When I stopped to pick up a pizza the other night, a fan whirred on the hostess desk of the tepidly air-conditioned restaurant. It was hot outside, the temperature hovering around 90, with humidity that felt nearly as high. In conversation with the 20-something hostess about the malfunctioning cooling system and the weather in general, I casually mentioned that we don’t use air conditioning in our home. She gasped, her eyes wide, “What do you DO?”
The hostess, I realized, had never experienced life without air conditioning. It existed when I was growing up, but in my blue-collar town, it was a luxury my parents didn’t invest in until I was nearly grown and gone. Now, even though we can well afford it, not using air conditioning is a choice. All the long, long winter, we fantasize about steamy nights, sitting on the porch barefoot, cold bottle of beer leaving sweat rings on the table, listening to the symphony of cicadas, crickets, and katydids. This is living, we tell each other. And it is.
Unfortunately, it’s a dying way of life. I believe we are the only household in a neighborhood of 75 homes or so without an air conditioner on. If a thunderstorm knocks the power out, the streets hum with the sounds of backup generators.
On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoy the silence of a sealed up neighborhood. We always feel lucky when we’re sitting outside, because it seems like we’re the only ones. The sounds we hear are of the natural world, except the car alarm that goes off down the street every time an acorn falls on it, and the power washing and leaf blowing of the anal-retentive neighbor across the creek — but those are other stories, long, expletive-filled stories, and thankfully, not regular occurrences. Mostly we hear the owls and coyotes and see bats swoop through the yard, and it’s lovely.
Admittedly, a long string of hot days can get me wishing for a cool, closed-up home. But only momentarily. The minute I think about shutting the windows, I decide that sweating is OK by me. I spend my days in an office with windows that don’t open; when I come home, I want to breathe.
So what do we DO without air-conditioning? Well, when it’s really hot, not much. Or as little as we can get away with. And we sweat. We do have a pool — a nice, big in-ground pool. But you can only stay in the water so long. You can’t do laundry or vacuum or cook or blog from a diving board. So we live the way I have lived for most of my life — with the windows open, the fans blowing, sleeping with nothing but a sheet on, sometimes even pushing that aside. We eat lighter fare (or pick up a pizza!) and we cook outdoors as much as possible.
Here are a few easy summertime salads from my zine, Stop and Smell the Butter, that require hardly any cooking at all — mostly just chopping, mincing, opening a few cans and putting it all together.
TERRIFIC TUNA SALAD
I love this—perfect for summer. No oven or stove to turn on, and it’s scrumptious! Makes a great appetizer.
1 can solid white tuna, drained
1 can (2 ounces) of flat anchovy fillets, drained and minced
1 clove garlic (2 if they’re small), minced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons capers
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup (or more to taste) white wine vinegar (I’m fond of using tarragon-flavored.)
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Let stand for 15 minutes or more before serving. Serve with crackers or crusty bread.
For a heartier salad, add cannellini beans and chopped tomatoes.
FRESH CORN AND BLACK BEAN SALAD
Nothing says summer like sweet corn on the cob. When it’s good, I can’t resist cooking a couple dozen at a time for guests, and I invariably end up with leftovers. I came up with this recipe as a way to use cold corn. I really just winged it, mixing ingredients to taste. I encourage you to do the same!
Fresh corn cut from the cob (I used about 6 ears for this recipe)
1-2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
Half of a serrano pepper, minced
Two tablespoons minced red pepper, fresh or roasted
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
Juice of two limes
1 teaspoon cumin (if you’ve got ’em, freshly ground seeds are best)
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
BEAN AND BARLEY SALAD
This is another one that can calls for any sort of creativity you care to throw at it—the original recipe called for cannellini beans and chick peas, parsley instead of basil, and canola oil instead olive oil. I also added olives and feta. Work with what you’ve got and with combinations that sound good.
3 cups water
½ cup pearl barley
1 can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
¼ cup chopped basil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon cumin
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
½ cup or so pitted kalamata olives
¼ or so crumbled feta cheese
Cook barley: In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Reduce heat and add barley. Cook over medium heat until tender-firm, about 40 minutes. Drain. Rinse with cold water. Drain again.
Make dressing: In a small bowl, combine vinegar, salt, pepper, cumin, and garlic. Mix thoroughly. Whisk in oil until evenly combined. (Or put all ingredients in a jar, put lid on and shake thoroughly—does the same job.)
Combine barley, beans, onion, olives, and basil in a serving bowl. Add the dressing and toss gently. Sprinkle feta cheese on top. Serve at room temperature.