Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sandy: Executions of Refrigerator Contingency Plans and Lessons Learned

So we're now a month out from megaultradestructostorm Sandy kicking the tri-state area in the teeth, leaving a blood-spattered trail of incisors and vomit in her drug-addled wake.  Hopefully you expose yourself to some media other than the Bravo and E! networks and are not learning about this for the first time here.

Am I going to talk about the post-surge destruction, public health hazards, and the struggle to rebuild?  The flooding and devastation that disproportionately affected the elderly and low-income residents in my town?  Not even going to mention the creative generosity of area volunteers that have rallied to assist those in need.

Nay, the issue that has prompted me to emerge my half-year Trash Salad sabbatical is that of resourcefulness and preservation in a time of crisis.  By which I mean, what do to when your fridge loses power, and how to prepare for this in the future.

To refamiliarize you with the Sandy timetable, the storm rolled in on Monday afternoon, taking out the nonsensically above-ground power lines by Monday night.  As many who sat back with rolled-eyes during Irene, I had assumed that either I wouldn't lose power at all, or in the worst-case scenario, that being connected to the same grid as the main commercial district in town would make for a limited powerless period.  Cut to five days later: I'm freezing in the dark, compulsively eating down the fridge, and am otherwise devolving into a late-1940s Howard Hughes situation.

Living on the fifth floor outside of a flood-zone, I was very very lucky.  Some folks lost everything, including loved ones.  But also heart-breaking?  The people who were totally unprepared for a power loss, not knowing how to feed themselves without at their beck and call.  Sure the clock starts running when the power goes out, but does that mean immediately throwing everything out?  Absolutely not.  You can survive and thrive on decaying food, if you approach it strategically.

So behold, an overview of how I lasted through week without spending a single dollar in the dark and post-apocalyptic wasteland (before I lost my mind and hopped a bus out of town):

Friday:  A non-work day.  Frankenstorm is a mere buzzword at this stage.  Access to a car on an empty stomach begets a $200 trip to Trader Joes, including several bags full of frozen food.  You may have guessed that this will soon reveal itself as an unwise move.

Saturday/Sunday: Standard weekend of costume party booze cruise coupled with a lazy SVU-marathon hangover day.  Work for Monday is called off.  I make hurricane preparations by organizing scented candles, locating matches, and grinding up all of my coffee beans.  Priorities!

Monday:  Stuck at home with a city-wide curfew, I determine the best way to cope with being cooped up is via four thousand hours of Netflix and elaborate kitchen projects.  Down all of my yogurt and milk by way of chocolate granola.  Focus on the current MVP of the freezer, an organic chicken (flat roast day!), but an initial power loss around 3pm before it properly defrosts foils the plan.  Power comes on briefly and we take advantage of it to organize a responsible vegetable lasagna and salad.  Spend the rest of the evening listening to jock jams with vodka sodas by candle-light while the storm rages on.

Tuesday: Alone, day 2 sans electricity, and now without any cell phone service (ugh AT&T).  I sleep until, who knows, 11?  Thank god for gas stoves and the french press.  Reality sets in, and I sit down and prioritize the fridge situation: the super perishables include the chicken of gold, turkey burgers, random bits of meat and veg, frozen pork dumplings, almond milk, mozzarella, and hummus.  Breakfast of turkey burgers and salad (there is no space for carbs in a situation this dire).  I go for a long walk to scope out the situation.  It's WAY worse than anticipated.

The chicken must be dealt with.  I sear it in a cast iron pan and pop it in a pot on top of chunked up onions, parsnips, carrots, and cabbage and leave it on low for an hour or two.  Cooking a chicken in by candle light is challenging to say the least.  I feast on my chicken and chicken-fat vegetables and leftover salad with hummus, listen to WNYC, and contemplate how not dissimmilar the situation is to a zombie apocalypse

Wednesday:  Still no power, and man it's starting to get cold.  Breakfast of more chicken and chicken-fat veg that sat out on the counter overnight so I wouldn't have to open the fridge.  Think I'll go out and get power and internet at Starbucks, but get word that the ENTIRE city and even bordering areas are under powerless lockdown.  Question the nature of existence in this electrically-deficient wasteland. 

But then I get a surprise visitor!  And my first reaction is disappointment that he has brought a cooler containing the super perishables from his own fridge: jersey shore crab cakes, edamame, a thousand veggie burgers, and half a pizza.  Oy!  We experiment with cooking a mammoth crab cake in a cast iron pan.  It become a weirdly dense crabby pancake.  A delicious late lunch with sides of chicken and pizza.  It occurs to me that the survival diet is rather calorically dense, but that I will need those calories to outrun the zombies.

We go for another long walk to survey the scene, the only available activity these days.  The sewage water does not appear to have receded at all from the day before.  Discover that we can get cell service near the water, so use my remaining cell battery for a facebook life update (priorities).  We cook the remaining crab cakes back at camp, and I make a giant pot of stock with the chicken carcass.  Sides of veggie burger/edamame stirfry surprise.  Hey, it's halloween!  We celebrate by more WNYC and whiskey by candle light.

Thursday: This morning the building has started to develop a terrible smell from the rotting food in the restaurant refrigerators in the basement.  Apparently they had a large stock of seafood.  Ugh.  Haven't seen or heard a soul in the building all week.  Where does everyone go when there is no transportation infrastructure or way to get gas?  Fancy breakfast today of crab cake hash topped with an egg and mozzarella.  Second breakfast of dumplings.  I stop worrying about opening the fridge since all coolness is completely gone.  But what if we're not able to finish the crab cakes before they go off?  This thought causes an inordinate amount of stress.  I'm absolutely losing it.

On the daily long walk, I encounter several sets of family members and get an answer to my earlier question: mom and dad have come to fetch all the babies.  Piles of garbage have started to accumulate everywhere as folks start cleaning out their businesses and ground floor apartments.  The National Guard is rolling past rescuing folks from building still surrounded by sewage water.  I have conflicting emotions of feeling incredibly lucky and absolutely losing my mind.  Power appears to have come back along two blocks to the northwest so I head over to join a "juicing party": a new social experience of shared power outside the homes of generous individuals who extended power strips for the wandering refugees.  I catch up on my correspondence for a few hours before my fingers freeze up and I am forced back into my dark and stinky garbage apartment.

The cooking by candle-light project this evening is about three gallons of Meat Trash Soup which consists of everything left in the fridge (soy chorizo, kielbasa, rashers of bacon, chicken carcass stock, frozen spinach bricks, cabbage) topped with cod fillets.  The fish was seriously questionable, but I lemoned and garlicked the hell out of it until the funk was gone.

Friday: Woke up with some serious depression upon realizing nothing had changed, yet pleasantly surprised to have not become sick from the fish the night before.  Leftover trash hash for breakfast featuring the rest of the crab cakes, veggie burgers, a pepper, and a very sad attempt at pan-fried tater tots that were super soft and greasy.  I think the failed tot experiment was the final straw in whatever remaining sanity I had at this point, because shortly after breakfast I heard the buses running outside and promptly formulated a plan to pack everything up and get the hell out of dodge.

Some seriously sad tots.
I scooped up and salvaged: unopened packages of smoked salmon, goat cheese, tempeh, and pre-cooked sausages, several meatless frozen pizzas (that were surprisingly just fine when baked up!), hard cheese, a pound or two butter, and the remainder of the meat soup.  Did I feel like a foolish bag lady schlepping all of that on the bus? Sure, but I'm positive the stress of leaving it would have been worse. 

For some lessons learned:

1) Know your utility situation.  Gas stoves and hot water heaters seem way more robust than anything involving electricity, but only if you know how to light a burner without an electric starter.  Is this knowledge that is going the way of the stick shift?  Similarly, go get yourself a french press if you don't have one already.  Even if you don't have a gas stove you can still make cold-brewed coffee happen.

2) Take a picture or make a list of your fridge contents and make a plan.  I prioritized with an algorithm of what was most expensive/what was going to go bad first.  Things loaded with preservatives were just fine, even five days later.  As a consequence I only had to chuck maybe $10-15 total of frozen fruit, a couple of waffles with the the structural integrity of pudding, a spinach pie, and a wedge of brie that was a million years old.  Under normal circumstances the brie would have been fair game, but I was so cheese/saturated fatted out by that stage that I couldn't even look at it by the end of the week.

3) Get to know your neighbors - more specifically, their skill sets and resources.  It's much easier to knock on a door and ask for help (even help eating down the fridge) if you've at least introduced yourself ahead of time.  Further to this, I need to maybe move to a place where the community has an average age above 22 and everyone doesn't skip town the second they lose power.

So there we have it.  If I could do it again, I would do it all the same, but will for the future always maintain a larger stockpile of alcohol on hand.  Whiskey never goes bad!