So this is it, I thought, I really have sunk to the bottom. Aloud I said, “So tell me more about your grandmother’s Spam recipe.”
If you’ve never tasted Spam, it’s a cheap canned pork product using unpopular parts of the pig processed into salty lunchmeat. In WWII the US army fed it to soldiers, who dubbed it "ham that didn't pass its physical" and "meatloaf without basic training." When I first encountered it in college, I thought it was the most ghastly food I’d ever eaten. Eventually it became a slang term for something equally unpalatable: junk email.
“My grandmother used to fry Spam and put molasses on it,” my sister-in-law Deb reminisced fondly. “She called it ‘spackle.’”
Repressing a shudder, I made a note to pick up some Spam and try it.
No, I haven’t completely lost my sanity or my taste for Mediterranean comfort food. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am following official directives to stockpile emergency provisions.
The immediate threat is California’s wildfire season. Last year, the utility company PG&E began shutting down parts of our electric grid when hot, dry, windy conditions made fires likely. We typically get 8,325 fires a year, destroying 1,126,318 acres, and PG&E has been responsible for some of the worst disasters — including the 2018 Camp Fire. The legal fallout from that one caused PG&E to declare bankruptcy and plead guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter. They are, to say the least, anxious not to repeat their mistakes. In a recent text, they reminded us fire-preventive outages are coming, so it would behoove us to stockpile provisions for two weeks.
This being 2020, I have no doubt emergency supplies will come in handy. The problem is where to put them when I can barely fit everyday groceries into my modest cupboards. A food locker seemed the best answer.
Rich, who is in his glory wielding power tools and manhandling lumber, ordered a kit for constructing a cedar garden shed small enough to squeeze into the skinny space between our house and the neighbor’s fence.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we dubbed it the Armageddon Food Locker or Apocalypse Chow. The manufacturer calls it a “garden chalet” — a grandiose term for a space two feet by four feet by six. In the online comments, one purchaser complained inferior instructions caused her husband to spend six whole hours on the assembly.
“You’ll probably do it in half the time,” I told Rich encouragingly.
Construction has now reached day five and Rich has completed 14 of the 39 steps required for assembly. Every morning the breakfast table is strewn with power tools, brackets, and stray screws as Rich drinks his coffee and glares at the instruction booklet.
People keep asking what we’re going to put into the chalet, and that’s where I come in. I’ve been reading such articles as 14 foods to keep in your bunker to survive the apocalypse and The 11 Best Survival Food Companies of 2020. If you’ve never cruised these murky culinary backwaters, you're usually looking at large plastic tubs filled with freeze-dried packets of such dubious fare as Textured Vegetable Protein Stroganoff and Strawberry Flavored Creamy Wheat cereal. Costco currently offers a two-person 18-month supply of freeze-dried food at for $4,499.99 — a thrifty $124.99 per person per month. The contents, said to last up to 25 years, are somehow 100% vegetarian while including “chicken and rice soup.” I suppose in an apocalypse, all bets are off and chicken may be reclassified as a vegetable.
Shopping for more modest quantities? Wired’s reviewer Matt Jancer says you’ll find freeze-dried packets “are expensive and unhealthy. For a pouch that'll supply you with 300-600 calories, expect to pay around $8. For one that supplies around 800 calories, you're looking at $13 or so. That's per meal. You don't need a calculator to know that adds up fast. Dehydrated food is also stuffed with salt. A single serving often has 30 to 40 percent of an entire day's recommended level of sodium. But one serving usually isn't enough to make a meal, so you'll inevitably eat both servings. In just one meal, you've almost hit your daily sodium target… that much sodium in your diet, day after day, is going to raise your blood pressure and make you feel like junk.”
“I guess this stuff would be better than having to subsist on squirrels we hunt down and kill ourselves,” I said to Rich. “But only just. Remember the freeze-dried rice?”
Returning from Spain in May, we’d discovered some freeze-dried rice left behind by a young nephew who’d recently self-quarantined in our house. I hadn’t eaten instant rice in decades, and in a spirit of scientific inquiry, I nuked some for lunch. The texture was limp and soggy, the flavor bland, the nutritional content negligible. I put down my fork, saying, “Is it even food? It feels like it's leeching sustenance right out of my body.”
Long story short, I’ve nixed the freeze-dried products and am looking at actual food. Here’s my list so far.
Shopping starts when Rich finishes the chalet. I’m figuring late September; he says by Sunday. Place your bets in the comments below.
As I stock up, I’ll check the site Eat By Date for advice on what sell-by dates to take seriously and which I can safely ignore. For instance, they say dried pasta is fine for an extra year or two and honey stays good “approximately forever.”
With the ingredients on my list, I can make Irish soda bread, grilled chocolate sandwiches, and an old favorite from my impoverished twenties, green bean casserole; I cooked up some this week and found it still delivers a solid portion of culinary comfort.
As for Spam, “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve fried it,” says their website. Today I tried it, and yes, it is better when it's fried and covered with molasses (isn’t everything?). But with all due respect to Deb’s grandmother, spackle is still not delicious and/or healthy enough to make my emergency provisions short list.
Even in desperate times — perhaps especially in desperate times — food should be an occasion of shared joy. If I learned anything from last year’s Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, it’s that eating well is worth time and effort because it connects us to the present moment and to our companions in ways that nourish the soul as well as the body. As we all make the hard adjustments demanded by the new world disorder, meals can serve as a touchstone, reminding us life is worth living and that we’re better together. Omar Khayyam wrote, “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness... paradise enough.” Add chocolate to that list and I think he might be on to something.
Got any suggestions for my emergency supplies shopping list? Know any recipes using nothing but nonperishable ingredients? Have an opinion on if/when the food locker will be completed? Let me know in the comments below.
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Can't wait? I post more or less daily on Facebook.
It happened again a few days ago. I was on the sidewalk in our small California town when a family — parents, three kids, a sweet, goofy dog — began ambling towards me in a convivial cluster. Heartwarming, right? I reacted by leaping smartly into the street, heedless of oncoming traffic, to avoid their unmasked faces. Yes, thanks to COVID-19, I’m not only honing my agility, I’m finding myself far less fearful of everyday hazards. I try not to do anything too foolish, but I just don’t have the anxiety bandwidth to get exercised about cars, canned goods slightly past their sell-by date, the effects of excessive TV on my brain, or what shade of lipstick (if any) to wear under my mask.
A couple of days ago I stood looking in a boutique window at a flowery summer cocktail dress that seemed about as relevant to my current lifestyle as a hoop skirt or bustle. Then I walked past the newsstand (remember actual newspapers?) and reflected on how glad I am not to be the writer responsible for digging through the thesaurus every morning to find a compelling yet tactful new way to say, “The virus is winning.”
Later, strolling through a nearby village, I saw a sign that really stopped me in my tracks.
I realized that one of the things COVID-19 had driven from my worry list was the upcoming wildfire season.
As you may have heard, California’s vast forests and delightful climate — sunny, breezy, dry — create ideal conditions for wildfires. Since 1984, climate change has doubled the number of large fires tearing through the state; we had 8,194 last year, consuming 259,148 acres. Don't worry, Rich and I do have a family emergency plan and are updating our evacuation kit this week. And luckily we are well south of the worst danger zone, significantly reducing our chances of waking up in the middle of the night to find our home in flames (as happened to one guy we know). But our entire region is at risk. On hot, dry, windy days, if a live power line goes down, a single spark can create a conflagration of biblical proportions.
Last year, PG&E began declaring “extreme red flag days” whenever they felt it was prudent to avoid fires — and potential lawsuits — by shutting off the electricity for days or weeks at a time.
“I got a text from PG&E,” Rich told me Saturday over breakfast. “They say we should keep two weeks’ supply of non-perishable food on hand to live on during the outages.”
“Great idea. And it’ll come in handy if the coronavirus and the food shortages get worse. You know, when society breaks down completely and there are bands of marauders roaming the streets so we can’t get out to the market.” It’s possible I’ve been watching too many dystopian movies on TV lately. Or perhaps just reading too many these-are-the-End-Times articles. “The real question is,” I said, looking at our compact kitchen’s overstuffed cupboards, “where do we put all that food?”
“The attic?” he suggested.
Getting into our attic requires pulling open the trap door in the ceiling and unfolding the old, rickety wooden ladder — which is perfectly positioned so if you tumbled off it, the momentum would carry you all the way down the main staircase, across the tiny foyer, through the front door, and down six more steps to the street. Not something you want to do holding 10 pound bags of flour and a dozen jars of artichoke hearts.
“The crawlspace under the house?” I offered as an alternative.
“That’s fine unless there’s a flood.” This is only too likely to happen here in San Anselmo, which has waist-high floods about once every 20 years. We’re nearly due, and considering how 2020 has gone so far, it’s pretty obvious this is going to be the year.
In the end, we decided to purchase a small wooden shed and attach it to the side of the house. “We can call it the Armageddon Food Locker,” I suggested. “Or wait, I know, Apocalypse Chow!”
The shed is now on order, and I’m busy compiling a list of groceries to go in it. One of my first considerations was bread making, which I view as a spiritual, emotional, and physical necessity under any circumstances. Could I find a recipe that called for non-perishable ingredients only? Reviewing old favorites, the solution leapt out at me. My World’s Best Irish Soda Bread only has four ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. Would it work, I wondered, with powdered buttermilk? I got ahold of some and tried it last night. Yes! The dough was much wetter and gooier, so I added extra flour, and it came out fine.
Working out a way to make bread with survival rations was highly fortuitous, as I was really eager to try a recipe just sent by a friend: the grilled chocolate sandwich.
“It’s perfect,” I explained to Rich. “All the ingredients can be stored in the shed, at least until they’re opened. You take two slices of bread, drizzle them with olive oil, cover one with chocolate chips, and close up your sandwich. Then — and here’s the part you’ll love — you mix mayonnaise and brown sugar, slather it on the outside, and fry it up like a grilled cheese sandwich. They say since mayo is made from eggs, the bread is almost like French Toast. I feel I owe it to my readers to test it out. Are you in?”
“Are you seriously asking if I want to eat a fried chocolate sandwich? How long have you known me?”
As soon as I scooped it out of the frying pan, Rich tasted the sandwich — and closed his eyes in bliss. “Spectacular.” One bite and I decided that was an understatement. The lightly caramelized, sweet-salty exterior combined gorgeously with the burst of molten chocolate. At a friend's suggestion I'd added peanut butter to one half as an experiment, making the sandwich even richer. I couldn't decide which half I preferred and kept doing taste testings until all that remained were a few smears of chocolate on my fingers.
[Want to try this at home? My version of the recipe (two servings) calls for 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, 4 slices Irish soda bread, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup chocolate chips, 1/4 cup peanut butter. All measurements are very approximate, as I measure by eye and with ingredients like these, I believe it's really the more the merrier.]
When I could speak again, I said, “I know it’s not the usual healthy stuff we eat. But this is Apocalypse Chow. The sugar will give us quick energy, and there's enough protein in the peanut butter to keep us going.”
“If zombies attack, we can distract them with these sandwiches and make our escape.”
“If zombies attack, I’d say our days — our minutes – are numbered. But hey, as a last meal, this is just about perfect.”
If you don’t happen to live in a zone prone to fires, floods, earthquakes, and/or zombies, you may (rightly) be worried about the fat, cholesterol, and sugar content of the grilled chocolate sandwich. And despite Rich’s requests, I’m not adding this to our regular meal rotation. But on days when the world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s good to know you have something in your repertoire suitable for occasions that call for eating like there’s no tomorrow.
Do you have any recipes that only require non-perishable foods? Suggestions for what to store in our emergency food locker? I'm working on my shopping list, so please share your advice in the comments below.
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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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