Who Needs a Fridge? Leave That Food Out in the Heat!

In my various outings, including a ten-week camping trip in 2013 and assorted rambling in summer 2015, mostly in Kansas and Texas, I tended to keep a few bagfuls of food available. (I know, already: the languasnobs say it’s “bagsful.” But it’s not. These were bagfuls.)

Low temperatures rarely dropped below 70F at night; highs were usually over 90F in the daytime; often they didn’t drop below 80F until after midnight, and reached highs of over 100F around 4 PM. And how hot would that be inside the vehicle? With the windows rolled up, one research team found that the temperature inside a car parked in Aswan, Egypt can be as much as 80C above the outside temperature. So, my advice: don’t park in Egypt.

A chart at the Examiner said the inside temperature would peak at 140F after an hour or more on a 95F day. And if it’s 100+ outside, and the car is baking for hours? Let’s say 150F inside. Often, the food in question was right out there in the direct sun: I kept it on the floor on the passenger side, and in a crate on the passenger seat.

By the way, the car was not air conditioned. I found that the first thing to go bad, in that heat, tended to be my brain. Seriously. I would find myself making odd mistakes. None fatal, so far. Most of these mistakes involved foolish decisions, like not going in to someplace cool where I could lie on the floor and moan.

With all that heat, I had to wonder how my bagfuls of food would be faring. I did a bit of research. The CDC was clear: “Throw out perishable food that has been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours; one hour if it’s 90°F or warmer.” EatOutWell.com said that a single bacterium might multiply into 17 million bacteria in just 24 hours. So that confirmed it: I really did need to scrape off the gunk that had accumulated inside my old Honda Civic during its twenty-year life. This was definitely going to happen before I put the car up for sale.

EatOutWell said that, if I was storing food in the car, I might want to make sure it was not the kind of food that would require refrigeration. With this in mind, let me provide a list of foods that I kept for at least 24 hours in that hot car, and then ate, and did not get sick from:

Cheddar and havarti cheese
Slices of Velveeta pseudo-cheese
Tomato spaghetti sauce

The yogurt was unopened, but nice and hot by the time I got to it. The others, I actually opened, used some of, closed, and then used the rest the next day. The cheddar reshaped itself into a ball of goo, and the havarti gave off a kind of oil slick, but it was all still good as much as a week later. The Velveeta slices were good for a week or more, but their wrappers weren’t tight, so they got dirty in the bottom of my food crate, and when I tried to wash them, soap got inside the wrapper, so I had to throw the rest away.

Now, let me supplement that list with items that were good for days, for weeks, for God only knows how much longer. Some of these may be obvious. Others, not so much:

Potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels
Queso and salsa dip
Trail mix
Chocolate (M&Ms even retained shape)
Shrimp cocktail sauce
Pepperidge Farm bread
Paul Newman’s spaghetti sauce
Peanut butter
Canned stuff: soups, tuna, oysters, fruit, etc.
Dried fruit (e.g., raisins, apples, cranberries)
Spicy green stuff (esp. olives and jalapeños)
Balsamic vinegar
Olive oil
Granola bars
Beef jerky
Genoa salami
Dried soups, ramen noodles, spaghetti
Apple pie
Gatorade (liquid, not powder)
Seltzer water

I handled these items in different ways, per the needs of the moment:

  • I opened the dried fruit, ate some, closed it, and revisited it as desired, over a period of weeks.
  • I ate standard Walmart green olives right out of the jar, and yet somehow my mouth bacteria did not even alter the flavor within the next few weeks.
  • Likewise, I drank out of the Gatorade bottle, closed the lid, and then had some more, days later, without significant loss of flavor — and this was the sugar-based kind, not the low-calorie sucralose alternative. Not that hot Gatorade is my cup of tea, so to speak, but that’s beside the point.
  • The seltzer water was fine, with one caveat: when I bought it in cans instead of plastic bottles, the carbon dioxide apparently reacted to the heat: the ends of the cans popped out, the fizz was gone, and in a few cases the cans actually broke open. But, sadly, no cooling, fizzy explosions.
  • The apple pie tasted great three days later.
  • The genoa salami was Hormel, in an airtight vacuum-packed plastic wrap straight from the factory, marked “Refrigerate after opening”; it was fine three or four days after purchase.
  • The pepperoni was Hormel too, and marked “Refrigerate after opening,” but it wasn’t shrink-wrapped: it came, from the factory, with air in the bag. It was still fine for five days before opening, and since I didn’t finish all of it that day, I found that the rest was still good the next day.
  • Pepperidge Farm bread simply does not mold. I think they must make it at the Twinkies factory.
  • Last but not least, I didn’t open the shrimp cocktail sauce once in the entire three months. It had been opened sometime before I hit the road in May; it sat in that heat for three months; it wound up in another fridge at the end of August; and then I opened and used some of it at the end of September. Still tasty!

An article at MainStreet.com added others to the list: eggs (sort of), ketchup, and jelly. A discussion thread at TheSurvivalistBlog.net added instant oatmeal, gummi bears, various kinds of survivalist foods (e.g., emergency food bars) designed to last forever, and powdered drinks (e.g., Kool Aid).

That thread also discussed means of refrigeration or at least of keeping food somewhat cooler. One tactic that I could have used more often was to walk into a store, grab a bottle of warm Gatorade, put it in the freezer, get my other groceries, and then retrieve it before leaving. There would also be the strategy of opening your food — say, ice cream — right there in the freezer section of the store, where it would remain nice and cool until you finished it. Presumably they would still expect you to pay for it, though.

In other refrigeration news, evaporation (e.g., wrap it in a wet T-shirt) and streams and underground places (e.g., cellars) are also convenient for cooling things down. Water coming out of the tap is blissfully warm (if you are taking a free cold-water shower at some municipal park), but you’ll be drawing up the cooler gallons soon enough, so use it sparingly. Water for picnic-table bathing is best stored in plastic bottles that sit all day in the heat, so they aren’t freezing cold when you pour them over yourself under a full moon. There is a certain environmental obligation to save water by not showering at all — but that, too, is another story.

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2 Responses to Who Needs a Fridge? Leave That Food Out in the Heat!

  1. Hannah says:

    Thank you for this post! Not only was it informative, the nonchalant, ‘you can’t stop me’ attitude of your writing really made me laugh:) Amazing, thanks!

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