Food and States of Emergency

We’ve had one in my city, this last few days. Storms, flooding, etc. And as usual, the supermarkets have been taking a hammering, because people hear ’emergency’ and panic and start buying up.

Now, admittedly, I had to go to the supermarket myself. The intense humidity had sent our bread moldy, and I wanted some fresh fruit for the spawn. But I’d have managed perfectly well if we’d been cut off from the shops, really. Even if the power had gone out, since we have a gas stove for cooking.  I always have stores of rice, canned goods, dried stuff etc in the cupboard, and we could easily go a week or two on what we have in storage.  It wouldn’t be especially delicious, but we’d manage.

This is a direct response to how I grew up, living way out in the bush, where a flooding river or washed-out road could leave us stranded for weeks. I’ve always kept emergency food supplies on hand, and I do it because I’ve always done it. So it always baffles me a bit when I see people panic-buying before a holiday when the shops are closed, or during or after a natural disaster, because I don’t understand why they don’t already have food.

Which in turn informs how I write about food. There’s always been some criticism of how much Tolkien talks about food in ‘The Lord Of The Rings‘, but at least he mentions it. When I’m reading, nothing throws me out of a narrative like a character embarking on a long journey on horseback with no mention of carrying food, or worse, traveling on foot through desert or post-apocalyptic wasteland or whatever and all I want to do is grab them and shout where is your food. Because I’ve back-packed a week’s worth of food – in the form of dried stuff like rice, a few cans, the bare minimum in size – into the bush, and I tell you what, it weighs a hell of a lot. Even if you don’t need to worry about water at all, food is heavy. And in a situation where it will be hard to get more, you think about it a lot. Nobody should be blithely striding off with no food and no concern about food, unless they’re battery-powered. And then they should be worrying about where to get a charge or a new battery.

Everyone needs to a) drink, b) eat and c) excrete. If characters not only don’t do these things, but don’t appear to have any way to do them – they’re carrying no food, they’re in a clean cell with no bucket to use, etc – it really kills the suspension of disbelief for me. You don’t have to show it, but keep in mind that the characters need to poop and make sure your reader can figure out how they’re doing it. Because I’ve been a part of so many conversations on this subject that it’s not even funny. “So… what do people on the bridge of the Enterprise do when they need to pee? They’re long shifts, you’d have to pee. Is there a discreetly hidden toilet somewhere, or do they have to get the turbolift to another level every time?”

Given the choice, I’ll take Tolkien and his loving descriptions of food any day.

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2 thoughts on “Food and States of Emergency

  1. Well, I don’t have much food in store because I don’t have enough money to buy more than we need week by week, and because the house is too small to store much more than the current week’s food, and I suppose that’s true for a lot of people.

    If it’s summer or early autumn, in most places in Europe you could survive without carrying food, because rabbits and nuts and berries and fruit and acorns and edible fungi and wild garlic and fat hen and so on are quite easy to come by, but you’d have to be spending about two hours a day foraging as you went.

    There’s an otherwise very good fantasy novel the name of which I’ve forgotten which includes an infuriating passage in which Our Heroes are in a carriage in which they drive non-stop across a wasteland for days, without changing horses anywhere or stopping to feed and rest the ones they have.

    Another common omission is when writers forget that grown men, at least ones of European or Indian-sub-continent origin, grow facial hair. It’s an error which occurs in the first The Rescuers book, although it’s the artist Garth Williams rather than the author who is at fault. There’s a touching drawing of the 20-something, white young prisoner whom they are rescuing, starved and dirty with long straggly hair… perfectly clean-shaven?

    • Having limited budget or storage space I completely understand – I’ve been in both positions myself. But I don’t understand people who, despite having an adequate income and capacity for preparation for emergencies, are invariably caught completely off-guard and driven to panic by the shops being closed for one day.

      Not feeding your horses is another dreadful one. A single human traveling on horseback not only has to carry her own food when foraging is impossible or impractical, depending on her situation she may have to carry food for her horse too. Add in water, as needed during a trek across the desert, and one horse isn’t going to get you far at all, even if you walk beside it so it’s only carrying the supplies.

      Now that you mention it, I’ve encountered the beard thing. It’s such an odd little failure to consider the inevitable.

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