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, 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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