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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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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