Gourmet survivalist

car smashed by trees after the ice storm
(Photo by Justin Watt)

Last December we were hit with an ice storm unlike any storm I have ever seen. It began as snow early on a Wednesday afternoon as I draped the last of the Christmas lights over the holly bushes. By dusk the innocent snow had turned to the dreaded “wintry mix” that FCC regulations prohibit meteorologists from calling by a more appropriate term. By bedtime the trees were groaning; at 2:30 we were awakened by a vicious tearing sound and a crash: a tree had fallen on the power line to our house and ripped the line, assembly, and electric meter from the back wall. We called the electric company, an act of purest pollyannism. When the storm subsided, eight inches of ice had fallen. The evergreen boughs of our Southern pines caught much of that ice; weakened by months of drought, more of them lay on the ground (and on cars, and on houses) than after a category two hurricane six years before. None of the crashing limbs caused irreparable damage to our own property, but we lost running water for four days, electricity for nine.

Of the millions who lost power that week, we were less powerless than most, equipped as we were with a propane heater, a good gas grill with a side burner I bought for just such occasions, and several oil lamps, including one that glows as bright as a sixty-watt light bulb. The lamp’s mantle is a feat of engineering as impressive as any light bulb, and I marvel at its efficacy and efficiency every time I light it: the technological pinnacle of a pre-electric society reached just as electricity was making it over, an invention superseded as quickly as it was adopted. Now, at the turn of the succeeding century, such lamps are used mainly by the Amish, and we bought ours from a company that does most of its business supplying them. Lucky for us that someone, somewhere, keeps alive the technology of a previous century so we can resort to it when the technology of the current century fails us.

Neither Kathy nor I is able to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time, and restlessness more than optimism kept us hard at work finding ways to make the best of a bad situation, wielding strategies and technologies of three centuries. On the first day Kathy baked gingerbread in a cast-iron skillet in the covered gas grill; the next morning she cooked biscuits, eggs, and bacon on the icy back porch. She made coffee as well, grinding the beans by hand (in a mill rescued from decorative status in her grandmother’s house), boiling the water on the grill and pouring it by hand through the top of the automatic-drip coffee maker. If Laura Ingalls could do it, she said, so could she, though with somewhat better tools and considerably more improvisation.

After breakfast I cut up fallen trees with a bow saw and piled the logs in the woods for some purpose yet to be decided. I’ve never longed for a chainsaw, and didn’t then; I told myself, trying to be a good Calvinist, that the work would keep me warm. But it was when the spare mantle for our oil lamp turned out to be defective that our new agrarian survival skills really kicked in. I started up my laptop computer on battery power, dialed up a connection to the Internet, ordered replacement parts (and extra lamp oil, just in case) with my Visa check card, and had them delivered overnight via Federal Express. By this point I no longer had any idea what century I was living in: some strange amalgam of nineteenth and twenty-first, perhaps; we had skipped the twentieth entirely.

A woman who lives and farms in New Hampshire wrote me once that "I like the whole New Agrarian concept, though I tend to think of myself more as a Gourmet Survivalist. When nuclear winter happens, where will I get my shitakes and organic soap? I guess I’ll learn to do it all myself!" Maybe shitakes and organic soap would seem frivolous to hard-core homesteaders, and nuclear winter an exaggerated calamity to prepare for, but I like this idea of Gourmet Survivalism. It’s the art of living well, no matter your century or your circumstances. Sometimes, as after the ice storm, it means literal survival — cooking food, finding water, staying warm — but without losing your sense of yourself as a civilized person with a culture and even a sense of flair. Other times it is about making do with less than you might like, by finding ways to turn a little into a lot: scrimping without sacrificing, you might say. My correspondent bakes peppermint brownies to sell at a farmers’ market: simple, I’m sure, but hardly a sacrifice.

Kathy and I learned some of this by necessity in graduate school, when our tastes began to outpace our means. There are two things you can do when you can’t afford steak. The first is to go into massive credit card debt. The second is to learn to make the best damn hamburger in the world. Having tested both strategies, I recommend the latter. Not, I hasten to add, mere survival on gristly prefab grocery-store hamburgers, but gourmet survival on grass-fed ground beef, seasoned to your own taste and cooked with practiced skill to a perfect medium-rare, served on a home-baked wheat roll. It’s true that many of us have too strong a sense of entitlement, feeling that we "deserve better," but it seems to me to become a problem only when we expect other people to agree that we deserve better, and to give us what we want without our putting in any effort. Do I need to eat ribeye every week? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean I ought to be content eating garbage. So I’ve learned to make hamburgers that are better than most people’s ribeyes. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more: just find a way to get it that doesn’t involve screwing over other people — or yourself.

We have several other hobbies, if you want to call them that, that began as gourmet survival strategies. Back in the days before "craft brewed" beer was widely available I developed a taste for imported beer, a thirst I couldn’t possibly afford to quench. Homebrewing turned out to be the answer; we found we could brew excellent beer for very little money and without tremendous effort. Recently we made a lovely rendition of a Belgian beer that cost us about a third of the nine dollars a sixpack we’d pay at the coop. Last fall Kathy attended a workshop on growing mushrooms, and after the ice storm we salvaged oak logs to plant shitake spores. If all continues to go well, by its first anniversary the ice storm’s carnage will produce some wonderful dinners, with enough left over to make our neighbors very happy. The glory of nature, life from death, and why shouldn’t it be worth ten dollars a pound?

There is a type of hardcore homesteader I’ve never quite understood, though I read their letters every month in magazines. These are the folks who think it virtuous to drink their milk reconstituted from powder — indeed vainglorious to drink it whole; who compete to see who can take subsistence most literally, living on and with as little as possible. Any ornamentation on their cabin would be ostentatious, any seasoning beyond salt and pepper wasteful. I don’t understand why simplicity has to be so dull, or so tasteless. If such a life brings you joy, I wish you all the best in it, but I rarely hear joy in the words of the hardcores, only grumping that other people don’t need all that stuff. They certainly have a point, but I’ll drink my milk straight from the cow, thank you, or as nearly so as possible; I can’t bear the irony of relying on factory-dried milk to support an "old fashioned" lifestyle. Mere subsistence seems to me rather like a hair shirt, and I am not a fan of self-flagellation; it’s just another form of vanity. If our lives ought perhaps to be simpler, they ought also to be better. Is it asking too much to want to live well — not by raping the earth and pillaging our fellows, but by working well and using our time, our talents, and our tools wisely?

Something like Gourmet Survivalism is at the core of civilization, of culture, of what it means to be human. What separates humans from all other creatures is not our ability to meet necessity; any animal can merely survive. What makes us human, I think, is our ability to make a virtue of that necessity, not just to live but to live well by making the ordinary wonderful. And so when the power goes out, I won’t survive on canned beans, and I won’t pine for dinner in a four-star restaurant, but I’ll happily eat home-baked gingerbread. If it is a bit burned on the bottom, that’s fine; it still tastes good, and we’ll try to regulate the heat better next time.

As I write this I am listening to the first winds of another storm, a hurricane this time. It likely will not do heavy damage here, but then again it may; predictions have been wrong before. I am still writing on my laptop — as this is bound for the Internet, I will have to type it eventually — but as a backup I have ready a very nice fountain pen, a gift from my brother-in-law and another twenty-first century improvement on nineteenth-century technology. It writes well and wastes little, which is more than I can often say for myself, and so with my stores of lamp oil and propane and water and ink I’m as ready as I can be for another stab at Gourmet Survivalism. I only hope we don’t have to be quite as resourceful this time.