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On Taking Requests, Or, The “Power’s Out Emergency Cookbook” December 13, 2007

Filed under: Blackout,Emergency Cooking,Weather — fakeconsultant @ 4:03 pm
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Just a couple days ago we discussed some practical tips for making extended power outages much more bearable; and in response to the story reader (and also writer, as it turns out) Halcyon commented that I should write an emergency cookbook.

Seeing how the weather from the American Midwest is arriving on the East Coast’s front door this morning….well, let’s just say that it might be a good time to take a request.

So here’s what we’re going to do: I will go through my fridge and freezer, just as though my power had just gone out; and we’ll have a practical conversation about not just eating—but eating well.

Oh, and just for fun—quotes from the movies I’m watching as I write.

“Survival kit contents check…one .45 caliber automatic…one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills…$100 in rubles, $100 in gold…one issue of prophylactics, 3 lipsticks, 3 pairs of nylon stockings…shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

–Slim Pickens to his crew in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

First thing, we need to think about what will defrost first.

For us, it’s the small frozen items: the tamales, the egg rolls, the mini tacos, and the lumpia—and the White Castles (I love those little burgers!). Also the frozen vegetables.

So here’s our first lunch: Let’s put the tamales in the handy baking dish first. OK, now, is there a bottle of salsa dying in the fridge? Either toss it in, or mix it with a tomato product—we have some cans of chopped tomato in the pantry….you probably do too. Any frozen corn? Toss that in, too. Any handy onion, garlic, or even a lime? Any or all of those are excellent.

At our house, the primary power out cooking tool is a Weber grill and charcoal. Now we touched on this last time, but let’s be clear. The way to load coals in your grill is to load them along one edge of the grill. You do not want to put them in the middle. Put lighter fluid on only one end of the “row” of coals, and after they’re lit, the coals will burn from one end to the other in a nicely controlled process that offers nice even heat and won’t crack your ceramic baking dishes.

So while you’re cooking the “tamale surprise”, use the space remaining on the grill (don’t waste coal!) to cook some of the other small, loose stuff. For example, we’d be laying out eggrolls or whatever small snack food you have (pizza rolls, fish sticks, any of that kind of thing…), the theory being that you can have a small snack on hand that can be stored outside, cooked but cool. (You have 2 hours to lower the temperature of cooked food to below 45 F. and be safe; and the small things will cool with in ½ hour or less if it’s good and cold outside. (Remember, if it’s below 45 F., the world is your refrigerator.)

Now we need to think ahead to dinner. We should be pulling something large for tonight….and something else for tomorrow. The idea here is we can put a large piece of meat in a liquid, even if it’s mostly frozen, and by cooking it slowly we can sort of “force defrost” and turn the large item into something like a stew or pot roast—or coq au vin (one should enjoy one’s deprivations, after all). Tomorrow, we’ll use the defrosted large item as a traditionally grilled item, or we’ll cut it up.

All this grill work is a great time to bring in the kids. There’s no better way to keep the kids busy than to let them help….so perhaps they can help turn the eggrolls and watch the small items. Keeps ‘em warmer, too. Plus you get to have a conversation about fire safety….and foodborne illness, too.

45 minutes or so have gone by, and if you have any shredded cheese (“Kids? Wanna help?”), this would be the time to toss it on. We’ll be done in 15 minutes or so.

Here’s some thoughts:

First, use the paper plates and plastic to the extent you can. I know it’s not green, but honestly, the fewer dishes the better. The grill can be used to boil water for dishwashing, and it can be mixed with a little cold water in the sink to “stretch” it (besides, water over 140 F. can burn your hands—be careful!).

Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn’t friendly….you probably wouldn’t have even got it.

–Peter Sellers, as the US President, to the unseen Russian Premier in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

At this point, a word about frozen meals. They are very useable, assuming they can be repackaged. And they can. Into the baking dish they may go….and they can obviously be combined in new ways—the rice package of one dinner matching with the chicken of another, sauces tossed akimbo. Well….just go crazy.

Now back to tonight

I found the chunks of beef I froze not too long ago, a bag of mini bell peppers (fresh, not frozen), celery, onion, and a couple bags of ripple-cut carrots. There are potatoes, too.

Sounds like pot roast to me.

The trick to a great pot roast is letting the meat cook for an extended period of time (the connective tissue in tougher meats requires that time for the meat to become more tender), browning the meat at the beginning of the process, and developing a good sauce.

“What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a School of Journalism! I took a little doll-faced hick—“

“You wouldn’t have taken me if I hadn’t been doll-faced!”

“Why should I? I thought it would be a novelty to have a face around here a man could look at without shuddering.”

–Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” (1940)

Put the pan (cast iron Dutch oven, perchance?) on the grill, and drop in a bit of oil. After the pan has heated up, toss in the meat and let it brown. (Helpful tip: rub some tomato paste on the meat to create a nice sugary brown “flavor builder”.) Add water to the pot, cover, put the cover on the grill, and let the meat simmer slowly. The coals will run out before you’re done, so remove the pot, add some coals touching the end of the other coals, there on the edge….and the fire will continue burning. Add potatoes about an hour before you’re done, carrots half an hour or so later. You can add onion (cut it in nice big chunks) and celery—but I’m going to hold back the bell peppers for later.

Put the top on the grill, and go read a book for awhile.

This should take 3 hours or so to cook, depending on the cut and size of the meat. Do not boil the contents, just let them simmer. Adjust the heat applied to the dish by moving it closer to or farther from the edge of the grill with the coals.

“I’m sorry, Roy, it’s too late.”

“Just like that, huh? This country’s going to the dogs! It used to be when you bought a politician, the son of a bitch stayed bought.”

— Joe Flaherty and Jack Warden in “Used Cars” (1980)

Tomorrow we would find a way to use the defrosted large meat….right now I have some chicken breasts and pork loin in the freezer; so let’s use the pork.

I have kidney beans in the pantry, and you might have some more tomato stuff….and if you have some paprika, maybe some seasoning salt, some garlic, a bit of black pepper….maybe even some Worcestershire sauce. So just like last night, a bit of oil in the pot, brown the cubed pork, then toss in the tomato stuff and the seasonings (got any basil, oregano, or thyme? All the better….) and the kidney beans. If you are willing to give up a glass of red wine for the sake of science, this would be a great time to add it. Near the end of the cooking time (this will be much shorter than the beef; potentially an hour or less) I would be tossing in my split mini peppers.

So that’s how emergency cooking works.
Be creative, be aware of what’s in the house, use fuel wisely.…and get completely out-of-the-box with your sense of what goes together.

But most of all: have fun.
Remember when you used to say the worst day fishing was better than the best day working?

Well, today, you’re fishing.

Author’s note: Just in case the power does go out….you might want to print this.


On Mae West, Or, The Second Annual Disaster Planning Story December 11, 2007

So you’re sitting at home, riding out the big storm, and the next thing you know the power goes out.

It’s not just you, either. Tens of thousands of your neighbors are out as well, and you immediately know power won’t be restored for days.

This can be an utter disaster…or not that big a deal…depending on the things you did before the storm.

Because I’m watching Mae West movies as I write this, we have today a most unusual story: serious tips that can help improve the disaster experience greatly; and Mae West’s snappiest quotes to add just a spoonful of sugar to the medicine those tips represent.

“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Yeah, does it work better?”

–Mae West and Edward Arnold, in “I’m No Angel” (1933)

First things first: your friendly Department of Homeland Security tells you to be ready for three days of isolation-and I’m here to tell you that three days is nowhere nearly enough.

Be prepared for at least seven days.

Don’t believe me?
Check this out:

–The BBC reported 350,000 or more were without water for up to 14 days in the UK following flooding in July of ’07.

–Over 100,000 of the 600,000 households knocked off the power grid in St. Louis were still dark a week later after storms a year earlier.

–Residents of Eastern Maine learn to survive blackouts caused by events as disparate as high winds, ice storms-and even squirrels. In January 1998 power was out “for weeks” in parts of the State.

“Young lady, are you showing your contempt for this court?”
“No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

–Mae West to Addison Richards in “My Little Chickadee” (1940)

A growing number of us are deciding that the generator is the perfect solution for disasters, but there I’m here today to offer other options.


Consider that in the worst of power outages, the gasoline your generator requires might not be available-gas stations also need power. Some states have tried to address this, notably Florida, but there is little consistency to the effort.

Then there’s the cost.

The larger propane-fueled generators consume about .9 gallon of propane per hour at half load, and propane is currently priced at $2.46/gallon. That’s about $50/day for electricity.

Gasoline generators?

This Briggs and Stratton 11hp, 6000 running watts unit is fairly typical: 13 hour running time at half load. That’s somewhere around $40 a day.

If your generator’s providing more than half load, it’s more expensive.

And don’t forget…if the power fails, the ATMs do too.
Getting cash to pay for that fuel may be a problem.

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”
“Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie.”

–Mae West to Patricia Farley in “Night After Night

So how do we replace the lost services if we have no generator?

Let’s start with heat:

Kerosene heaters are an effective option when the power goes out. When it’s in the 20s-and even lower-one of these heaters can keep three rooms very cozy for about $10 a day. Put up a blanket and close off the hall, bring in the sleeping bags, and it’s “campout in the family room” time.


Who doesn’t have one of those Weber grills out in the yard? Get a couple of bags of charcoal now and put ‘em away, because you can cook everything in the fridge and freezer on a Weber.

I have personally made cornbread, corned beef and cabbage, and even meatloaf during times of no power-just make darn good and sure you do not ever do this indoors….or out in the garage.

As for the food: frozen food will survive for a day or two-maybe even three-if the door is kept closed; but if it’s constantly below 40 F. (4 C.)….well, the world is your refrigerator. You just load up a cooler, and all is good.


Here’s where your car’s ability to charge things will come in handy. Use rechargeable things (iPod, portable DVD player, CD player); throw ‘em in the car as you go about your daily business, and recharge like crazy.

As a backup, go out right this minute and buy all the AA and D batteries you can lay your hands on….you’ll need them.

“Where is that man, that.…that officer?”
“Why he left….he had to leave sometime.”
“Oh, you sent him away?”
“No….he left under his own power.”

–Mae West and Jack La Rue in “Go West Young Man” (1936)

Of course, if all else fails….you’ll be doing some reading.
This logically brings us to how will you provide…


Two basic choices are available: the old-fashioned oil lamp, and the newfangled battery operated lamp. For reasons of fire safety, I prefer battery, and we have a lovely “camping lantern” with two fluorescent lamps (the thing requires eight D batteries, however), and numerous smaller LED lamps.

However, just this weekend, at Costco, I purchased the handheld millions of candlepower rechargeable lamp (it reports 20 hours of operation per charge); and I am here to tell you that the thing is not only extremely bright, but at a range of three feet or less, it makes an excellent personal heater.

That said, beware of rechargeable. You can only charge so much in a car in a day, and you need backups. If power is out for more than a few days, it may be time for oil lamps. (Just so you know, the larger the bottle of lamp oil you buy the cheaper….and there is a significant difference in price here, so look for large bottles or cans.)

Two more pieces of advice:

–You might want to leave a trickle of water flowing from your outside faucets…or head to the hardware store and get insulating covers, and if power fails you might want to do the same indoors (all of this is intended to keep from freezing your plumbing and splitting a pipe somewhere).

–It’s going to be easier to keep everyone warm if everyone has clothes for cold weather. Consider hitting the thrift shops now and getting yourself and the kids snow and ski clothing that you can keep in the attic until you need it. I have two ski coveralls, purchased at thrift shops in the middle of summer, for which I was truly grateful last December when we lost power for a week.

Bad weather is coming, and if you do some of this today it will make life so very much better if the power should vanish for a few days. And you’ll save a ton of money, too.

Best of luck; be ready, and most important of all-have some fun with it.
It’s not: “Damn, the power’s out!”
Instead, think of it as “camping out in the living room”.

To complete the effect, you can even go outside and make s’mores on the grill over the charcoal.


On Living in Nature, Or, All The Weather Seems To Come Here December 4, 2007

Filed under: Flooding,Northwest,Oregon,Rain,Snow,Washington — fakeconsultant @ 5:36 pm
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It is reported that 2/3 of the world’s population have never seen snow-and there are times when I wish I belonged to that group.

There is great variety to be found in the accursed stuff, however, which is why the Yup’ik, in their wanderings around Southwestern Alaska, express the conditions of the snow that surrounds them in so many different ways.

For a writer who lives in the world of the Yup’ik (or for that matter, anywhere along the North American Pacific coast south to more or less Coos Bay, Oregon), there’s also a great similarity between the storms that mark daily existence and the writing process itself.

If you’ve never seen snow…or the flooding that can follow a storm…if you’re all too familiar…or if you just wondered what the heck a lexeme is…today’s conversation is for you.

For all of this to make sense, we better begin by setting the stage.

Today’s conversation, as we said, takes place along the Pacific Coast of North America. The coastline is paralleled by multiple mountain ranges: the Coast Ranges of Oregon, Washington’s Olympics, the Cascades (which bisect Oregon and Washington), the giant wrinkle in the Earth that is Vancouver Island, the fantastically complicated Pacific and Kitimat Ranges of British Columbia, and the equally fjord- and forest-studded Boundary Ranges that bring the reader into Alaska. It even reaches out to the Canadian Rockies and the headwaters of the Columbia, Yukon, Copper, and Frasier Rivers.

To paint a simple picture, much of the land in this region consists of either forested mountains upon which enormous amounts of water fall, or the lowlands through which the runoff from those mountains must flow. Around here, anything under 3000 feet (1000 meters for my world readers) doesn’t hardly count, and many peaks go well above 10,000 feet.

Trees can grow more than 300 feet (100 meters) tall.

The reason so much water falls here is because we are the first land encountered by nearly every storm moving east across the Pacific, thanks to the jet stream, which can either scoop up the warm and highly saturated Western Pacific air and transport it north from the tropics right at us (the “Pineapple Express”); or run the air north past the Aleutian Islands and from there south at us, creating…well, creating some miserable and awful weather.

The kind only a Norwegian could love.

How much water are we talking about? The National Park Service reports that parts of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula receive 140 to 167 inches of rain annually (that’s 350 to 425cm…). Forks, Washington (it’s located right at the most northwestern spot in the State) has averaged 118 inches (300cm) of rain the past 20 years-and reported over 160 inches twice in those two decades.

It’s not like Florida rain, either. Many days, it rains half an inch or less…but the sky is often gray, and there’s often a mist or drizzle (think Scotland or New Zealand or Peru). How many days? NOAA tells us that residents of Juneau, Alaska can expect an average of 223 rainy days a year (see p. 45), 193 days in Astoria, Oregon (the mouth of the Columbia River), or 208 days in Quillayute, Washington; as compared to a mere 120 days in Mobile, Alabama, the American city widely described as our rainiest.

As for Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast?
Surfers there require a wetsuit-just for the rain.

(Quick joke-if Noah lived here, he’d say to God: “40 days…that’s not really much of a threat, you know…”)

The basic explanation for all of this is that these moisture-laden storms come blowing in off the Pacific, and the clouds are too wet and heavy to climb over the mountains-until they dump enough water to get past…then they hit the next mountains, and the process repeats…until the coast becomes a giant holding facility full of retained water. And then, depending on the temperature, you have either a giant snowpack-or the floods begin.

(Just so you know: the most snow ever around here in 12 months?
1140 inches (that is not a typo; it’s 2895cm) at Mt. Baker, Washington during the 1998-99 season.)

Sometimes we get both rain and snow.
Like the last few days.

As we touched upon a moment ago, there are many kinds of rain: the mist, the on-and-off drizzle, soupy fog, your basic downpour…and all of them can be complicated by the addition of wind, and changes in temperature. (Warm rain is an entirely different animal than cold rain, and it is hard to find weather much more miserable than windblown rain at just above freezing-unless you live on permafrost…and especially after you’ve had it every day for the past, oh, let’s say…55 days.)

And in this part of the world, it’s not uncommon to have all of this weather on the same day…with occasional sunbreaks during the rest of the week. (This week’s Port Alberni, BC, weather forecast illustrates the point nicely.)

Which brings us back to the Yup’ik and lexemes.
Lexemes, you say?

… Roughly, a lexeme can be thought of as an independent vocabulary item or dictionary entry. It’s different from a word since a lexeme can give rise to more than one distinctly inflected word. Thus English has a single lexeme speak which gives rise to inflected forms like speaks, spoke, and spoken.
–Anthony Woodbury, Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen’s guide

As there are many forms of rain, there are also many forms of snow; and the Yup’ik have 15 lexemes for snow and its various forms. Just as with writing, storms have a “story arc” that creates a progression of rains and snows (and the occasional “ice fog”, an especially nasty weather that turns roads into skating rinks)…and that’s really where this story is going.

The story always begins with the warnings: the actual National Weather Service and Department of Transportation alerts, and the local news, preparing us for (stealing from “The Daily Show”) The Storm Of The Century Of The Week.

And that’s what we got on Thursday: “Look out, this is gonna be a big one!”

I worked all night Thursday and as I checked the weather there was really nothing. I went to bed to gray skies and a “bare and wet” landscape.

As I awoke Friday afternoon I looked out the window and…

…snow was everywhere!

Not so deep yet (maybe 4 inches…10cm), but the big flakes were falling rapidly.
Suddenly it was 6 inches-and it’s time to make some decisions about shoveling.

There are two reasons why shoveling matters:

–If a lot of snow falls, the compression and accumulated moisture can turn the fluffy, powdery snow into “concrete”, making the process at least twice as difficult.

–If the compressed and uncleared snow refreezes, it will form a virtually impossible to remove crust of ice-making walking and driving way too exciting (amazing video-don’t miss this!) for my taste.

By now the snowflakes are alternating between larger and smaller-with the smaller flakes falling faster…but the fallen snow is still light and fluffy (powder!), so at that point, the shoveling began. It’s about 28 degrees F. (-2 C.).

There’s about 300 square feet to be cleared, 6 inches deep (15cm), and lots more falling, even as I shovel. Well, to be accurate, I’m pushing the snow at this point, because it’s still light and easy to move.

My current snow shovel is my favorite ever: about a foot wide (30cm), thick, plastic (aluminum shovels always seem to bend at the corners or the rivets fail-I hate that), and able to easily slide, even full of the heaviest snow. The less you lift the better in this job, so sliding the full shovel as much as possible is a good thing. Of course, at some point you still have to lift the snow to remove it, but as of now that’s not a big problem.

After half an hour or so a good third of the work is done; and it’s time for a break. The snow is still powdery, and it’s changing from big, fluffy flakes to an icier, more granular flake. Not an ice pellet…but instead more like the difference between sorbet and granite. Still 26-28 degrees F.

Only the snow is still falling, and there’s a covering over the “cleared” driveway.

For those who have never been to the snow, there’s a process of jacket removal that must be observed.

Did some work inside-and now there’s 8 inches on the ground…including almost 2 inches over the “cleared area”. But it’s still fluffy, so the reclearing goes very fast…but the rest of the driveway now has 8 inches to remove, and the snow is turning into tiny ice pellets, then back to small flakes, then back to large, for more or less the next 3 to 4 hours. At this point, about ¾ inch per hour (almost 2cm) is falling.

The next portion of the driveway’s snow is not as light as the first area; the compression having its effect and moisture accumulating in the snowmass…but it’s still not too bad, because it’s not yet raining.

After another hour it’s time for another break…and I’m just past 50%.
It’s medium heavy snow, and now it’s hard work.

I’ve been listening to an old-school country playlist as I work; and the falling snow makes a great counterpoint to Kitty Wells and Merle Travis…but the last song is the new school “Texas” from Willie Nelson, so it’s break time.

There’s 9 inches now, according to my handy ruler stuck in the snow on the barbrque. It’s no longer so granular, as the weather has begun to warm-and the snow is now heavy to lift. The last 10 feet or so are the hardest, as mixed rain and snow are falling.

By the time the snow is cleared, a foot has fallen (30cm), but the rain is picking up…and by the time I’m writing this (24 hours after the shoveling ended)-and the temperature has risen 20 degrees to the 40s F., and it was over 50 degrees F. (10 C.) during the afternoon.

The wind has become huge…with gusts above 100 mph (160 km) reported in multiple locations. It never stopped blowing all night, and it’s still blowing as the sun comes up.

And the rain never stopped-in fact, near legendary amounts (almost 14”-that’s 35 cm-in Bremerton, Washington for example) have fallen in the last 48 hours wreaking havoc over the area-all rivers in the Western Washington are threatening to flood or have already, the Governor of Oregon has declared an emergency (and road closures have virtually cut the Oregon Coast off from any access to the interior), and I have just heard Washington’s Governor has done the same.

I-5, the main north-south highway running from Vancouver, BC to Tijuana, Mexico (connecting Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego) is under an estimated 8 to 9 feet (3 meters) of water; and will not be passable for a currently unknown length of time. The water is 5 feet above any previous record.

The only available detours are so circuitous that the trip from Seattle to Portland (normally 160 miles one way) is now 275 miles longer-requiring a trip to Yakima, and making a one way trip over 400 miles (640 km).

Roads are literally falling off hillsides. (Click on the “Slideshow” link.)

Helicopters have been performing rescues since yesterday.

One of our favorite restaurants, the Ranch House BBQ, located outside Olympia, Washington has been destroyed, we have just been told (click on the “Mudslide Destroys Olympia Restaurant” link).

Our godson (the one who did not join the military) and his parents live in an exceptionally hard-hit area, Gray’s Harbor County, who are at this mooment some of the 80,000 without power-and the projections are that it will remain that way for them for at least a week. They are right at the Pacific coast, and there are so many downed trees that there’s going to be enough free firewood for at least two cold winters, for those lucky enough to grab it up.

It is an amazing story, but I’m going to stop at this point, do some actual newsgathering, and see what I can report as the day develops.

I’ll leave you with this thought: when we began we discussed the similarity between the arc of the storm and the arc of the story…and there could not be a better example of that than the story that is arcing before us even as we speak.

Stay tuned…and if I have useful updates I’ll post them here.