“Have you bought your miners’ headlamps yet?” a friend asked me.
“You mean, those lights you strap on your head? Do we need them?”
“They’re really great if you have to pick through rubble looking for survivors,” she said matter-of-factly.
Perhaps the scariest part of that conversation was the way swapping tips for coping with mass catastrophes has become commonplace in the US. If you haven’t been caught up in a large-scale disaster yet, you know someone who has, and it's clear you could be next. We’re all glued to our screens gasping at scenes of post-Florence flooding in the southeast, wildfires rampaging across California, and the rising death toll around the planet from heat waves and floods.
This is “the face of climate change … playing out in real time,” says top climate scientist Michael Mann. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which measures planetary extinction-level events using the Doomsday clock, calculates we’re now just two minutes shy of midnight (aka Armageddon).
Is the world taking all this bad news with quiet dignity and grace? What do you think?
As any ostrich will tell you, the first line of defense is denial. Naysayers are shifting from “It’s not happening” to “It won’t affect me.” While five out of six Americans agree that climate change exists, more than half our citizens are convinced it will never directly impact them. You might want to ask the residents of North and South Carolina about that. Others, especially those a bit further inland who did not lose family members, homes, pets, businesses, cars, or their region’s power grid, are holding firm. They’re like teenage smokers who say, “I know you think smoking causes cancer but hey, I’m up to a pack a day, and all I have is this nagging little cough.”
Others believe the sky is falling and it’s all God’s fault. The Internet is awash with articles and videos titled “Are We Living in the End Times?” Everyone from Biblical scholars to Al Jazeera to survivalist cults are weighing in, with varying degrees of helpfulness and hysteria. The article “Here’s Why You Really Need To Prepare Like A Survivalist Right Now” urged us all to “get into a survivor mindset” and then showed this photo.
Really? I’m supposed to plan on sleeping rough and eating animals I kill and skin with that knife on the tree stump? Are you kidding me?
My home state of California has some of the world’s most unstable geography, but I am staking my life on the belief that the disasters I’m most likely to face will call for a very different set of survival skills. After a summer spent talking with fire survivors and reading the advice of experts, here’s the best wisdom I’ve learned.
Tip #1. Assess the dangers in your area. In my home state of California, there is a 99.7% chance of a major earthquake by 2037. The wildfires that devoured 1.5 million acres this summer came within five miles of my cottage. Our town of San Anselmo has cycles of serious flooding and we’re due again by 2025. Obviously we’re living on borrowed time. But enough about me; what’s likely to hit your town? Blizzards? Tornados? Mudslides? "Nowhere in this country can you say, 'I have nothing to worry about,'” points out meteorologist Steve Bowen. “You can move to escape a specific peril, but not peril in general.''
Tip #2. Prepare and practice your emergency plan. As Rich and I discovered when we were evacuated during San Anselmo’s not-quite-as-serious-as-feared flood of 2017, the natural impulse is to leap in your car and careen wildly to higher ground. In our case, that left us stuck in a tangle of dead-end hillside roads, and eventually we had to drive back downhill and cross the rising floodwaters to reach someplace warm, dry, and equipped with sufficient chardonnay to sooth our nerves. For the next evacuation, we have selected a destination and practiced walking the 4.5 mile route, in case we have to flee on foot. The phone number and directions are in our address book under Emergency Hotel, as I fully expect to be too overwrought to recall my own name, let alone that of the rendezvous point.
Tip #3. Pack an emergency supply kit. Rich and I spent all summer accumulating stuff we thought might come in handy: food, water, medical supplies, chocolate bars, vitamin G (aka gin), and a host of gadgets and gismos, all packed in a rolling cart for better fleeing mobility. (See the full emergency packing list here.)
Tip #4. Vote for people who take climate change seriously. “The record-breaking extreme weather events causing chaos across the globe should be a wake-up call,” said Christiana Figueres, architect of the UN Paris Climate Agreement, when I saw her this summer. “We will move to a low-carbon world because nature will force us, or because policy will guide us. If we wait until nature forces us, the cost will be astronomical.”
With large-scale catastrophes becoming America’s new normal, we’re all struggling to cope. As one journal noted with magnificent understatement, “Whether natural or man-made, disasters cause many of us to feel increased levels of stress and anxiety.” While most of us channel our nervousness into stocking up on canned food, jittery young people, fearing they’ll come of age in a post-apocalyptic landscape, are signing up for courses like this:
“Rich, do you think we need to learn to make our own glue and rope?” I asked dubiously.
“No. If it comes down to that kind of stuff, we’re toast. Do you think we need to pack more vitamin G?”
“Absolutely. And more chocolate.”
Clearly our work isn’t done yet. A few days ago, I spoke with my friend to reassure her we were now the proud owners of miners’ headlamps.
“Terrific. Do you guys have walkie-talkies? You know the phones may be out.”
And so the shopping continues.
Stay safe out there, my friends, and send me any good emergency prep tips you know! And by the way, I'm on the road next week, so I won't be posting. Just didn't want you to worry I'd disappeared into America's disaster vortex.
The first thing they always tell you about Napoli (aka Naples, Italy) is, “Don’t go.” And for a lot of travelers, that’s good advice. The city is insane. Every cab journey is “Mister Toad’s Wild Ride” from Disneyland. Attempts to cross the street on foot are like traversing the Grand Prix. The lodgings are tricky to locate and full of surprises. My first time there I slept in an abandoned spa with revolving colored lights. On my last visit, I stayed in an old lady’s apartment full of erotic art and had to pay a coin-operated elevator every time I went in or out of the building. Nothing in Napoli is plain vanilla.
Which is precisely what I love about the city.
The chaos of Napoli always makes me feel more vividly alive. The streets are teaming with people, half of them on Vespas, all rushing about their daily affairs with tremendous zest. Everyone seems to be talking at once, using their whole body to underscore key points with flamboyant gestures. Rules are ignored, and creativity, not organization, is prized; I always picture the parents teaching their kids to color outside the lines and eat dessert first.
There’s an exhilarating, anything-goes atmosphere, and back in the day, one of its riskier innovations developed into the world’s favorite comfort food: pizza.
The idea of putting toppings on flatbread didn’t start in Napoli. It goes back to — well, I’m guessing the day they invented flatbread, which was sometime during the Neolithic era. But it took think-outside-the-box Neapolitans to have the courage (or madness) to add tomatoes, which were widely viewed as toxic ornamental plants when they arrived in Europe from the New World. When the trailblazers survived the experiment, everyone started adding tomatoes to the traditional toppings of olive oil and cheese, and pizza became a local favorite. Italian immigrants brought it to the USA in the 19th century, but it didn’t go mainstream until American GIs discovered it during World War II and came home demanding more. And they got it. Today, Americans consume three billion pizza pies a year — that’s 100 acres of pizza a day, or 46 slices (23 pounds) per person per year.
Luckily for all of us, pizza has maintained the Napolitano anything-goes attitude. While some purists argue that the only “true” pizzas are the marinara and the margherita, the world disagrees, enthusiastically embracing countless varieties. Oh sure, there was a bit of a flap over Hawaiian pizza when Greek-Canadian Sam Panopoulos introduced it in 1962; some felt adding sweet pineapple was an abomination. Just last year Iceland’s president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, caused a media firestorm when he casually told some students that he was fundamentally opposed to pineapple on pizza and would ban it if he could. Jóhannesson later clarified: “I like pineapples, just not on pizza” and suggested topping pizza with fish instead. And the debate rages on.
Some have been equally scathing about white pizza. In a Huffington Post article, lifestyle editor Alison Spiegel dissed white pizza as “difficult to pull off” and often “gummy and gooey … gloppy … offensively boring.”
I beg to differ. As evidence I site the recent morning I spent in the kitchen of my friend Karen Adelson, who lives in California’s wine country and is one of the finest cooks I know. She’d offered to make me her favorite white pizza and I jumped at the chance to see this controversial dish done right.
As a starting point, she consulted the recipe for Pizza with Arugula and Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano from Joanne Weir’s Wine Country Cooking. But in the true spirit of pizzaiolos everywhere, my friend didn’t slavishly follow directions. She added artichoke hearts, sliced rather than grated the mozzarella, and baked the pie on a pizza screen rather than the customary pizza stone or metal pan. And instead of making her own, she bought the dough to save time and fuss. A cook after my own heart.
There was absolutely nothing boring, gooey, or gloppy about Karen’s white pizza. The flavors sang with garlic and lemon juice, balanced beautifully by three creamy cheeses, fresh arugula, tangy artichoke hearts, and the light, yeasty crust. Spiegel and the pizza purists don’t know what they’re missing!
Of course, you can take innovation too far. I myself am aghast when I hear about people topping pizza with Nutella, frog’s legs, an entire Happy Meal, or pizza-flavored ice cream. But I will staunchly defend their right to experiment any way they like — so long as they don’t make me eat it.
Wildcat experimentation is what gave us pizza in the first place, and its comforting presence helps us keep going when the going gets tough. As entertainer Henry Rollins put it, “Pizza makes me think that anything is possible.” In these uncertain times, when the entire world can seem as chaotic as Napoli, we need pizza more than ever. Justine Sterling wrote in Food & Wine, “In a recent Harris Poll, Americans revealed their favorite classic comfort foods (eaten when sad or stressed), celebratory comfort foods (eaten when happy or during a special occasion) and curative comfort foods (eaten when sick). Unsurprisingly, the overall winner was pizza." And on days when I need an extra helping of comfort, I go with what Yogi Berra said: “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.”
Recipe: Pizza with Arugula and Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
What's your favorite pizza? Are there any kinds you wouldn't eat?
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“This is it!” I said to Rich, wafting the sample under his nose. “This cheese actually smells like the feet of angels.”
We’d adopted this new benchmark for gloriously overripe cheese while watching a TED Talk by travel guru Rick Steves. In France, he says, “you step into a cheese shop and it’s just a festival of mold. I love going shopping with my Parisian friends. They’ll take me into a cheese shop, put up a moldy wad of goat cheese, take a deep whiff: ‘Oh Rick! Smell this cheese. It smells like the feet of angels!’”
The sample I held under my husband’s nose didn’t happen to be moldy or made from goat’s milk, but something about its profound earthiness made me think, paradoxically, of heaven.
“I’m not entirely sure what angels’ feet smell like,” Rich said. “But this has to be close.”
We were in the tasting room of an organic dairy farm in the section of northern California that has such perfect grazing land that nineteenth century immigrants dubbed it “cow heaven.” Today, farmers from Italy, France, Switzerland, the Azores, Argentina, and various parts of the USA work the land; some are descendants of the original settlers, others are entrepreneurs who arrived more recently seeking a fresh start. Together they are producing some of the finest artisan cheeses in the world.
In 2012, it occurred to these innovative dairy farmers that being situated in and around Northern California’s wine country, which attracts 23.6 million visitors a year, they might be able to cash in on the boom. After all, what goes better with wine than cheese? And so the California Cheese Trail was born — essentially a marketing campaign and a map showing 42 artisan creameries that welcome visitors. When a friend showed me the map, I found it included farms making some of my personal favorites: Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog, for instance, and the Marin French Cheese Company’s Petite Breakfast. I knew I liked this stuff, but I had no idea that judges of some of the most prestigious state, national, and international competitions were fans, too.
“Rich,” I said, “I think I owe it to my readers to check out more of these cheeses.”
“I am willing to help with the research,” he declared nobly.
The California Cheese Trail meanders for hundreds of miles, but luckily there was one well-known creamery just twenty minutes away in Nicasio Valley. This once-busting pioneer town is now a sleepy village that prides itself on being “a place where change is slow and predictable,” according to the website of the old roadhouse, Rancho Nicasio. “The town gradually drifts through time, at an unnoticeable rate.” Amen to that!
The town probably didn’t look much different back in 1910, when seventeen-year-old Fredolino Lafranchi arrived from Switzerland with little money and big dreams of becoming a dairy farmer. Today his family ranch includes 1150 acres of organic farmland and is home to 400 cows and 3000 pasture-raised chickens. It wasn’t until 2010 that his grandchildren decided to try their hand at artisan cheeses in the style of the alpine village Fredolino once called home.
I had bought a few Nicasio Valley Cheese Company products at my local market but was delighted to have an excuse to visit their farmstead shop and try the entire line. Grazing contentedly among the platters on the sample table, I came across the San Geronimo which brought to mind the fragrance of angels’ feet. But when it came to making a purchase, I headed directly to the Nicasio Reserve. I had a purpose for that one. The day before, as I was on the creamery’s website looking for fun facts, I’d stumbled across a recipe for Baked Risotto with Nicasio Reserve, Asparagus, and Spinach. It sounded simple enough for our culinary skills and delicious enough to be worth a try. Rich and I bought a wedge of the Reserve and headed home to our kitchen to give the recipe a test run.
The verdict? The risotto was simple to make with gorgeously rich, complex flavor — in short, it was divinely inspired and has already earned a permanent place in my repertoire. I was delighted to discover that some of the larger California Cheese Trail creameries are selling their top cheeses in grocery stores and even (gasp!) Costco, so I have no excuse for settling for less in the future; I have vowed to up my game.
I grew up an era that revered processed food for being modern and convenient. “For me,” says Rick Steves, “cheese was always just orange and in the shape of the bread. There you go: cheese sandwich.” Back then, it never occurred to us that there might be anything unhealthy about consuming a “pasteurized prepared cheese product,” stuff that can’t legally be labeled cheese because it’s less than 51% real cheese. What makes up the rest, you ask? Dairy by-products, saturated vegetable oils, sodium, sugar, food coloring, preservatives, and emulsifiers. Not precisely what a body needs.
In this age of giant agribusiness and corporate ranching, I am astonished and deeply grateful that small dairy farmers have carved out this niche market in California and around the country. I’ve always said there are some things in life — chocolate, wine, your partner’s sense of humor — where you simply can’t compromise on quality, and I’ve now added cheese to the short list. I’ve only just begun exploring the California Cheese Trail, and with 41 other creameries on the map, I will clearly need to keep visiting and sampling until the cows come home.
“I’m with you all the way,” says Rich. “Pass me more of that risotto, would you please?”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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