Sunday, January 13, 2013

Apocalypse Chow

Happy New Year!

In light of Hurricane Sandy and the so-called Mayan Apocalypse, it seems appropriate to discuss a book about how to eat well when your world appears to be ending.

A friend of mine provided me with a copy of the following book as a Christmas gift:
Robertson, Jon with Robertson, Robin. Apocalypse Chow: How to Eat Well When The Power Goes Out. Simon Spotlight Entertainment (2005).
The reason I had not purchased the book for myself is that I had read enough book reviews on Amazon to have learned that all of the recipes in it are vegetarian. Since my husband concluded long ago that he could not get enough calories to live, let along be satisfied, by a vegetarian diet, I figured that Apocalypse Chow would be of little practical utility for me. I remained curious about the book, however, and was pleased when I received it as a Christmas present, since that meant I would have a chance to gratify my curiosity about its recipes and recommendations.

Unfortunately, the book's title turns out to be a misnomer. Its use of the word "apocalypse" implies that the advice in the book is of use for any kind of emergency where it is necessary to feed oneself with limited access to food shops and electric power, but in fact that isn't true; its advice is really only practical in situations where you may be without electrical power, but are in a relatively safe location and power is likely to restored within a few days.

This can be seen from the advice the Robertsons give, and the types of recipes they provide, even leaving aside the issue of their vegetarianism.  The book reveals its focus on the short-term emergency most explicitly with its prescription for a "Five-Day Menu".  This is a list of items you can make, and that will feed several people for five days and can be made with the canned goods and miscellaneous items you can fit into a wine box.  This is a great idea if your neighborhood, like mine, suffers from brownouts during the summer (a point the Robertsons allude to at the very start of the book), but it doesn't get you to first base in doing long-term disaster planning.

And the recipes themselves aren't necessarily practical for situations where both power and water supplies are limited.  For example:
  • Quick Quinoa Pilaf (p. 139), which requires rinsing the quinoa (a South American grain) "well to remove the bitter white coating". Cooking anything that requires much rinsing is unlikely to be practical when water supplies are limited.
  • High-Road Lo-Mein (p. 136), which calls for a can apiece of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, along with 12 ounces of "Chinese noodles." Most people don't stock up on water chestnuts or bamboo shoots, and it's not at all clear what is meant by "Chinese noodles." Certainly not ramen, which is a Japanese product (and the book uses the word "ramen" when its use is intended).  However, noodles typically require substantial water to prepare relative to the amount of food they generate.
  • Happy Granny's Ginger-Walnut Rum Balls (p. 201), which require you to combine cookie crumbs with sugar, maple syrup, and rum and shape balls from the mixture. Getting your hands sticky when water supplies are limited is not a great idea.
That brings me to the element I found to be the most annoying about the book.  It's simply not written for the average American, since many Americans lack the kind of money required to sink into preparing for a catastrophe by obtaining the resources the Robertsons have in mind.  For example, the book discusses MREs (i.e., "Meals Ready to Eat", originally made for the military, but more generally available--at a price) and freeze-dried foods (which require hot water to reconstitute them, again posing an issue in a true emergency), options even the authors admit are expensive.

To be fair, Apocalypse Chow's recipes primarily rely upon what the authors call SRE's--Supermarket Ready to Eats.  These are things like canned vegetables and stews and packaged rice mixes.  Although these items can be easily obtained by the average American, obtaining them in large quantities starts to get expensive also.

What will you cook the Robertsons' cuisine on? The Robertsons fall back on "a single-burner butane unit that chefs use for demonstrations." These cost between $50-$100 USD; the butane canisters they need are "inexpensive and can be purchased by the case". Once again, however, they are a short-term alternative.  The authors tell us that they keep a case of a dozen cans of the stuff in a closet for emergencies "enough to keep us cooking for several weeks". Still, the practicality of this approach as an alternative is speculative at best--particularly if your household consists of more than two people.

Worse than the dubious practicality of some of the Robertsons' advice is the cultural gap implicit in it. Their idea of appropriate canned goods for an emergency is things like canned artichoke hearts, chickpeas, and green beans. The recipes require spices and things like sun-dried tomatoes. Indeed, they feel impelled to apologize for the fact that the dishes in this book are not made with fresh foods--as though it was a given that fresh foods would be available in any kind of true emergency. And their advice on how to deal with emergency-caused stress include experimenting with napkin-folding and table settings, and reading about other disasters and other books that are truly strange.  (The Statistical Abstract of the United States? Really?)

The entire book zigzags back and forth between giving genuinely useful advice (such as how much water and food to provide per person during a disaster, and items to include in a disaster-planning kit) and giving advice that borders on the silly (serving your made-from-cans emergency sandwich spread on "classy crackers"!). I'm torn between admiring the Robertsons' determination to view scary emergency situations with cheer and humor (a very good idea) and their apparently total inability to understand that a lot of their recommended foods and equipment items include things that the average American probably couldn't stomach (canned vegetables of all types) and might not be able to acquire quickly.  An emergency is no time to experiment with foods you might not like, because having a ton of food you cannot force yourself to eat is the worst of all options.

I've concluded that Apocalypse Chow is a curiosity, of the same kind as a talking dog; i.e., the most surprising thing about the book is that it exists and has a market at all. Read it, think about the situations the authors describe and how you could handle them with your budget, maybe even try out some of the recipes (when you *have* power) to see whether they might work for you and your family.  Just don't assume that having a copy of the book, along with a pantry full of canned veggies, will prepare you for the Apocalypse, because it won't.


  1. I'm surprised at the recommendation to rinse quinoa-- I've never rinsed it and never noticed a bitter flavor. I'm fairly sensitive to bitterness.

    1. Beats me. It's been so many years since I've made quinoa that I don't remember how I made it. Perhaps it only arises with regard to quinoa of certain brands?

  2. I think quinoa comes pre-washed these days . I learned the hard way about 20 years ago that pre-washing was as smart idea. The saponin on it really tastes soapy. ugh.

    The book's assumption that there's plenty of fresh water, and something to cook with is pretty non-apocalyptic.

    1. It's odder in that the book is fairly recent. It came out in 2005, and the fact that it was new then and not a reissue is shown by its many references to Hurricane Isabel, which took place in 2003.

  3. Great review! I'm with you, these don't sound like practical suggestions *at all*. Of course, my cooking without power plan is obviously the same as my "cooking for the hell of it" plan -- I have charcoal, I have a brazier, I have a stockpile of oatmeal and peas. Actually, I should probably round out my emergency food rations. We're good on grains and we have some canned food, but not a lot, but I think either powdered milk or a ready supply of ground almonds plus dried vegetables and some manner of preserved meat would go a long way toward keeping us well-fed in any kind of disaster. In 2009 we were snowed in for a pretty good chunk of time, and while we had power we couldn't get to the store. We survived on tuna and rice, which got pretty dismal pretty quickly. Now I definitely try to remember to keep more of a variety of non-perishables on hand!

    The thing that I worry the most about in terms of a longer-term power outage is actually all the meat I have stored in the freezer. Right now I have 10 pounds of caul fat, some yak kidneys, an elk liver, an elk heart, two types of scrapple, and roughly 6 pounds of homemade bacon, and this is after deliberately eating a lot of what I had stashed. If our power goes out for real, we are going to have to spend the first 24 hours cooking and eating meat like it's going out of style!

  4. Hi, Factorial! Welcome!

    Having experimented with powdered milk in the past, I'm inclined to leave it out of my emergency larder--see "food you cannot force yourself to eat" comment above.

    I agree that it would be unfortunate to lose the wonderful large supply of meats you have in your freezer. I wonder if you could manage to turn any of it into jerky, which keeps for much longer. I've never tried making jerky myself, but a friend of mine did, and her report was that the process was very time-intensive but the results were very good. Maybe that's something you want to think about.