Posted Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, at 7:51 PM
People stock up at a supermarket as Hurricane Sandy approaches on October 28, 2012 in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images
I stocked up for Sandy on Saturday. In addition to buying vegetables for a gratin I’d been planning for this week’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” and oats and nuts for the granola I make more or less every Sunday, I grabbed a package of Wasa whole wheat crackers, a jar of peanut butter, and, standing in line for the cash register, two Ritter Sport bars.
I almost never buy crackers, peanut butter, and chocolate. I stuffed them into my basket because they conformed to some preconceived notion I had of what hurricane food should be, not because they are a part of my everyday diet.
Why do people buy special foods when natural disasters approach? The rational thing to do would be to buy familiar foods—the groceries you get on a weekly basis, the ingredients you can prepare in your sleep. Sure, maybe grab a few more shelf-stable items than you usually get, and be judicious about acquiring items that go bad without refrigeration. But a power outage is not an ideal time to have to grapple with gastronomic exotica.
And yet that’s what most of the people I know seem to gravitate toward at times like this. I asked my colleagues in New York and Washington, D.C. if they’d bought anything out of the ordinary in preparation for the storm. Only one of them replied, “I just bought everything I already eat, but in larger quantities.”
The others had indeed made extraordinary purchases, which tended to fall into one of two categories (two categories that seem to hold up upon perusing the #sandysnacks search results on Twitter). On one side were people who coddled themselves with childhood treats: Campbell’s Chunky Soup (“which I haven’t really eaten since I was a kid”), Pirouline wafer cookies (“because life is short and you don’t want to regret having too few Piroulines”), brownie mix (“a good storm calls for brownies”). My purchases fall into this category; I realized only after I got home and started thinking about it that all my unusual groceries are things I associate with my parents’ kitchen. (I have not even gotten into the alcohol situation: Questlove’s much retweeted observation that all the women in his life were “making the acquiring of Wine the main #Frankenstorm priority” certainly jibes with the 2,250 milliliters of red sitting on my kitchen table.)
The other group, I was impressed to discover, made decidedly grown-up purchases. “There was no fresh bread left at the supermarket so I bought flour and yeast, and a no-knead loaf I started yesterday is baking now,” reported one coworker breezily. Another went gangbusters stocking his pantry with homemade fare, including French bread, chicken soup, pizza, and hummus. A third bought oatmeal for the first time in his life. (“Completely irrational purchase,” he admitted. “I have no way of heating the water up if the power goes out.”)
Irrational is right, of course: People don’t tend to think clearly in times of crisis, especially when surrounded by panicking crowds. (I grabbed my chocolate bars shortly after a woman strode into my local supermarket and bellowed alarmedly, “Where’s the water?” Anxiety is contagious.) Whether you regress into juvenescence or double down the role of responsible adult is, I suppose, a reflection of deep-seated psychological needs: whether you want to be taken care of or to be a caretaker. Over at Time, Josh Ozersky sees moral ugliness in the haphazard, spree-like way affluent urbanites have stocked their kitchens. “It became obvious to me that New Yorkers weren’t interest so much in stocking up against disaster as having a staycation,” he writes.
I see it less as “sociopathy,” to use Ozersky’s self-flagellating word, and more as a talisman against disaster, an oblation for a secular age. Nobody is going to survive a true catastrophe on cookies, or peanut butter, or even homemade bread. But things can’t possibly get that bad if our kitchens are full of such special treats, right? So goes this contemporary, culinary line of magical thinking.
What special treats did you buy for Sandy?