ought to be understood clearly in the case of any particular fridge, by any particular individual who believes they have the right to hang on its open door, contemplating a pre-dinner snack.

The following questions, we believe, will ascertain whether an individual meets the qualifications for refrigerator citizenship. We suggest that the quiz be employed at moments when refrigerator sharing is being considered—e.g. interviewing a potential apartment mate, considering a proposal of marriage, or admitting one’s children to full voting rights in the household refrigerator.

As with the U.S. citizenship exam, not all questions will be administered to all candidates. Not all questions pertain to all refrigerators (or all potential citizens thereof). Test administrators are accorded a degree of latitude suitable to the particular refrigerator-citizen situation.

For any unspecified foodstuff:

  1. When is the appropriate time to move the contents of a container to a smaller container? (The cooking-pot case) Under what circumstances is it appropriate to refrigerate food in the pot or pan in which it was cooked?
  2. What is the proper protocol for reusing opaque plastic containers (e.g. yogurt, cottage cheese) to store leftovers?
  3. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to drink from the container?
    1. Drink from the container? Are you mad?
    2. Only when one is certain one can finish its contents
    3. Only in the presence of intimate family members
    4. We’re all family here!

For milk and egg eating households only:

  1. How much milk is in the bottle right this minute?
    1. Is there a danger of running out before someone goes to the store?
    2. Is there a danger of it spoiling before it can be used up?
  2. Should you remove the eggs from their cardboard container and put them in the refrigerator’s egg tray, found in the door? Why/not?
  3. If someone asks “what is that funny green fuzz on the cheese?” is the correct answer:
    1. That’s not fuzz, it’s mold, and you can’t tell me Kraft Singles comes in Roquefort flavor. Call the haz-mat team!
    2. It’s a cheese blanket. Scrape it off and quit whining.

For meat-eating households only:

  1. What bits of meat, left over from previous meals, can be found in the refrigerator right this instant?
    1. In what order should they be consumed? Your answer should factor in both the age of the meatstuff and its expected shelf life (i.e. most to least perishable).
    2. Name at least one palatable[2] dish that could be made from each of the aforementioned leftover meats.
  2. In divvying up the Chinese restaurant leftovers for lunch the next day, is it fair to take all the chicken from the Kung Pao chicken, leaving the cashews for your fridge mate, because you once heard her say they’re her favorite nut?

[1] If you’ve encountered the word “commons” today, it’s probably thanks to technology projects like Creative Commons, whose goal is “to make it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright” ( For a lovely senior thesis exploring this movement, see Caleb Phillips’s 2009 project, which can be found at This notion of commons is indeed in the spirit of the old notion of a public commons—a field where all could graze their cattle, for instance. Enclosure is what happens when a good that had been held in common becomes privately held.

[2] And no, we don’t mean palatable to the dog only.



  1. netta says:

    the most contested refrigerator behavior in our kitchen is my husbands tendency to
    a. get up before everyone is done eating to pack away ‘leftovers’ for his lunch tomorrow, and
    b. put a particular sedimentary combination of said leftovers so as to render the result unpalateable to anyone else in the house, thereby ‘marking’ his territory effectively.

    the mark of a true close family friend is that individual who can wave a fork menacingly near him at these times and say ‘we’re not FINISHED yet!’

  2. Nan says:

    I was raised by a woman who said: “oh, just scrape that green stuff off, just like they do in France.” (BTW, my mother had never been to France, spoke no French, and knew no French people, yet felt quite comfortable about making any cultural generalization that saved foods from getting thrown away. )