Hurricane Sandy didn’t come quickly, but the panic preceding it did. Those of us who live in the Northeast were rattled by a cacophony of weather reports, increasingly dire storm warnings, and even in my neighborhood, a mandatory evacuation order.
So my thoughts naturally turned to food.
Food was, is and likely always will be the primary concern and consolation in times of bad weather. Not that the terrified citizenry, already being told about flooding, power failures and vague “storm damage,” weren’t buying up candles, generators and plywood as fast as Home Depot could sell it (which isn’t very fast). But what I found most striking were the lines at every grocery store and bodega. It wasn’t canned tuna and evaporated milk they were buying, either. It was steak and frozen pizza and ice cream bars and pancake mix. It became obvious to me that New Yorkers weren’t interested so much in stocking up against disaster as having a staycation. Kitchen libertines all, they wanted nothing so much as an excuse to lock the door, turn on the TV (until the power went out) and eat Heath bars until they ran out.
After all, even the most apocalyptic of weathermen said that the storm would be two days at most. Flooding and power outages well might follow, yes, but it’s not like the citizens of Baltimore or White Plains, N.Y., were at the K2 base camp. At least, not to us. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots is never uglier than during times of crisis. What could show this more grossly than the way people barely affected by the storm are tweeting away blithely (#sandysnacks is trending), having their little cuddle parties, and generally treating Sandy like just another hilarious misadventure? From where I am sitting, I can see a window behind which rains is pouring down furiously and wind thrashes the trees. I see it, because I don’t hear it. And why can’t I hear it? Because I have thick, new soundproof storm windows that keep even a whisper of the storm out.
I don’t suppose I need to spell out what the analogy is with food. Americans of my social class, and that of all my colleagues at TIME and most of our friends, rarely encounter hunger or physical hardship at all. We work hard, face great anxiety and are seldom more than a few steps from being broke, but we’re never hungry. (I am so rarely hungry that I sometimes actually clap with glee about it, just before the ribs arrive.) While not every New Yorker in my class lives to eat, to use the old saw from Molière, none of us eat to live. Well, maybe a few vegans. The actual possibility, even of only a day’s privation, is enough to inspire hysterical chatter — but no real fear. As I say, I live in an actual evacuation zone, and the mayor has been going around saying things like, “This is a storm that can easily kill you.”
Kill me? I don’t even believe it can make me like trail mix. Already today, I have taken the “precautions” of making a roast chicken, a basin-sized bowl of fusilli with meat sauce, and stocked in three different kinds of salami. What is wrong with me? Am I, and the people like me, just that foolhardy and sheltered? Yes. Sheltered is the very word. Outside my window in the stormy void, New York City has rigged up a patchwork network of shelters housing thousands of people who lack even beds, much less bronze-die pastas. I don’t even know where they are, and that is an abominable fact. But it’s true. I had a similar experience on 9/11, which I watched on television over bowls of Apple Jacks. I was less than a mile away from Ground Zero, but experientially I was half a world away.
Dismiss that as sociopathy, if you will, or some kind of emotional dissociation in time of crisis. Whatever. I would ask you to look at what you ate over the last few days, and how much you enjoyed it. More than what we say, more than what we think, more, I think, even than what we feel, our true attitude toward the storm is told by the way we eat. “Public affairs vex no man,” said Samuel Johnson once. “I have never slept an hour less, nor ate an ounce less meat.” The storm rages outside, and my heart may go out to its victims. But my stomach is feeling quite strong.