Deep in Our Refrigerator*

In weird news, UPI reports that Samsung has created a dating app based on the contents of one’s refrigerator. In a weird mash-up of “swipe left, swipe right” app-based romance, foodie culture, and viral marketing, the South Korean multinational conglomerate promises, “It’s the inside (of your fridge) that counts. Simply upload an image and let the world know what kind of person you are.” “Refrigerdating,” as some spunky social media maven coined it, is an ad campaign that will be put to pasture as soon as the novelty and classism wear off.

Moreover, the products Samsung is attempting to sell with this gimmick are touchscreen refrigerators, of course, which retail in the $4,000 ballpark. The wealthy consumers Samsung is aiming for are not the subjects social worker turned photographer Mark Menjivar captured in his 2011 photography exhibit, “You Are What You Eat.” Menjivar’s project explored how class, hunger, age, poverty, health, and more intersect in one of the humblest, most intimate of spaces: our refrigerators.

As Menjivar said in an address to exhibit-goers in San Antonio, Texas, “One person likened photographing a refrigerator to asking them to pose nude for the camera.” The intimacy of capturing what one eats unstaged (or has the privilege to let spoil) showcases to viewers how a World War II prisoner of war views food waste as a mortal sin, how one woman’s almost empty fridge sheds light on her battles with mental illness, hunger, and homelessness, and how the picture-perfect greenery of a farmer’s market of a midwife and middle-school science teacher stacks up to a family of five living in an efficiency apartment on the wages of a school crossing guard and nursing home assistant.

Menjivar is quick to caution viewers from making sweeping generalizations of the 50-plus individuals whose refrigerators he photographed: “I cannot at all claim that this is the full meaning of somebody’s life. You can never, ever capture somebody’s full life through some text on a wall or through an image on the wall.” A message Samsung’s creators of “refrigerdating” missed entirely.

The bravado and the arrogance needed to suggest to consumers that what they house in their refrigerators symbolizes self-worth or whether someone is compatible with another human being or worthy of love is not new. Advertising, in general, appeals to our fundamental emotions–our need to be desired and liked, and, yes, comforted from and relieved of the fear and what-ifs should we not conform to societal standards. The premise that what is in our refrigerators will replace headshots and profile pics on dating apps is ridiculous.

And anyone who thinks someone would not stage their refrigerator for purposes of looking fitter, happier, and “eating well, no more microwave dinners and saturated fats” is lying to themselves. In fact, celebrities pull this kind of fake-out on the regular. Not too long ago, Rachel Ray’s magazine, Every Day, did a feature on broadcast journalist Wolf Blitzer, where it was obvious he or his wife had gone to Whole Foods and staged the picture-perfect fridge just in time for the photographer, Melissa Golden, and her assistant, my best friend from journalism school, to capture Blitzer’s culinary interior.

I remember talking to my friend and her mentioning that someone had even put bookmark-sized Wolf Blitzers all over the refrigerator, as if Lilliputian newscasters routinely took residence among the eggs and marmalade.

Back in my great-grandparents’ day, they housed their food in root cellars and preserved the heck out of whatever they could not eat in season. The only items they bought in town were sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Refrigerators, as a whole, did not become commercially available to the public until the 1920s and widely available until Freon popularized them in the 1930s. The very thought of taking photographs of someone’s root cellar as a symbol of self strikes me as the height of ostentation and far removed from the hard work of actually growing, harvesting, and having enough food to make it through the winter, to the next paycheck, or to the belly of a hungry child.

Capturing who we are through what we eat has its limits. There are social scripts, budgets, and economic brutalities that confine and restrict our grocery lists, identities, health, and realities. “Refrigerdating” targets those who never have to confront hunger, pay for medication over food, and who think you find your soul mate in a Samsung refrigerator.


*Title after the poem of the same name by Jack Prelutsky.