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Guest Post – Cooking and Eating during and after Hurricane Sandy

While many natural disasters are very local, some raise the consciousness of a region, country or even the world. Tsunami in southeast Asia, flooding in China and Hurricane Katrina were all disasters on the international scale. Last year a hurricane hit the east coast of the United States and caused massive damage to a very populated area of the country. Because of the impact to New York, the media center of the United States, images were quick to make it to television and a nation watched as millions of people dealt with the disaster. Guest blogger Naomi was right in the thick of it. She provides an interesting take on food and Hurricane Sandy. Take a look…

Oases of Food, Friends, Community and Care:

Cooking and Eating during and after Hurricane Sandy

We all know of amazing and touching stories of power sharing in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The media picked up on this phenomenon so extensively that I saw this photo re-posted to Facebook by a high school friend in California and recognized it from just blocks away from where I lived in Hoboken, NJ:

Hoboken Phone Charging - Superstorm Sandy Those with electricity rigged up extension cords and power strips, offering free cell phone charging to neighbors and passersby. These acts of generosity became lifelines, enabling people to communicate and stay connected – to learn about immediate resources, to keep family and friends abreast of their situation, to work from remote. The ability to charge cellphones enabled the flow of an emotional current that provided the energy to keep going during the exhausting and bewildering aftermath of the storm.

A relatively untold story is about something even more basic – what people ate and how they cooked – before power was restored and while streets and homes were still flooded. Fellow Guest Blogger Diana touched on this topic in her blog Something Old, Something New (https://rantingchef.com/2013/03/14/guest-post-something-old-something-new/) and expressed how the reconfiguration of location and commutes could be quite disruptive to one’s daily diet and routine. Countless stories exist of the generous offering of food and warm drinks during and after the storm. And beyond the basic need for nutrition, food and feeding became, as they often do,  avenues of caring during this difficult time.

I decided I would interview people I knew about their experiences of cooking and eating during and after the storm. I wanted to hear about both the crisis of the food supply and about the resiliency and the coming together as community that took place. Resembling journalism or oral history, I have intentionally identified the people I interviewed, with their permission to do so. I am grateful to Pat for providing a venue for me to share this Guest Blog.

Background:

I work in Manhattan at a hospital that did not flood. I live in Hoboken, NJ with my three daughters (who last year were aged 13, 11 and 8) and my husband Rob. Based on our experiences during Hurricane Irene a year and a half earlier, Rob and I decided that I would work the storm at the hospital and he and our daughters (and our car) would stay with our friends Samantha and Glen Myers in nearby Jersey City Heights (emphasis on the fact that heights are by nature high up). I packed an air mattress, flash lights, a battery operated radio and my two favorite cereals – Special K with Berries and Post Great Grains with Raisin, Date and Pecan. As the winds began to blow in and the subway system was already starting to shut down, I arrived.

Inside the hospital: The Hospital produced this video, New York-Presbyterians’ Response to Hurricane Sandy which paints a picture of life on the inside of the hospital, including Food Services and the extraordinary measures the hospital took to maintain patient care and accommodate for the storm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxNgY4v_jj4. For my first meal I found one of the prepackaged kosher tuna fish sandwiches the hospital buys from a local vendor.

At the hospital, I remember eating baked ziti, an orange, and store-bought and cellophane-wrapped slices of cake. On Tuesday night, my boss and I stayed up late, chatting and eating the chips and salsa she had brought. I remember several days later when fresh lettuce and tomato returned. It was so exciting to eat fresh vegetables again and also know that this was a symbol that the City was beginning to return to some semblance of normal. I had a dream one of those nights that I looked down into a flower pot and saw a few hundred small flowers begin to bud in vibrant and bold colors. Parallel to my actual experience, I had not planted these seeds; they were a surprise growth from some previous attempt at gardening.  Only one inch tall, these flowers gave me hope that it would all get better.

On Tuesday, the day after the storm, we woke up and were shocked to find out that though the storm had passed, New York City was completely shut down by damage. Through the internet I was able to see that Hoboken, a one square mile city in a flood zone, was mostly under water. We learned from neighbors on our block, that our home had lost electricity and, not due to rain water, but rather to the surging of the Hudson River from the North and from New York Harbor to the South. As with much of Hoboken, the ground level of our  home flooded (which for us is an entry way and our garage).  We knew people who were stranded and later in the week some were rescued and evacuated by the National Guard.

In his reflection “Twenty-seven children and gallons of milk” (http://www.hudsonreporter.com/view/full_story/23927037/article-Historic-Hurricane-Sandy—Oct–28–2012–She-trapped-you-inside–cut-your-power–and-stole-Halloween–?instance=more_page)   my neighbor Jon Pinn describes what happened to our block and the experience of the neighbors, including 27 children, who stayed in their homes during the storm. Around 3 p.m. on Monday October 28, a transformer blew across the street from our home and ours became the first block, we believe, to lose power during the storm. (We were also among the last blocks to regain power eight days later.) Jon remembers that he and his family were “just finishing making pumpkin seeds and they were only half baked.” Realizing that the refrigerated and frozen food might last for up to 72 hours, Jon and neighbors coordinated to open refrigerators and freezers one at a time and “the result was a BBQ of hot dogs, hamburgers, bacon.”  Jon describes that “the next day, a couple of neighbors with an SUV braved the waters and made their way to several stores in the surrounding town to retrieve milk and other necessities for the 27 children who live on our block. These guys waded through the oily mucky water still pooled in our back yards to deliver the gallons which were shared among households.”

Throughout the area people were figuring out what their damage and its impact were– loss electricity, spoiling of food supply, no heat, no water supply, no hot water, flood damage, toxic soil, damage to their homes from fallen trees, property loss, totaled cars. The Cities of Hoboken and Jersey City instituted curfews after dark and Halloween was cancelled in much of the region. The NYC subway system was flooded and shut down and the region experienced a gasoline crisis, halting transportation.

Cooking with No Electricity: After spending four nights and five days at the hospital I traveled on Thursday evening for several hours, experienced the franticness of Port Authority, and eventually arrived at our friends in Jersey City Heights and joined them and my family as they sat in now their fourth night in the dark, reading by flashlight and clearly very restless. Our friends offering me some apple crisp, that I later learned she cooked on the grill. I remember thinking, “Wow, what have you been eating?!”

Communication with my family had been limited during the storm. That night I began to hear their stories. Rob and our  two younger daughters, Shoshana and Talia, stayed with our friends Glen and Samantha and their two children along with another woman and her dog. Adina, our other daughter, stayed with friends David and Monica Plotka and their children down the block in Jersey City Heights. Samantha explained to me that because the storm came so shortly after Yom Kippur, she still had a freezer full of left-overs from the Break Fast meal. This included her Butternut squash lasagna and Blintz Soufflé (a cake with a cheese filling like cannoli – made from cottage cheese, sugar and vanilla). The day before the hurricane, Samantha made a bunch of pumpkin cake “while we still had power because I didn’t know if we would lose power and I knew it would hold up.” The power went out in their home late at night on the Monday of the storm. Though Samantha and Glen lost power, they had use of their grill and their gas stove they could light with a match. And hot water (as they had a gas hot water heater).  They also had use of a landline phone specifically for such an emergency. Samantha said that these felt like luxuries. She made vegetarian stews, soups, curry, rice, and noodles. She specifically remembers making pumpkin soup from canned pumpkin “because I couldn’t cook.” Rob brought bags of our perishable and nonperishable foods from our home and he remembers having a lot of foods that could be made by adding hot water such as instant soups and tea. Without electricity, the dishwasher didn’t work, and Rob and Glen did all the dishes.

Adina knowing that Monica had a culinary background, marveled at her ability to cook eggs, even with all of the limitations from the storm. Monica also was able to use her gas stove, but found it hard to cook in the dark after sunset. With natural sunlight and stocked up on eggs, breakfast was a focus for her. Monica’s husband David had stocked up on ice and filled all the coolers. He brought one to neighbors who returned the cooler this past summer with a case of beer and thank you note.

Samantha described, “I tried to have a sit-down meal every night, trying to make some sort of normalcy.” There were a lot of children, so they established regular breakfast, lunch and dinner. The adults rank wine and all ate by candle light – from the electric tea light candles from our children’s bar and bat mitzvah parties. Shoshana remembered that they rigged up a flashlight to the chandelier to provide better lighting. Samantha remembers that my youngest daughter, Talia, ate black olives off of her fingers for the week. Talia, however, better remembers learning a new card game than anything about the food.

An Oasis

Down the hill, in Hoboken, Donna and Howard Olah-Reiken lived on a block that was one of few that did not lose power. They later learned that this was due to their block being on the same grid as nearby Union City. They went to bed Monday night during the storm and learned about the devastation of the next morning around 8:30am when neighbors stopped by and filled them in.

Howard had the idea to put electrical strips out so people could charge their phones. Many also wound up being able to work from remote on their laptops. A messages was put out on Facebook welcoming people to their home and with word-of-mouth people started coming in the afternoon. Soon they began to put out coffee, hot chocolate, a sugar bowl and milk. Donna explained, “Even though I don’t drink it, coffee was key because as the night progressed, and it got colder every day, people were pretty cold.” And people started bring their food and especially their meat from their defrosting freezers and refrigerators. Donna remembers seeing people walking around with trays of lasagna, one person holding the tray and one serving. The Olah-Reiken home was an oasis, as one friend expressed when she arrived.

Samantha also came to Donna’s home and brought bags from her refrigerator. Donna remembers, “So we had all these samosas, vegetable dumplings. I just kept baking. Someone was always in the kitchen with me cooking. The soups and the stews and the meat.” In efforts to have food for everyone to eat and to not waste, especially meat, Howard and others grilled continuously. I heard stories that amidst the stress, the cooking of three different briskets at the same time was pretty exciting. Donna remembers seeing people from all different walks of life, some she hadn’t seen in a long time.  They prepared a huge communal Shabbat dinner, one friend making and bringing homemade challah bread.

In another part of town, Barry Grossman described that after he and his wife Audrey Merwin cleaned out their fridge that had lost power, they relied on tuna, packaged soup, hot and cold breakfast cereals and peanut butter as their staples. During the week they met up with friends Marilyn and Joel Freiser. Using a match to bypass the electric ignition for their gas stove, Marilyn was able to cook. Throwing what she had into a pot – beef stock, dried beans, fresh veggies – Marilyn made soup. While she cooked Thursday night her electricity came back on. Friends brought bread and salad and Friday night they sat and ate together for Shabbat dinner. The Freisers also provided hospitality to Rob and me at various points before our power came back.

People without electricity didn’t necessarily know what was happening, how extensive the damage to the city was, or where they could find help and refuge. They showed up one by one to neighbors and friends’ homes, exhausted and sometimes wet from wading through flood water. Those with electricity often used every outlet in their home so that others could charge their phones and also so that some could ‘work from remote’ on their laptops.

In listening to these stories from my friends, now a year later, I learned about specific strategies they were able to use for getting through.

  1. It was key that they knew how their appliances functioned. Specifically if they had a gas stove with electric ignition and had lost power, they could bypass the ignition with a match
  2. Those stovetops were able to make soups and eggs
  3. Those will grills were able to cook their meat and apparently also make apple crisp
  4. My husband Rob used a spare car battery that provided light and also allowed for some cell-phone charging
  5. Timing the opening of refrigerators and freezers in order to maintain coldness and preserve food longer
  6. And, of course, stocking up as much as possible ahead of time with non-perishable staples, water and a can opener

The Cupboards Are Bare … at the Grocery Store

On Thursday Rob and my two older daughters walked from Jersey City Heights to our home in Hoboken to assess the damage. The two girls decided to go to one of the supermarkets that had re-opened.

Shoshana, the 11 year-old, told me: “On Thursday my sister and I went to the supermarket to get soup that we could heat up with hot water because we were running out of food at home. We walked into the supermarket and half the lights were out and the store looked run down almost. We were walking around trying to find our soup and we saw, wherever there would have been anything that would have be refrigerated or frozen, except for about two places. There was obviously food there covered up by a tarp so that we wouldn’t see it and so that the people working at the store wouldn’t have to move it because it must’ve smelled bad. We got our soup and left there as soon as possible.”

Adina, my then 13 year-old added: “All of the lights were off except for maybe some emergency lights. I’m not sure how they were powered. And there was no produce or anything and I remember the cashier after I checked out said, ‘stay safe.’ The next day I went to a different supermarket and they had flashlights positioned pointing at the food and all the lights were off. And people even brought their own flashlights and were looking at the food. And it was a really weird experience and I had been in all these stores before when they were fully lit.”

Shoshana added: “As we were leaving there were two women outside the store with what looked like fake pumpkins with faces spray painted onto them. They asked my sister and I wanted a free pumpkin. We said, ‘sure’ and took one. Little did we know it was a real 20 pound pumpkin and we had to walk seven blocks home carrying that pumpkin.” 

Electricity, Shabbat & Hospitality:

On the Friday after the storm my family drove to our home. Rob had already gone with friends to clean up the damage and clean out our refrigerator. We decided that I would take our girls to our friends in Riverdale for the next few nights so that they could sleep in a home with electricity and heat. We took a taxi to Midtown Manhattan and the subway to Riverdale where my college friends, Laura and Dan Michaeli, met us. With less than 24 hours’ notice, they had cooked meals for us and I remember a variety of salads. What stands out most to me was the meringue cookies their ten year-old daughter had made for us. These were the most amazing meringues I had ever had. First of all, they were pink with a variety of rainbow dots and chocolate chips. And when I bit into them they were crunchy on the outside and scrumptiously chewy on the inside. They sent me home with the recipe and ingredients I didn’t generally have. They were called “Meringue Kisses.”  Knowing that they were made with love, somehow illuminated by their colorfulness, these cookies stand out in my mind as one of the most meaningful acts of loving kindness I experienced during the storm and its aftermath.

Saturday morning we went to synagogue with our friends. I was amazing to discover that in that week’s Torah reading, we read the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality for three unexpected visitors. They fetched water, washed their feet, kneaded and baked cakes, prepared beef, and served curd and milk; quite a feast. (Genesis 18:1-8) The rabbi spoke of how so many people had taken people into their homes. And my daughter looked up at me and said, “People like us.” And I looked back at my friend and her daughter and said, “It’s you who did this amazing mitzvah (commandment/good deed) of welcoming people into your home.”

What struck me so much about the storm was the ways in which so many of us were simultaneously on the giving and receiving ends. Those who were fortunate to be able to provide for other carried the burdens of care-giving, often exhausted themselves. Though some may have not lost electricity, they often were part of families who did. And those who did suffer losses and dislocation, often had opportunities to support others. Story after story also tells of experiences of joy, even of fun. Coming together as friends, getting to know neighbors, eating some ironically good food and enjoying glasses of wine and beer.

I hope you will add your own reflections and stories of what you ate and how it was cooked in the comments. And here is the wonderful recipe Meringue Kisses:

Mergines - More copy - Featured Size

Meringue Kisses

Ingredients

Here is a picture of the care package of ingredients Laura sent me home with:

Merginges - Ingredients from Laura

Here are my ingredients when I made them several months later:

Merginges - Ingredients

–       2 Egg Whites (room temperature)

–       ¼ Teaspoon Cream of Tartar (This was the mystery ingredient that I had never used before for meringues. Cream of Tartar, vinegar or something acidic helps the egg whites thicken.)

–       ¾ Teaspoon Vanilla

–       ¾ Cup Sugar (“Superfine” is preferable and Confectioners’ Sugar also works well. It is best to use something finer than regular granulated sugar)

–       6 ounces Chocolate Chips

–       Nonpareils

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Combine the egg whites, cream of tartar and vanilla. Beat until they form soft peaks. I have used forks, whisks, and an electric mixer and highly recommend the electric mixer. Often the others just don’t produce the result or it is so time consuming and tiring that the joy of making meringues is reduced.

Merginges - with Blender

  1. Beat Sugar in gradually

Meringes - Stiff

  1. Fold in chocolate chips
  2. Pour in a handful of rainbow colored nonpareils in one quick stir. Don’t completely mix, so that they retain some of their distinct colors.

Meringes - With Goodies

  1. Spoon onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or… My friends’ daughter used cupcake holders and I have followed her example.

Mergines - More copy - Featured Size

  1. Bake for approximately 25 minutes. They should turn the color of ecru, not brown.
  2. Turn off the temperature and leave in the oven for at least 20 minutes. (I have another friend who leaves her meringues in the oven overnight.) This will help the outsides become crispy and help the cookie not collapse.

Meringes - Baked

Naomi

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Categories: Baking 2, Chocolate, Dessert, Eggs, Guest, kosher, Recipes, Vegetarian

Author:The Ranting Chef

Check out the best recipes at rantingchef.com

3 Comments on “Guest Post – Cooking and Eating during and after Hurricane Sandy”

  1. November 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Wow – That one was scary time… I live in Massachusetts and we got nailed two years ago by a snow storm in October – people were stuck in their houses and couldn’t even get out of their streets for, sometimes, more than a week. I cooked on my grill & burned what wood I had in my fireplace. I hung up blankets in the two doorways leading to the living room & they helped to keep in the heat. But… the the 3rd nite it was 53 degrees in here. I gave up and was lucky enough to have friends who had a generator. Terrible times show us how we really, really need to be prepared for a disaster. And terrible times also give us the opportunity to perform kind deeds, as you said. God bless you for helping others!

    Like

  2. November 7, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    What a brilliant post, thank you for the rare insight.

    Like

  3. November 7, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    G’day! What a beautiful insight with your first hand experience of how in not the best of circumstances, people (of all cultures and religions) can bond and share together in giving and receiving in their own unique way. I always wonder what happens after routines are restored and no immediately emergencies are present.
    Cheers! Joanne
    Really enjoyed as a New Yorker born and bred!Thank you!

    Like

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