For the next few weeks, many of us here in Ireland – and possibly where you are — will feel like we are in a permanent state of house arrest, working from home and looking after children kept home from school. Most of us are, rightly, staying away from crowds of people and making food at home, so most of us need to stock up on the basics durable foods that will keep over time – beans, lentils, rice, flour, salt, sugar and other staples.
Once, shopping meant shopping for these basic ingredients, which any home-maker knew to make into bread, soup, cakes and other goods. Vegetables came from the garden, and everyone had one of those just outside the kitchen door, fed every year with compost from the kitchen that had been allowed to rot into soil again. This basic cycle meant that every home was – to some extent — a self-sufficient homestead, a self-contained Ark during any of life’s floods.
Floods come more often than we realise; since I moved to Ireland 15 years ago, we have seen fuel prices skyrocket, the crash of 2008, the country go bankrupt in 2010, and the housing crisis of recent years. We have seen scares around Ebola, SARS and now Coronavirus. We have seen planes grounded temporarily during the Icelandic volcano of 2010, and of course many individuals have seen their own personal crises. We will see many more crises in the years to come, as climate change increases and weather grows more extreme. Yet we think of preparedness as a fringe activity for people preparing for the End of the World – and, in fairness, there are people who do that.
Most of the crises we will encounter in life, though, are not the Big One – there probably never will be a Big One, in climate change, disease or any other area. We are entering an era of increased problems – what James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency” – but like the “Fall of Rome” or “The Industrial Revolution,” it will not be an event, but an era in which, most of the time, everything is normal, and life is only occasionally be punctuated by severe events. Only later will historians look back and see the overall trends.
In the meantime, don’t panic. New diseases crop up every year, as old strains mutate or jump from one species to another. Most are not serious. Most of the serious ones are contained quickly, and do not become pandemics. Even in the middle of a pandemic, most people do not get sick, and most people who get sick get better. There’s a small chance you might die from this, but only a very small one. Your chance of dying in the long run, of course, is 100 percent.
Of course wash your hands frequently, consume lots of vitamins, get a mask, keep a few months’ worth of stored food in the pantry, and have something growing in your yard or on your land that is edible.
What foods you stock up will depend on your situation, but stock up on a mix of proteins (beans, meat, fish), starches (dried pasta, rice or flour) and vitamins (fruit, vegetables). We have vitamin pills, frozen veg in the freezer, along with root vegetables in the garden. Always keep your food in vermin-proof containers. Stock up on medicine, soap, toothpaste, bandages and blankets, and have stores of potable water, just in case. If something happens to the water supply, you can make water filters using sand or charcoal, or with ultraviolet light – look up how to do that if you’re interested.
Collect information on what to do if hospitals are full, either for the flu or for anything else that might happen – one very good book on the subject is Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman and David Werner. It is reportedly used by WHO and UNICEF for their workers in the Third World, and deals with everything from injuries to childbirth. Brush up on traditional treatments – comfrey for headaches, plasters to aid breathing. They won’t cure the flu, but neither will antibiotics.
If all this sounds extreme, keep in mind that most of it will probably not be necessary, but there’s no harm in learning a bit more about these things just in case, for this outbreak or the next one that comes along. Modern medicine has blessed us with a lifespan and health far beyond most people in most places, but we are still mortal, and our modern lifestyles are likely to create new diseases faster. The world’s population has increased from two billion to seven billion in a single lifetime. Air travel has increased exponentially, so diseases that took centuries to travel across the medieval world now spread around the world in hours.
For the time being, we can use this opportunity; this is a good time to spend with family, play board games rather than video games, and catch up on reading books – including, preferably, some written more than a century ago. Right now I’m reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, an academic work that is nonetheless fascinating for showing how extremely poor people created their own schools, libraries and debate societies that transformed their lives, offered a way out of poverty, and gave them something to live for even in the most extreme poverty.
I’m also catching up on old black-and-white movies, many of which have a lot better dialogue and characterisation than today’s blockbusters. Tonight I saw No Highway in the Sky, with Jimmy Stewart and Glynis Johns, and recently watched And Then There Were None, the excellent 1945 version of the Agatha Christie mystery.
If you have some staples to hand, you might want to try these filling and nutritious recipes.
500g dried lentils
One large onion
Three cloves of garlic
Three large potatoes
One stalk of celery
One litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Two teaspoons of marjoram
One-fourth of a teaspoon of thyme
One tablespoon of soy sauce
Two tablespoons of cider vinegar
Cut the leeks lengthwise and wash them out well, as grit tends to collect between their layers. Peel and dice the potatoes into bits two centimetres across Chop the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery about a centimetre across.
Pour some olive oil in a pot, and sautee the vegetables until they are soft, and add the potatoes. Add the lentils and stock, and add seasoning. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes until they are tender.
I sometimes add bits of fried meat to the soup for flavour, and serve with crusty bread.
1.5 cups of flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1.5 teaspoons of baking powder
0.5 teaspoons of soda
0.5 teaspoons of salt
1.5 cups of buttermilk
Three tablespoons of melted butter
Two large eggs
0.5 teaspoons vanilla
First mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then the wet ingredients in another bowl. Mix the two bowls together gently – it’s okay if the batter is a bit lumpy.
Melt a pat of butter in a cast iron pan with a few tablespoons of oil, and heat it on high heat – about 180 Centigrade. Pour the batter in from a height of five centimetres and turn the heat to low. Depending on the consistency of the batter it will either spread round by itself of need a little nudge with a spoon.
The first side is done when you see the bubbles rising all over the pancake, and then flip over the pancake. Cook it until the second side is lightly browned.
Pancakes can be kept for a half an hour or so before serving in a preheated oven at 90 degrees centigrade – for extra tenderness, brush them with melted butter.
Leftover pancakes can be allowed to cool, then sealed in an airtight container and frozen for up to one month. When removed they can be reheated by putting them into a microwave, although they tend to toughen a bit; they can also be put into a regular toaster.
Photo: Girls wearing masks in Helena, Montana during the 1918 flu, courtesy of “Helena As She Was” web site, www.helenahistory.org.