November 7, 2011
After a month of reconciliation stories, it’s time to move on to a new Inviting Writing theme. For November, we turn to the subject on many minds: Thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Whether you have a story about the holiday meal itself, being thankful about something related to food, or edible expressions of gratitude, we want to hear it. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com, along with a couple of biographical details (name, location, personal blog URL if you have one) before November 11. We’ll read them all and post our favorites over the next few Mondays.
I’ll get things started.
You May Find Yourself in Another Part of the World
By Lisa Bramen
Every so often I have a David Byrne moment. I’m referring to the Talking Heads frontman who, in the song “Once in a Lifetime,” asks, “Well, how did I get here?”
One of those moments was a couple of weeks ago, as I sat around a bonfire at the pig roast and potluck dinner being thrown in the parking lot of the local motel, eating deviled eggs and baked beans and listening to my neighbors discuss the merits of various forms of home heating—a frequent topic of conversation in these northerly parts.
Seven years ago, I was still living in Los Angeles, drinking appletinis or mojitos or whatever was then in vogue, in bars where the talk often centered on the machinations of Hollywood. I hated my job in advertising. I hated my life. So, as I chuckled to myself about the strange twists of fate that brought me to an aging motel’s parking lot on a frigid October evening, my follow-up thought wasn’t, as in the song, “My god, what have I done?” It was, “Thank God.”
The motel is one of only a handful of businesses in my small hamlet in the Adirondack Mountains. The others are a post office, an upholstery shop that doubles as a music and theater venue called the Recovery Lounge, and the library (not technically a business, I know). There used to be an antiques barn and a bakery that was open only on summer weekends, but they, along with about a dozen houses—including the home of the widow of late toy designer/theme park pioneer Arto Monaco—were destroyed when Hurricane Irene veered inland this August and caused the Ausable River, which runs through the center of town, to rise some 12 feet above flood stage. Thankfully, no one died in the flood, save a retired amusement park pony named Pickles, who was swept away in spite of the valiant rescue efforts of my neighbor. But in a community of less than 200 people, it was a major blow.
Still, having lived through larger catastrophes elsewhere—I was in college in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake and in Southern California during the 1994 Northridge earthquake—I can say with confidence that no one does disaster relief like a small town. Since the flood, nearly every weekend has had some kind of aid event: a firewood donation drive, library clean-up parties, fundraising concerts. The potluck and pig roast was one of them.
I’ve lived in this place for two years now, and I already know far more of my neighbors than I did in any of the cities or suburbs where I lived for up to 10 years. These neighbors come from all different backgrounds, many quite different from my own, though most are good company around a bonfire. Many of them know how to do something useful in an emergency—wield a chain saw, fix a generator, bake a half-dozen pies. Quite a few volunteer on the local fire department or ambulance squad; they helped rescue stranded homeowners from the flood.
I sometimes miss things about city life—not least the availability of good, multi-ethnic food. But all things considered, I’m just fine with deviled eggs and baked beans. Even thankful.
August 30, 2011
People between North Carolina and Vermont are cleaning up after Irene, the storm that destructively tromped along the eastern seaboard this past weekend. Hurricanes in the northeast are pretty rare and can leave people at a loss for how to prepare for extraordinarily severe conditions. At the very least, there are standard pieces of advice you can use to more or less muddle through a nasty situation. But perhaps even rarer are freak events involving food that cause a lot of damage. Those with an appetite for tragic tales might enjoy the following:
London Beer Flood: In the late 18th century, the Meux family brewery attained celebrity status, at least on account of the spectacular size of the vats they used to craft porter—one had the capacity to hold some 20,000 barrels of beer. Unfortunately, the hoops holding one of the vats together had corroded, and on the evening of October 17, 1814, they completely gave out, loosing some 3,500 barrels of beer that knocked down the brewery walls and flooded Tottenham Court, killing eight.
The Great Mill Disaster: Built in 1874, the Washburn “A” Mill along sat along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota and at the time was the largest flour-making facility in the United States. “Was,” unfortunately, is the operative word. On the evening of May 2, 1878, the stones used to grind grain gave off sparks, igniting particles of flour dust in the air and causing a massive explosion. (Flour, a carbohydrate, is made mostly of sugar and burns very easily.) In all, 18 people were killed and the blast started other fires that destroyed six nearby mills.
Boston Molasses Disaster: In Boston’s North End, near the city’s financial district and working class Italian neighborhoods, there stood a molasses tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Built in 1915, the vat was capable of holding some 2.5 million gallons; however, by 1919, locals were complaining that it was leaking, and on the afternoon of January 15, it exploded. Flying metal knocked out the supports of nearby elevated train tracks and a 15-foot-high wave of molasses crashed through the streets at some 35 miles per hour, knocking down and enveloping people in its path. Parts of Boston were standing in two to three feet of molasses and the disaster left 21 dead and 150 injured.
Basra Mass Poisoning: In the winter of 1971, shipment of grain arrived in Basra, Iraq; however, it was treated with a methylmercury fungicide and was intended only for use on seed. (If ingested, methylmercury can cause serious neurological damage, and in high doses, can be deadly.) The bags were accordingly marked poison—although only in English and Spanish—and the grains were dyed bright pink to indicate they were not for consumption. Nevertheless, bags of grain were stolen before they could be distributed to farmers, the dye washed off and the grain sold as food. (Another account says that the grain was freely given away and the recipients thought that washing off the dye would rid the grain of mercury, making it safe to eat.) Some 6,500 people were hospitalized, 459 of whom died.
April 29, 2011
Judging by my Twitter feed this morning, the only people not enthralled by a certain extravagant British wedding were protesters in Uganda and Syria, people across the South affected by yesterday’s terrible and deadly tornadoes and me. If you were hoping for an in-depth report on royal canapés, sorry to disappoint. You’ll have to look elsewhere—or read Abigail Tucker’s fascinating history of wedding cakes.
The tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters that have been punctuating news reports between birth conspiracy theories and nuptial to-dos in recent months are a good reminder that it’s wise to keep an emergency supply of food and water on hand. Even if you don’t live in earthquake or tornado country, floods, snowstorms, power outages or space alien invasions could disrupt supplies or leave you stranded. OK, probably not that last one—although, now that SETI suspended its search for alien signals, who knows if we’ll be caught unawares?
So, what should be in this emergency cache, and how much of it? At the very least you should have about three days’ supply of water and food per person in your household, recommends the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These should be kept in a “grab and go” container—one for home, work and car—in case you need to evacuate quickly. Each kit should contain at least a half-gallon of water per person per day. You might also consider buying water purification tablets or another water sterilizer from a camping goods store (you can also boil water to purify it, but it’s good to have a back-up in case you don’t have power or a gas stove).
FEMA also suggests keeping a two-week supply of food and water at home for “sheltering needs.” These foods should, obviously, be nonperishable: canned goods, dry mixes, cereals. Try to avoid foods that will make you thirsty or that require a lot of water or special preparation. Don’t forget a manual can opener. If the power is out and your appliances are electric, you may be able to cook on a camp stove, barbecue, fireplace or solar oven, but consider storing foods that don’t require cooking.
Even nonperishable foods need to be replenished periodically. According to a FEMA chart, dried fruit, crackers and powdered milk will last about six months. Most canned foods, peanut butter, jelly, cereals, hard candy and vitamins will keep for a year (but check expiration dates on packaging). Stored properly, wheat, dried corn, rice, dry pasta, vegetable oils, baking soda, salt, instant coffee or tea, and bouillon will keep indefinitely.
Finally, don’t forget your pets. Fido and Mr. Bojangles need food and water, too!