What do you do when the nation's costliest natural disaster blows into town and floods your home?
If you're "This American Life" contributor Cheryl Wagner, you change your diet, learn to love MRE iced coffees and cook on a camp stove in your bedroom while trying to salvage your antique stove.
Wagner's new book "Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around" chronicles the three years she and her boyfriend, Jake, spent living in their flooded New Orleans home as they gutted it and put it back together. She spoke to Slashfood Friday about what it was like to eat and cook through the process.
"You can lose your vegetarianism in a disaster," she tells Slashfood. "Jake lost his vegetarianism to a Salvation Army truck: some 'disaster chicken' sloppiness ... We would be spending all day working on the house -- he just really got sick of eating MREs and various crap we had around."
Disaster cooking stories and the method for MRE iced coffee after the jump.
"After that he was eating poultry and seafood totally all the time and still is to this day," she said. "It was kind of a big deal to lose your vegetarianism because he had been one since he was a kid."
Wagner and Jake headed back to New Orleans a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina broke the city's levees and sent eight feet of water into many historic homes, including theirs. They wanted to get back before mold set in, but had to sneak into the Crescent City and found themselves between sublets camping out in their flooded home with no water, no electricity and no natural gas in a deserted neighborhood.
"There were different food phases," she said. "The 'MREs and Trucking Food in From Another Town Era,' and then after [Hurricane] Rita, it was 'Getting Crap Food Out of a Disaster Line Era.' Then there was 'The Drug Store's Open and You Can Get Ice There Era,' and then there was 'The Food Stamps Era,' but you couldn't use them in town, you had to buy it on the
Early on, a neighbor and friend -- Dave Greengold, known to Slashfood readers from his "Burritos as Big as Your Face" commercial -- devised a way to make a familiar New Orleans creature comfort, iced coffee, with a French press, using the MRE to boil the water and more.
"After we brewed the coffee, we would pour it into the little MRE Ziploc bags cause they're super strong and they would take the heat really well," Greengold told Slashfood on Friday. "We'd put that down in the ice chest. ... with the condensed milk, it was yummy."
A few weeks of MREs and then more of disaster food trucks got Wagner eating the meaty foods of her youth. (After three years, she's back on the vegetarian wagon.)
"Disaster relief -- and this is terrible to say cause it sounds like looking a gift-horse in the mouth -- disaster relief has some of the most unhealthy, sugary, trans-fat-laden food of all time," she said.
Wagner had it better than some of her neighbors, who were forced by necessity to live in their moldy homes. "You would see people eating these nasty sandwiches while sitting inside a mold house, cause they were gutting it and spending the night in the mold too."
After gutting their home, Wagner camped out in her second floor bedroom with Jake and a camp stove. Thanks to the dust, the mice and a roach colony in the attic, she calls that time the "Cup-a-Soup and Leftover MREs and Iced Coffee in a Jug and Taking a Lot of Vitamins Era."
"I'm sure somebody camping in the Sierras in that situation could think of a way to whip up some fabulous course on a camp stove, but we just weren't into it," she said. "At that time, eating was like showering -- it became a chore because you had to go through the whole rigamarole to make it happen -- so it wasn't fun. We were mostly boiling water with the stove and putting it into the Cup-a-Soup."
It took almost two years for the pair to get their gas back on, and that's when she started to realize just how many kitchen items she had lost -- one of the biggest being an O'Keefe and Merritt antique stove she tried for 18 months to save.
"Once we did start cooking -- I mean I think it went on for a year or more -- that just when you were in the middle of something, you'd need this one specific tool, and you thought you had gone and gotten everything at that point to put your little lifetime cooking set back together," she said. "It would just get weird and emotional – 'Oh, now I'm super angry; the government took my cheese grater!'"
"Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around" will be released Tuesday.