Why Evolution Runs Backwards in the Refrigerator
Open your fridge. If you’ve lived with that fridge for a while, there’s a good chance it looks something like mine does. Shelf upon shelf of half-used bottles and jars of long-lasting meta-foods. Condiments, salad dressings, jellies, beverages, chutneys, nut butters, salsas, pickled vegetables, etc. We expect our fridges to be full of food, so this doesn’t in itself challenge the evolutionary principal of selection. But taking an inventory shows that there is a strong bias towards foods we don’t actually like. In fact, the typical selection process for foods in our refrigerators tends to concentrate foods we don’t like, thus running backwards to what should intuitively evolve towards a selection of our favorite foodstuffs. But for a couple very understandable reasons, that just doesn’t happen.
Consider salad dressings. Most of us like to have some choices when we’re topping our raw vegetables. So when we’re at the store, we don’t just buy the one salad dressing we like, but will often try a new variety. There’s a documented psychological principal called Variety Seeking that encourages diversity in buying because people want to explore different choices. But what happens when we buy a variety we don’t particularly enjoy? Like that orange blossom vinaigrette or the honey mustard that’s just a bit too thick and sweet. We try it once, form an opinion, and the next time we have salad we go for the old-reliable Goddess dressing. So it lingers. But we don’t throw it away. Because there’s nothing WRONG with it. Besides, one day when we have guests over they might prefer a syrupy honey-mustard dressing. Or maybe we could dip chicken knuckles into it or something. Plus the combination of preservatives, low-temperature and food that doesn’t promote bacterial growth in the first place means it can stay edible for years. So their continued presence provides some small marginal benefit of choice. The only real alternative is throwing them away (which makes us feel guilty) since there’s no secondary market for used condiments.
Beyond choice, they do provide marginal benefit in terms of ballast for heat capacity. Refrigerators run more efficiently when they’re full since there’s a larger thermal mass which is more stable. But this assumes the fridge has ample space for the food that is being cycled through and consumed. In many households the need to find space for food you’re actually going to eat creates a selection pressure to remove such undesirable foods. But the door of the fridge is a niche environment that isn’t very well suited to large, short-lived main courses and thus things like eleven different varieties of mustard tend to thrive.
What’s the take-home lesson here? How do we fight this scourge on our pallets? Actually I don’t think it’s that big of a problem. When we need space in the fridge, we find it. But otherwise we collect things like Mang Thomas All Purpose Sauce, and pickled cherry peppers. If clutter bothers you, resist the temptation to try something new and stick with something you know you’ll use. Heck, get a really big bottle. Or look for similar reverse-evolutionary processes in your medicine cabinet, liquor shelf, or office supplies, and be conscious that you have the power to change things. Or just accept that sometimes human nature tends to concentrate our surroundings with things we don’t actually like.