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Building your storm pantry

By J. Scott Wilson, Food Editor
Published On: Mar 21 2012 12:12:25 PM CDT
Updated On: Nov 19 2012 06:03:49 AM CST
Kitchen food pantry

iStock

When's the last time your electricity went out? How long did it stay out? Have you ever been told your water wasn't safe to drink or cook with?

If you've been through a major hurricane, or a large blizzard for our northern friends, you have likely experienced conditions much like these. The "fun" atmosphere that comes on when the lights go out quickly fades as you listen to your freezer defrost and realize that your can opener's electric and the only non-raw food you've got in the house is a couple of ancient cans of beanie-weenies in the back of the pantry.

Let's go over a few of the basics of food survival during and after the storm.

Ideally, you'll lay in a two-week supply of your necessities, a week at minimum. Most of these items have very long shelf life, and they're things you'll consume in "normal" life after the storm.

What To Have

Water: Barebones basic requirements for an adult human is 64 ounces, the eight 8-ounce glasses we're all supposed to consume every day. That's your "drinking" supply. Beyond that, you'll want some for cooking if the power or gas comes back on and your tap supply still isn't safe, some more for basic sanitation, and then that all-important "cushion" amount.

Don't forget ice! If you have time before the storm, freeze a few gallons of your drinking water and use it to keep coolers cold. Ice can be a commodity as valuable as charcoal when the power's out and food is spoiling.

Your drinking supply, of course, ideally should be clean water in sealed jugs. However, before the storm hits, fill every pitcher, teapot, drink cooler or other coverable container with water. It's better to have too much than too little. Make that your motto and you'll rarely go wrong.

Now, a lot of hurricane and storm survival guides will advise filling your bathtub with water. I'm against this for one simple reason: unless you've got a storm cellar, the bathtub is one of the safest places to hide if a tornado is headed your way. And tornadoes go with hurricanes like gravy with chicken-fried steak. You don't want to have to ask the tornado to wait while you drain the tub so you can jump in and cover up for a few minutes.

Cooking supplies: I know you've seen me say here that self-lighting charcoal, with its lighter fluid-impregnated briquets, is a tool of the devil, and something no self-respecting grill cook would touch. However, in this case, that bag of Match Light can be a lifesaver. My ideal post-storm cooking setup would be a Weber kettle grill and 50 pounds of self-lighting charcoal. I don't normally go for the self-lighting stuff, but the less you have to keep track of and hassle with in an emergency, the better. However, if you don't have one, you can use your own patio grill. Just make sure you don't LEAVE it on the patio when the storm comes or someone several miles away may end up making use of it.

At the lowest end of the emergency-cooking spectrum are the grill and charcoal combinations, which usually consist of an aluminum pan with wobbly wire legs with a small bag of self-lighting charcoal and a metal grill. You're not going to do any high-performance cooking on these, but for grilling up that last pound of hamburger before it turns green, they'll do just fine.

I would hope this is the sort of thing that goes without saying, but so often those end up being the very things you wish you'd said: NEVER, EVER cook indoors with charcoal. Burning charcoal produces a host of poisonous gases that will kill you. Better to let an entire freezer full of prime grass-fed steaks go to rot than fire up a grill indoors.

If you have any sort of a propane setup, of course, you're out ahead of the curve ... but only if you've made sure your tanks are full. I still advise having a charcoal backup, just in case a fitting gets damaged or your grill/stove is rendered unsafe to use in some way. Murphy's Law just LOVES people who don't have backup plans, especially in storms.

Oh, and for those of you with fireplaces, please do NOT count on using them immediately following the storm. If they've been exposed to high winds, you need to have the flue and topper checked for defects, crimping or blockage that could fill your house with deadly fumes and completely ruin your eating experience.

As far as pots, pans and utensils go, if you're going to be slapping these over a bed of hot coals or even a propane flame, cast iron is your best choice. It's indestructible, easy to clean, and once you get it hot you can do a lot of cooking. For utensils, I'd recommend hitting the dollar store and purchasing three or four basic sets of cooking tools and putting them in different spots. Remember Murphy!

Speaking of Murphy, make sure each set of cooking utensils includes a hand-crank can opener. Not only will you be glad you have spares, you can use them for valuable barter items should society take the storm as a cue and just decide to collapse altogether.

For eating surfaces and utensils, go with sturdy paper plates and plasticware. The plates have the added bonus of being flammable should you need to start some non-self-lighting charcoal.

Food

Packaged meals: Items like meals ready to eat MREs and just-add-water camping meal packs always get a lot of play in prestorm news stories, and if you've got the money they are a good choice. However, in my experience, the prices of these items seem to magically spiral upward with the approach of a storm, and they can become extremely hard to find. Time spent searching for them could better be spent at the grocery store, getting items that are actually in stock.

Protein: No matter how well-prepared you are, it's inevitable that you're going to get caught with a few steaks, a pound of hamburger or a chicken that has to head grillward lest it become a bacterial playground. If you're really fortunate, you'll have some even less-prepared neighbors who have copious amounts of grillables to donate to your impromptu post-storm meat-a-thon. It's the neighborly thing to offer to use your charcoal to cook up their meat, and just as neighborly for them to offer you some of the finished product. Then you can all collapse into a meat-induced neighborly nap.

OK, that's gotten you through the first day or maybe even two after the storm, but what after that? Lay in a variety of sources: jerky, canned meats, protein bars, soy products, peanut butter and even nutrient "shake" products if you choose.

Vegetables: You're probably not going to have a whole lot of time to worry about your five-a-day while you're nailing plastic over the holes in your roof, but that's no reason to abandon any pretense of a healthful diet. Fruit and vegetable juices have the double benefit of providing vitamins and supplementing your water supply. There are also more varieties of canned vegetables and fruit than you can shake a stick at.

Fresh fruits, especially tough-skinned ones like oranges, are a good idea if you have time to lay them in.

Snacks: Let's face it, there are going to be stretches of time, especially during the storm, when you're too busy trying to keep body and soul together to worry about cooking a meal. You'll want ready-to-eat foods in abundance, and it's been proven that enjoyable edibles reduce stress, so indulge a little! Lay in a supply of your favorite tummy-filler and worry about the Weight Watchers guidelines later. If you're faced with having to crawl up on the roof midstorm and try to nail down flapping shingles, you'll be more motivated to save a house that contains a healthy supply of Twinkies than one devoid of cream filling and tasty sponge cake.

Organization

During the storm, even if it's midday, you are liable to have long periods where the only illumination is whatever battery-powered lights you've got. This is not the time to have to hunt through dark pantries and cupboards to find what you need. I recommend buying a supply of sandwich- or quart-sized plastic bags and making food packs, along the lines of a school lunch with a juice box or can and a couple of edible items, and putting them in easily accessible spots. Again, remember that preparedness is your best friend: have a few meal packs in every room of the house. You never know where you may end up.

And, hey, if the storm veers away or you have some packs left over, just toss in a sandwich and Junior's got his school lunch for the day.

Above all, keep your wits about you. If you have kids, they are going to be looking to you as a basis for their own reactions, fears and attitudes. If you stay level-headed and treat every situation as a problem to be solved, not an overwhelming crisis, the children will pick up on your behavior.

One final word: don't forget your pets! Fido and Ginger are going to be just as frazzled as you are, and they're going to need fresh food and water just like you. Take care of your little furry friends.

Got a comment? Question? Recipe to share? Drop me a line anytime!

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