California Coolers

| August 18, 2008 | 20 Comments
  • 20 Comments

california coolerIf you live anywhere near the Northern California coastline in a house that was built during the first two decades of the 20th century and if you haven’t had a chance or don’t have the heart to remodel your home completely, then you probably still have a strange, little cabinet in a corner of your kitchen. Unlike the other cabinets in the room, it has open shelves of wire or slats or perforated wood. It also feels very cold and breezy, and you might even be able to glimpse sunlight through the back of it if you stand at a certain angle and tilt your head a certain way. It may have a lock or, at the least, a secure latch.

This, my friend, is a California cooler.

In the days before easy electricity and Freon™ there was cold air from the ocean to keep your root vegetables crisp and your ham succulent. In San Francisco, a city built on sand, California coolers replaced the Midwestern cellar as a family’s depository of food. An ingenious architect came up with the idea of a louvered box attached to an outside wall of the building. With some open shelving and an easy-access door right from the kitchen, busy housewives could stay close to their pantry staples.

Currently sitting in my California cooler are some onions and garlic, some potatoes, lots of vinegar and oils, a few heavily brandied fig and almond cakes from last Christmas, and a cloth-wrapped hunk of what will, I hope, become duck prosciutto by the end of next week.

Many modern designers remove these cabinets entirely, but I love when homeowners retain the cooler in their modern kitchen. There really is no better way to keep ingredients for weeks and months at a time in precisely the cool, dark, well-ventilated, and off-the-grid way that is best for the food that sustains us.

What are you keeping right now in your California cooler?

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Category: bay area

About the Author ()

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place. Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.
  • Jess L.

    Wow, we totally had one of those in the house in Santa Rosa where my family lived when I was in high school. I wish I could remember what we kept in it – nothing so exciting as what you have in yours, I’m sure, given my status as the only foodie in the family!

  • http://www.furlinedteacup.com Erika

    My first apartmentin the Haight didn’t have the California Cooler, but it did still have its original icebox; I kept all my spices in its top ice block compartment.

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    How, um, cool! (Sorry, couldn’t resist) I’ve never heard of a California Cooler before. Now, I really hope my next apartment has one.

  • http://michaelprocopio.wordpress.com/ Michael Procopio

    I’m a native Californian who has lived all his adult life in quirky old apartments, and I have never heard of such a thing. It makes me feel as if there is something sorely lacking in my life.

    Thanks for making me feel incomplete.

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    I know, Michael, right?

    Meanwhile, Craigslist needs to put this in their apartment adds: “2 bd/2ba, pets: Y, W/D in unit, and CaliCooler.”

    Seriously.

    You know what it reminds me of? The airing cupboards my Brit boyfriend had in his Yorkshire house. They’re next to the heating pipes, have abundant of shelving, and Nancy Mitford used to hide in such cupboards with all her cousins (the Hons for those in the know).

    Awesome.

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    Oops, that would be “ads.”

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy

    Jess — If you closed your eyes and thought back to that kitchen and remembered the foods you ate–no matter what they were–I bet you’d remember what was in it. One of my friends who didn’t know about California coolers kept his collection of 50s party plates in his, and another acquaintance stored pots and pans in his. I imagine there are lots of nonfood items in most of those cabinets these days.

    Erika — I would love to have an old ice box!! Some of those are worth thousands of dollars now. I think California coolers were for people who were too cheap or lazy to deal with the ice man and his deliveries. They’re nearly as beautiful, though.

    Stephanie– I live with someone who loves puns…so that was much appreciated in my home. Actually, I was trying to think of ways to rig up a CA cooler, like in a air-well window or on a porch. Maybe hack one of those window green-boxes or something. Seems like it would be a good way to cut back on energy use if one could switch to a smaller fridge. Any DIY kitchen folks out there?

    Michael — I’m sure your life does not need storage space for root vegetables to be complete — but I’ll definitely take props from the native! Quirky old apartments are the best.

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy

    Erika — Oops…I meant to write that California coolers are NOT nearly as beautiful as ice boxes.

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy Tran

    Stephanie — What would we without Google or blogs? Nancy and Jessica’s books are now on my reading list. Thanks for starting a very interesting thread of learning!

  • http://www.grubreport.com Stephanie

    Thy, I think you will enjoy them. They’re fairly hysterical and there’s an amazingly fascinating bio on all the Mitford sisters (one was completely enamored of Hitler and tried to kill her self over him) called: “The Sisters” by Mary S. Lovell.

    I recommend you read Nancy’s, “Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate” before Jessica’s, “Hons and Rebels,” which has a slightly more bitter wit.

  • Rachel

    I’ve just had an “eco food safe” installed at home, which works on a similar principle. It’s a wooden box, with a door at the front and a shelf inside. The top “tray” and hollow sides are filled with soil, so you can grow herbs while you insulate/chill the foods stored inside. It’s outside the front door and is working really well. Hurrah for traditional technology!

  • Art

    Actually, I think California coolers were usually used in conjunction with iceboxes–it was cheaper to keep things that didn’t need to be “ice cold” (so to speak!) there, while reserving the icebox for things that would spoil and needed the ice. They went out of fashion in part because refrigerators came into play and had much more space. We’re lucky to still have one, though–it’s home to oils, spices, root vegetables, and canned goods, and is pretty awesome at keeping those things as fresh as my parents’ root cellar back east did (and way more convenient than the cellar, too).

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy Tran

    Rachel — thanks for telling me about the eco food safe. I hadn’t heard of that before but am very glad to learn about it. Is there another term for it? I’m having trouble finding more information but would love to learn more–I have a feeling my parents would love one!

    Art — I stand corrected. Of course there was an overlap in decades, so I can imagine both being well used during the turn of the century. Perhaps now again with the increasing cost of energy, we should rethink the need for bigger and bigger fridges.

  • Bill Tantau

    We had a CalCooler (just called the “cooler”) in the old ranch house in Cupertino – built in the early 1900′s, then found one in the old manse adjacent to the St. Helena First Pres Church. It’s not just the ocean air that will provide the cooling but the air from any typical crawl space will work just fine. It only needs a drafting shaft to bring it up through the cooler. I doubt that any apartment would be so equipped unless it was on the ground floor. So COOL!!
    BT
    Clio, CA

  • http://allnaturalsimplelife.blogspot.com/ Evelyn

    I docent at a Historical House in Glendale, CA. Calif Coolers weren’t for the lazy or cheap! Ice was very expensive & ice boxes were very small! You could keep everything & anything in a CC. Often they were in the center of the house, because the air is cooler there than outside in the summer. I am seriously thinking about putting one in my 1924 house, that’s never had one. I’ll have a root cellar attached to the house that I’m building into the side of a hill at the farm in MO.

    But, CCs are just soooo cool! And, if you open them up, they’ll help keep your kitchen cool as well. I use convection cooling in my house all the time. I hate airconditioners. I open the door of my basement (yes, basement in SoCal!) & run the attic fan on the 2nd floor. It cools the 3 floor whole house down in less than 1/2 hour. Much cheaper than A/C as well!!!

  • chris c

    We have our original Cooler in the kitchen of our 1915 house. Other than an old Chambers stove in the garage, it’s all that remains of the original kitchen. It’s pretty neat, although we keep veggies in the fridge and use it as a general pantry. Thanks for the article!

  • http://donthaveone Smreil

    Who can send me any web links to instructions on how to build a California cooler!???? Please email to smreil@aol.com

  • Eric Taylor

    I live in San Diego and just bought a home built in 1923 – and it had one built in one of the cabinets. The slatted shelves were still there, but the opening to the underside of the home had been covered. Really neat bit of history I’ve never heard of (until my handyman pointed it out). Thanks for writing!

  • Caitlin

    Thanks for this great post. I am an architectural historian and though I have seen California Coolers in many houses (including up in Oregon and Alaska), I never knew they had a name. I generally knew what they were for and how they worked, but not precisely, and just referred to them as cold cupboards.

    This evening, helping my boyfriend move into a new apartment in Palo Alto, I discovered one in his kitchen. I was really excited about it (he thinks I’m crazy), did some Googling, and came across this article. Thanks!

  • Elizabeth

    We live in a 1925 Colonial Revival home in Corvallis, Oregon, which has a “California Cooler” – two nicely-framed mesh squares that open to what were originally cupboards with wooden slatted shelves. The inside openings had been sloppily covered over with scrap wood during a remodel probably done in the 1960s. However, when we bought the house, it had (and still has) attractively-framed exterior inlet squares; the exterior framing matched the attractive trim on the windows. The openings had been neatly covered with wood. We think they are so “cool” that we’ve highlighted the original slatted shelves with a different color paint than what we’ve used on walls of the cupboard. We’ve set about looking for other “California coolers” in Corvallis and found some neat ones, in single-family residences and in an early apartment building. Since we’re into architectural history, we plan to formally document them to see what time period they bracket, and whether they cluster in certain neighborhoods or are associated with particular builders. Then we will see if we can sell movie rights to “California Coolers of Corvallis” – sort of like “Bridges of Madison County.” Corvallis is in Oregon’s rainy Willamette Valley, but we have a Mediterranean climatic regime, so we usually get our rain between October and April. We do have a large original “canning room” in the basement for food storage, but the cupboard cooler would have been more convenient than running up and down stairs. Thanks so much for this great article…it’s given us one more weird interest.