The apartment was small, as studios are—about 250 feet, or so I was told. It was trapezoidal, making it difficult for me to imagine how my furniture could be shoved into its non-90-degree-angled corners. It was on a major thoroughfare, so I stood in the room with the windows wide open for several minutes, awkwardly avoiding the real-estate broker mere feet from me as I tried to gauge how annoyed I would be by the sound of cars passing, day in and day out, windows swung open during the hot summer months. All of this, however, was nothing compared to the detail I was sure I couldn’t get past: My potential future home did not have a full-sized refrigerator.
Given my life up to that moment, the fridge shouldn’t have thrown me. I grew up in Manhattan, a place defined by its lack of land. We had plenty of room by New York City standards, but because my father was an artist, that space was dominated by his work. We didn’t have a dishwasher or a microwave because he “didn’t believe in them”—a feeling that has somehow wedged its way into my brain the way the predilections of your parents often do despite all your best efforts (chiropractors are bogus, didn’t you know?). As such, I’ve found that my standard of what is unusual when it comes to living spaces is fairly high.
For though there’s a proliferation of shows and stories about tiny homes, others still react with shock when they see my tiny fridge. “Where’s your fridge?” a visitor asked recently, assuming the black box under my countertop was an appliance one normally sees under a countertop, like a dishwasher—the idea of which makes me chuckle to myself. Me, have a dishwasher! I barely have the basics, forget luxury items.
I ended up with a tiny fridge due to the compromises we all make in life, particularly when it comes to real estate. This apartment was better than the one I saw in Clinton Hill that was technically a one-bedroom—with a washer/dryer!—except that the washer/dryer was in the middle of the kitchen-slash-living-room and its exhaust pipe snaked its way precariously out the one window in that room. It was also better than the first-floor studio sans any closets I saw in Williamsburg, every surface of which had been painted white, which made it look even dirtier than it was. Living with the small fridge struck me as workable. And so I committed to it, to the surprise of everyone around me who had been sure I would not.
The first thing to know about my tiny fridge is that, while it is technically bigger than the fridge you had in your college dorm, at 32 by 23 by 24, it is not bigger by much. The second thing to know about my tiny fridge is the first thing I learned about it, which is that the “freezer” part is actually a coil box with a drip pan below it that sits ineffectually inside the top of the unit, capable of doing little else than freeze ice.
I was ill-prepared to cope with the challenges that would come with this appliance. As I learned soon after moving in, my freezer slowly develops a thick layer of ice that makes the freezing space smaller and also almost entirely ineffective. I have tried to keep uncomplicated, low-value items like hot dogs and frozen peas on hand for a nostalgic night of mac ‘n’ cheese, but if they slide too far away from the walls of the coil, half will become freezer burned and half will rot, so I’ve mostly given up on that and stick to ice cubes. The set-up also requires a periodic defrosting every few months. After some light Googling, I’ve created a regimented system, emptying everything out into a blue Ikea bag in my bathtub as I run a fan in front of the fridge with the door open. A towel is a necessity, to catch the water that spills from the drip pan I must consistently empty, and the large ice chunks that fall. When all the ice has melted—a process I can proudly complete in under an hour—the whole thing requires wiping down. (This is actually a bit of a side benefit of the process, because the fridge inevitably needs a clean.)
Outside of defrosting, there’s a bevy of pressing day-to-day issues that make me a much more spastic cook than I would like to imagine myself. The top shelf’s proximity to the freezer means I have to remember not to store eggs there unless I’d like them solid. I constantly play fridge Tetris, fitting Tupperwares and bottles into shelves they were not intended for, divvying up leftovers into several small containers instead of one large one. Any kind of marinating needs to be carefully planned ahead of time. Screw top wine bottles have become my best friends. Better even are box wines; the bag can be removed and flopped onto a shelf like a dead jellyfish you’d come across during a beach walk. Shopping at Costco-esque stores is not an option for me. In many ways, my meal prep has become very French, if French people frequented bodegas and a grocery store named the Food Bazaar; I buy only what I need for one recipe, or maybe for the next couple days. Anything more and it probably won’t fit, or will spoil. If I am living in the moment and avoiding planning for my future these days, it’s because of my fridge.
Things still topple out frequently, often embarrassingly while I have company. When people come over and instinctually try to put away wine or beer, or offer to clean up after a meal, I’ll rush to help them. “Oh I’ll just do it,” I say, as they stare blankly at the messy, icy cocoon they’d have to sit on my floor to see into properly. “It’ll be faster.”
With this fridge, I have joined a legacy of New Yorkers tackling an incomplete kitchen. In generations past, some—like famed street style photographer Bill Cunningham—didn’t see a need for one at all, spending decades in his tiny studio above Carnegie Hall that was full of filing cabinets. Others who loved to cook as I do suffered through theirs optimistically; in her much-loved book of essays Home Cooking: A Writer In The Kitchen, Laurie Colwin chronicles how she handled the Greenwich Village studio she inhabited for eight years, which makes my less than two years of tiny fridge living so far seem like nothing. Colwin did not have a sink, and her stove consisted of only two electric burners. “I did dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet,” she writes, tenderly recalling a snafu when she cooked spaghetti for a couple but had to carry it to the tub to drain. “The combination of the clammy pasta and cream sauce was not a success,” she writes. “The look on the wife’s face said clearly: ‘You mean you dragged me all the way downtown to sit in an apartment the size of a placemat for this?’”
This is the kind of story a longtime New York resident loves to tell; my mother dealt with years of my eye-rolling while we walked around the city of my youth, her excitedly pointing out a past dwelling whenever we happened across one. They were apparently quite something, particularly the studio on the Upper West Side that my grandmother used to call “a bed in a kitchen.” “Just one small room with a kitchen in one corner and a twin bed in the other,” my mother explained to me when I recently asked her to recall it to me. “Like yours. But about a third of the size.” And with a larger fridge.
But it’s been difficult for me to find people who have suffered through a fridge as small as mine and cared enough to commiserate about it. I recently mentioned it to a new acquaintance who seemed shocked to discover someone else had a fridge situation similar to hers; though she had a real freezer, she said she had trained herself to pick out smaller heads of cabbage when buying produce because her crisper drawer was so small. When I first moved into my apartment, I assumed most of my neighbors relied primarily on takeout for their sustenance, as my L.A.-based cousin told me she had when she and her roommate shared a tiny fridge in their apartment (the idea of which makes me itchy). I’d try to imagine how those who actually liked to cook were coping, not getting my answer until a little over a year later, when I realized that my friend Casey—who I had only known from the internet—was also my neighbor. Tellingly, one of the first things she said to me upon us realizing this was that she was thinking about moving. “I can’t deal with the tiny fridge ANYMORE,” she told me, unprompted.
When I asked Casey recently for her thoughts on her five years with a tiny fridge, her feelings uncannily echoed mine. She described doing fridge Tetris, coping with spoiled food due to inconsistent temperatures (which persisted even after her tiny fridge was replaced with a brand new tiny one), and not being able to freeze anything but having to defrost regularly. “By the time I saw this apartment, I’d already seen a few apartments with small fridges, so I knew it was a compromise that was going to be possible in the price range/size I was looking for,” Casey told me.
But Casey finally left: Her tipping point involved wanting to be able to keep ice cream again, which I haven’t attempted in about a year, though it doesn’t seem like much to ask for. After all, this is an America where people who live in the suburbs have second refrigerators in their garages; for a home cook to want just one whole one seems like a low bar.
To cope, I have developed an active, very specific fantasy life. When in specialty grocery stores, I fight the urge to wander around and stare at all the things I shouldn’t buy: jars of beautifully pickled vegetables, bags of perky fresh herbs, packages of dumpling wrappers. At suburban grocery stores I stroll through aisles full of massively scaled items with my eyes wide. When visiting homes with large kitchens, I’ll eagerly volunteer to cook, regardless of the number of people who need feeding. I open the refrigerators of my friends and sigh. I daydream about freezing large cuts of free-range meat and making gallons of broth from the bones. When a recipe says a dish is “easily prepped ahead” for a party, I imagine a time when I will be able to do so because I have somewhere to put those hypothetical trays of crudités.
I assumed it was just me chafing at what could be. That was until recently, when I had a friend over for a lunch of shakshuka (requires minimal fridge space), and I told her that I thought I might move soon. “I can’t wait until you do,” she said quickly. “I’m excited about coming over for dinner and sitting at a real table.” It wasn’t the fridge, but my coffee-table-as-dining-table, that was her tipping point.