Every spring, growing up, my elementary school would put on a fifth grade Science Fair. They’d clear out the gym, bring in a bunch of those long cafeteria tables, and the fifth graders would file in early, groggy and grumpy, to set up their exhibits. Later that day, we’d take our places behind our posters and dioramas and baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes, as the rest of the school filtered through, pretending to be interested. My exhibit was a poster-board triptych about beach erosion, which is strange to me now, seeing as we lived nowhere near the beach and I gave not one fig about erosion.* The thing I remember most from that day, though, was not my lame poster or the sweet feeling of relief when the fair was finally over. What I remember most was an exhibit, a few doors down from mine, cheerily titled “Nuclear Winter.”
I wasn’t sure what nuclear winter was, exactly. Was it related to acid rain, that great scourge of the late 70s and early 80s? Was it the same thing as fallout? Would it require a bulkier winter coat? No, if this exhibit was to be believed, nuclear winter was something far, far worse. This was no shoebox diorama. This was, no exaggeration**, a 2×3 foot topographical model of a ravaged landscape. When nuclear winter came knocking, it announced, the world would turn the color of cigarette ash and bus exhaust. Human beings – those that survived – would be forced underground. The sun would be extinguished, winter settling in for the long haul. Here and there were shattered (painted plastic) tree trunks and a pile of rubble that was once a house. The boy who made the exhibit had strewn some white, stick-like things on the ground which, he said, were supposed to represent animal bones. Here was a simple law of nature that even a fifth grader could understand: without sun, there is no food; without food, everything dies. Call me sheltered, but this was a possibility I had not yet contemplated in life. What fifth grader does? Either this kid was the love child of Cormac McCarthy and Ingmar Bergman, or he was onto something real, in which case my family would need to be prepared. We had no stockpiles of food in our basement, only a workbench, a giant foam mattress, a pool table, and some old cans of Minwax. If nuclear winter hit and the animals died and our Safeway was reduced to a gray smudge, how would we survive? What would we do for food?
Thirty years later, I know exactly what I’d do: I’d head to my in-laws’.
Open the door to Jenny’s mother’s refrigerator, and this is – more or less – what you will see: very little that resembles what we think of as “groceries.” You will see orange juice and water, a tub of whipped cream cheese, and a smattering of condiments. But mainly, you will see endless bowls and plates and little glass dishes, all neatly covered in Saran Wrap, containing leftovers. A dessert plate with five green beans. A bowl with three flaccid strawberries. A plastic take-out container with two ounces of plain spaghetti, cooked, and another plastic take-out container with about four tablespoons of marinara sauce. One-third of a breaded chicken cutlet. Half a piece of French toast. A Chinese food carton containing a single piece of black-bean shrimp. A Ziploc bag containing one sad leaf of Boston lettuce. Enough hummus to satisfy a field mouse. A slice of honeydew melon, vintage unknown. None of this will go to waste, by the way. Not one bit of it will be thrown out. Everything here will be repurposed, over the coming days, into the brown bag lunches that Jenny’s mom has taken to work every day for the last 30 years. Think of it as leftover tapas. This is an actual picture I took at her house last weekend: (more…)