In most people's minds, the biggest issues in a post-disaster world are keeping themselves fed and having enough water. Of the two, more thought and effort is typically put into food than water, working under the assumption that water will be available from nature, either from rain or surface water (rivers, lakes, etc.). But food, other than the food we grow or stockpile will not.
Those assumptions are probably fairly accurate, considering the difficulties that exist in living off the land. While early settlers in what is now the USA commonly lived off the land, they did so in a much different time. There was more wild game available to hunt and there were much fewer people around to hunt it. So, living off the land was a much more realistic possibility for them, than it is for us today.
Few areas of the country still hold a game population that would support the people living there, and those are universally areas where there is a very low population. So, for the vast majority of Americans, we will be limited to the food we grow, stockpile or somehow manage to scavenge.
Water shouldn't be as big a problem, unless you live in the southwest, where there is little rainwater to be had. Much of the country, especially East of the Mississippi and the West Coast has ample rivers and lakes for groundwater and an abundance of rain that can be captured for use. So while we do need to be concerned about where we are going to get water from, the bigger issue for many Americans is how to make that water safe to drink; something that all preppers work on doing.
Even William Forstchen's best-selling book, "One Second After" sees this difference. The big concern for the people of Black Mountain, North Carolina wasn't water, but food. Ultimately, it was the lack of food which killed many of them off.
Cooking Wisely in a Post-Disaster World
It's clear that there's a valid reason for us to put a lot of effort into food stockpiling, food production, hunting, fishing and gathering. We need to become experts in preserving the food that we have and the food we grow, so that none of it is goes bad before it can be used. But we also need to take care in how we prepare that food, because food that is not properly prepared can both kill us through sickness and go bad.
This, of course, means cooking our food, and cooking it well. By well cooked, I mean raising its internal temperature higher than 158oF. That's the temperature necessary to pasteurize it, killing off the microscopic pathogens inherent in the food. This is a higher temperature than we normally cook most food to, but it will be necessary to ensure that there are no pathogens to contend with.
In the weakened state that our bodies will probably be in during a long-term survival scenario, we can't expect our bodies to be able to fend off sickness as well as they do now. That's something that goes hand-in-hand with an inadequate diet, which in turn goes hand-in-hand with any survival scenario.
We have to keep in mind that food which we grow may be more subject to infection from these pathogens than food which is commercially grown. There are no food inspectors in our homes and no laboratory to verify that the food is safe to eat. Our family will inspect the food by eating it; which means that they could be at risk, every time they eat. Proper food preparation, specifically cooking, will be essential to ensuring their health and safety.
I travel a fair amount in Mexico, where there is no FDA, there are no food inspectors, and as everyone knows, the water isn't safe to drink. From experience, I can tell you that the most dangerous things to eat in Mexico are lettuce and tomatoes; the ingredients of the basic Mexican salad. This is because they are washed, in water that may not be safe, and they are not cooked. Meat, on the other hand, is always cooked well-done, so you don't have to worry about it carrying any pathogens.
That's actually a relief, especially when you pass by an open-air market and see fresh meat and poultry sitting on some seller's counter, without refrigeration, and know that it will be sitting there all day, unless someone buys it. Obviously, that gives a lot of opportunity for airborne pathogens to get into the meat, as well as for the multiplication of any pathogens that are already there.
But once the meat is cooked, those pathogens are killed. That makes the meat safe to eat, as it will make any food we prepare in a post-disaster world safe to eat.
But what about leftovers? In or normal day-to-day lives, we don't worry too much about leftovers. They get stuck in the fridge and eaten as the next day's lunch, a midnight snack or some other time. While some go to waste and are thrown away, much of it is eaten in the following days.
That's great when you have refrigeration; but when there's no power for the refrigerator, that food can't be preserved safely. Again, we could follow the example of many Mexicans and leave the food out until it is eaten, but there is an inherent danger in that. Unless the food is once again brought up to an internal temperature of 158oF, it will likely have pathogens in it. Due to the fact that the food is merely being reheated and not cooked, there is little likelihood of anyone heating it up to that point.
The simple solution to this problem is to eliminate leftovers. That can be accomplished by strict portion control, something that is needed as part of rationing our food anyway, so that it will last as long as possible. If we only cook the food that we are going to use, then we don't have a storage problem for any leftovers.
How Much Food to Cook
While this article is about cooking food, I think it's important to take a moment out to talk about a survival diet. If we are only going to cook as much food as we are going to use at any given meal, we need to determine how much food that actually is.
Most of my life, I've heard that an adult needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day in their daily diet. That figure was widely accepted until a couple of years ago; but it wasn't so much based upon scientific evidence or even analysis, as it was based upon what the average American was actually eating. In more recent times, people have been eating more, adding to the nationwide problem of obesity. But at the same time, medical researchers have reevaluated the data, and said that 2,000 calories should be enough for almost anyone.
Of course, there are people who do demanding physical work which requires a higher calorie diet. But that's not the "average American." Few of us have highly physical jobs, where we'll actually burn 2,000 calories per day. Fewer could burn more.
But even that 2,000 calorie figure is a bit high for a survival situation. When we're in survival mode, we're trying to stay alive, not stay comfortable. Or, to put it another way, we're not trying to stay pleasingly plump. If anything, most of us will actually need to lose weight during that time, which will be wonderful for our health. With that in mind, we should look to limiting our food intake to about 1,500 calories per day.
Such a diet will keep us alive, although we will lose weight in the process. But that's okay, as the reduced weight will put less strain on our hearts, joints and muscles. In fact, it will reduce the risk for a wide range of medical problems that are considered normal, as one of the biggest risk factors for our health is being overweight.
On to Cooking (Short-Term)
As I've already mentioned, proper cooking will be extremely important during any time where we are trying to survive. Cooking is actually a chemical process, where heat is used to cause a change in the food. While killing pathogens is a very important part of cooking; it also breaks down fibers and congeals proteins, making food edible and digestible.
In modern day America, we cook mostly with electricity and natural gas. But in the wake of a disaster, it's unlikely we'll have either of those available to us. Electricity is generally the first thing to go out in a disaster and natural gas is often shut off a the pumping station, to prevent the possibility of accident or explosion. While both will come back on, it may take some considerable time for it to happen.
We've all seen times when the power went out and we went without electricity for a few hours or even a day. While that's serious, it's nothing like what the people of New Orleans went through after Hurricane Katrina. There were people who were still without electricity six weeks after that hurricane went through. In the case of a serious disruption of power, such as could be caused by an EMP, we may never see it come back on.
Cooking on a Grille
Most of us have some alternative means of cooking, which we can use for the short-term. The most common of these is a barbecue grille. Whether propane or wood, a grille is a great way to cook for the short term, allowing you to prepare pretty much anything.
If your grille is gas, you'll only be able to cook as long as your propane holds out; so it's a good idea to keep a spare tank or two on hand. For that matter, if you have a charcoal grille, you'll need to stock up on charcoal as well. But don't worry, both can be used with wood, when the time comes that you run out of either propane or charcoal. Granted, burning wood or charcoal in a gas grille might mess it up a bit, but nothing that changing the gas burner tube won't rectify.
While most people don't normally use their barbecue grille for more than cooking steaks, burgers and hot dogs, they can make a very effective stove. A frying pan, saucepot or even stockpot can easily be placed on a barbecue grille, greatly expanding the variety of different foods you can prepare on one.
You can even use your grille as an oven. There are two ways of doing this. One is to use a true Dutch Oven, the cast iron kind. You simply remove the grille and place it down in the coals, heaping coals on top of the Dutch Oven's inverted-style lid as well. This provides heat from all directions, the main difference in cooking in an oven. But you can also use the grille as an oven without a Dutch Oven, simply by placing the food on the grille and closing the lid. Just be sure that your fire has burned down to coals, so that you don't burn the bottom of your pizza.
One thing to keep in mind about using a barbecue grille as a stove or oven is that charcoal can reach temperatures of 700 degrees. Aluminum has a melting point of 1,221 degrees. That makes it clear that the charcoal won't melt the aluminum; but prolonged exposure to that much heat will gradually weaken the aluminum. So your pots, pans and cookie sheets won't last as long. Better to use cast iron or stainless steel cookware. Ceramic works well also.
The Coleman Dual-Fuel Stove
When I was growing up, we used a Coleman stove whenever we went camping, which was our normal way of taking a vacation. I fondly remember that stove and was less than thrilled by Coleman's move to stoves that use small bottles of propane gas. In a survival situation, those small bottles of propane won't be available. Not to fear, the old dual-fuel stove of my childhood is still on the market.
I was thrilled to find one of these at my local Bass Pro. As near as I can tell, the only difference between the one I bought and the one my dad had, is that the fuel tank has been redesigned a bit. But it still works exactly the same way.
The reason that these stoves are referred to as "dual-fuel" is that they will run off of Coleman fuel or gasoline. They also have dual-fuel lanterns, for those of you who remember the old Coleman lanterns with the flimsy mantles and that you had to pump up the tank to pressurize it. While gasoline might be hard to come by in the wake of a disaster, it will still be the easiest fuel to find. If nothing else, you can siphon it out of your gas tank.
Speaking of Propane
While a propane grille or a Coleman dual-fuel may be great ways of cooking; there's one that beats them both. Not only that, but it's one that will survive most disasters and which you will be able to use for your ongoing cooking needs, at least as long as your fuel holds out. That's a propane stove.
Many people who live out in the country cook no propane stoves, because the gas company hasn't run lines to where they are. They'll have a 500 gallon propane tank out back of their home, which provides gas for their stove, furnace and hot water heater. Most of the time, the gas company will supply those tanks for free, just as long as the people are buying the propane from them.
Wood, Wonderful Wood
For most of human history, wood has been the cooking fuel of choice and is still widely in use in various parts of the world. I have eaten many a meal cooked over wood; not only while camping, but also in remote villages in Mexico, where wood is the only cooking fuel they have.
The nice thing about wood is that it is plentiful in much of the world. Granted, there are areas where trees are sparse and even where they are plentiful, cutting firewood is a lot of work. But compared to other fuels, wood is one of the easiest to harvest, requiring much less specialized equipment than any other common fuel.
Wood is also easy to use as a source of heat; easy enough that just about anyone, living in just about any condition, in just about any place, can find a way of using it. While we tend to think of fireplaces and wood burning stoves, when we think of wood. Those aren't the only options. We could also use wood in:
- A fire pit
- A barbecue grille
- A cast-iron, wood burning stove
- Any large pot, converted into a fire pit by raising it up off the floor, to protect the floor from burning
- A bonfire in the back yard
The point is that if you have no other choice, wood offers you a reliable way of cooking. All you need to do is find a fireproof place where you can build your fire.
With that in mind, a little preparation might be in order. Even if you already have a fireplace of wood burning stove installed in your home for emergency heating, you might want to consider building yourself a place specifically for cooking. Most wood burning stoves aren't really all that easy to cook on, as they are designed for heating, not cooking. Unless you have one of the old pot-bellied stoves, the top might not even get hot enough for cooking on.
The Fire Pit
That brings us back to the barbecue grille or building a fire pit. The advantage of a fire pit is that it is intended for burning wood in. barbecue grilles are designed for burning charcoal. So, to use a barbecue grille as a wood-burning stove, you have to burn your wood down to charcoal, before you even think about cooking on it. While that ends up providing for a hotter fire, you might not want to wait all that time.
You can chose to make your own fire pit, in which case brick and stone are the materials of choice. Landscaping stones, which are really shaped cement, work well, allowing you to build a fire pit much like building a small raised bed planter. There are also a number of metal fire pits on the market, varying in size and complexity. Just be sure to look at it from the viewpoint of cooking and make sure that you get a grille that fits.
The Clay Oven
While you're building an outdoor kitchen, you might want to consider building yourself a brick or clay oven as well. These are typically dome shaped, with a flat bottom and curved top. If brick is used, it is often covered in a layer of clay, to provide a smooth surface. That's especially important for the floor of the oven.
To use a clay oven, the fire is built inside and allowed to burn down to coals. This heats the clay of the oven itself, which works well to store the heat. Then, when the oven is hot, the coals are swept to the side or removed from the oven altogether and the bread (or pizza) is put in to bake. The clay of the oven would hold enough heat to fully cook the bread, without having to add any more coals.
Cooking With Solar Power
One of the most innovative means of emergency cooking involves using the power of the sun. The great thing about this is that you don't have to cut wood for fuel or burn your preciously short supply of gasoline. The sun has energy to spare, which readily converts to heat. On the flip side of the coin, solar cooking doesn't work worth beans when the sky is overcast.
Solar cooking relies on the concentration of sunlight, either through reflection or through the use of a lens. In either case, the concentrated sunlight is focused on the container for the food. This should ideally be black, so that it will absorb the most light, converting it to heat. There are three types of solar cookers:
The solar oven is an insulated box with a clear lid. Reflective "shutters" are often added, to increase the amount of sunlight that gets into the box where the food is. There, the sunlight is converted to heat, cooking the food.
Solar ovens are slow-cookers, like cooking with a Crockpot. The internal temperature rarely rises above 300 degrees, even in direct sunlight. Even so, you can still overcook food in them. The first time I used one, I overcooked a roast and potatoes, almost burning them to the point of being inedible.
This taught me the true problem with this type of cooker. That is, you can't see what's happening with the food; and if you open the lid to check on it, you lose the heat trapped inside. So, there is a definite learning curve involved in using a solar oven.
The parabolic cooker consists of a reflective parabolic lens which reflects sunlight onto a suspended pot, holding the food. The cooking is caused by the high amount of sunlight which is concentrated on the cooking pot. As such, it reaches a considerably higher temperature than the solar oven, more along the lines of a typical gas or electric oven.
A parabolic cooker can be made from any old satellite antenna; the ones they used before these new 18" diameter antennas we have today. If you have a friend or neighbor who is getting rid of one, that can be a great start towards building yourself a useful project. Simply coat the interior of the antenna with aluminum foil, shiny side up, taking care to avoid wrinkling it. This is best done with small pieces, as the curvature of the parabola will tend to cause wrinkling.
The only other thing that's needed is a holder for the pot. This is easier to construct if you use a pot with a wire handle, as the pot can then be suspended. Ideally, that pot needs to be located exactly where the stem of the antenna originally was, as that is the focal point of the parabola.
Fresnel lenses are the flat plastic magnifying glasses that you can but for magnifying pages in the phone book. The back side of the lens is ridged, which makes it into a multitude of connected lenses, each only magnifying a small part of the whole. If you remember using your first magnifying glass as a child to burn leaves and torment ants, you'll understand how effective this can be.
These lenses were also used in the old type of large screen televisions, located just behind the screen and used to focus the image onto the back of it. If you see anyone throwing one of these out, be sure to stop and scavenge the lens from it. If you don't see one being thrown away, look on eBay, you can find them for sale there.
All that's needed is to mount the lens into a frame, so that it can be held and pointed in the right direction. The pot or pan containing the food is then placed at the focal point of the sun, which is usually about two feet behind the lens.
A Fresnel Lens cooker can get extremely hot in bright sunlight. I've seen them cook fried eggs in about a minute. I've also seen them melt copper pennies. Of all the solar cooking methods, this is the most effective, simply because of the high heat that it can generate.