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Fine Dining During the Apocalypse

James Van Pelt teaches high school English in western Colorado part time and writes the rest of the time. His fiction has made numerous appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. He has been a finalist for a Nebula Award, the Sturgeon Award, the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award, and been reprinted in many year's best collections. His first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, was released in 2006 and was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. His third collection of stories, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, received the Colorado Book Award in 2010. His latest collection, The Experience Arcade and Other Stories debuts at the World Fantasy Convention this year. He blogs at jamesvanpelt.com.

Spices and creative thinking in the kitchen offer the diner looking for the best culinary experience no reason to despair in these new and challenging times.
The stores have long ago been sacked, of course, shelves cleared, and many burned to the ground, but they were obvious targets. You won't discover the ingredients you need there, and certainly not the main courses. The last time I found anything useful in a store was last year, and it was a box of oatmeal that had been kicked under a counter. Mice had been at it, but what remained, cooked with a pinch of wild peppermint leaves (bruised but not shredded), and topped with three poached robin eggs smelled delicious and has lingered in my taste bud's memory since.
A selection of spices is the secret to preparing the sort of meals your less fastidious neighbors will covet. Most houses have been looted, and some are occupied--always announce your intentions before entering a new site--but you are much more likely to claim a prize since the early scavengers sought canned foods, and were likely to overlook a delicacy, like thyme or saffron. Just this week I added a nearly full bottle of cumin, a small box of tartar, some basil, and the real treasure, an unopened, 16-ounce bottle of cinnamon powder. My stash includes several pounds of salt, a sugar barrel, a half-case of light virgin olive oil, a selection of liquors, as accompaniment, of course, and a variety of the more common spices, like bay leaf, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, and oregano, most found in empty homes.
Remember my oatmeal and robin egg creation? Sadly enough I realize that my exotic spices will not last forever, so the farsighted epicurean will also familiarize himself with the native edibles. Within a few miles of my kitchen, I have found the aforementioned peppermint along with yarrow, sagebrush, bergamot, and Mormon tea. A multitude of wild fruit is also available to add to your menu when in season: elderberries (these must be cooked--they are toxic when raw), Oregon grape and holly grape, pin cherries (use sparingly as they are sour), raspberries, thimbleberries, and strawberries. Be sure to familiarize yourself with baneberries, though. They are exceptionally lethal--Indians used them to poison their arrows.
Some flowers, bushes, and trees are edible or have edible parts. I'm working on a longer article for these. If you are willing to experiment, limit yourself to tiny samples. Although much in the world delights, much is deadly, or at least will make you feel like you want to die. If your tongue tingles, burns, or you experience symptoms other than the pleasant treat of a new taste, remember what it was and don't eat it again.
All the spices in the world won't matter if you can't find a main dish. Of the few people I've met since the world fell apart, most live off canned foods while hoping that their experiments in agriculture pay off later. They have my best wishes, and I look forward to trading with them if they succeed, but for the diner longing for a diet with flavor and zesty ingredients, especially fresh meat, there are numerous opportunities beyond setting off to hunt deer or elk, or waiting until hastily planted vegetables can be harvested. Surely we can do better than scraping baked beans or creamed corn from cans.
For the brave connoisseur, rats are plentiful in urban areas as are mice, but mice are more difficult to prepare. Still, with patience and time, a mouse-meat quiche makes a worthy midmorning meal. My experiment with a mice pie was less successful.
Rat, squirrel, possum, marmot, and prairie dog have much to offer, and the subtle differences in taste and texture offer the bold chef a multitude of repasts. On the avian side, pheasant, duck, and turkey make excellent bases for meals that a king would envy, but it would be a mistake to miss the potential delights of starling, pigeon, or crow.
Insects, too, add unexpected possibilities. A cup of grasshoppers and ants, finely minced and then sauteed with a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of lemon juice turns into a fine pate, suitable for a cracker spread.
For myself, my kitchen is entirely wood fire powered. This limits cooking time to the night when smoke won't call attention to my efforts, but that provides the advantage of the day for foraging, preparing the ingredients or marinating. Although the inconvenience of the occasional unreasonable survivor is not inconsiderable, a more immediate impediment has been roving dog packs, they are smart and tenacious but have provided an unexpected boon. The palate-delighting delicacy of the new age, I predict, will be dog meat. Surprisingly tasty and easy to obtain, dog makes one forget the comparably pale pleasures afforded by beef. The meat is dark red, finely marbled and strongly flavored. A thirty-pound animal provides several exciting meals, and properly seasoned and smoked, makes an excellent jerky.
So, imagine my typical day. I rise at dawn to a breakfast of soft-boiled birds' eggs and wild greens, spend an hour breaking wood from the fallen houses in the neighborhood into suitable lengths for the stove. Then I visit my traps to see what will be added to the larder. The afternoon is devoted to scavenging while contemplating what recipe will be consumed that evening.
As the sun sets, the ingredients come out of the cabinets; whatever meat will be the main course awaits preparation, and finally when darkness has fallen, the meal is assembled and put in the oven or atop the stove. Gradually, cooking smells fill the kitchen. Sauces bubble in their pots. Meat sizzles, and the basting is carefully performed with ritualistic precision. Spices' heady aroma teases the appetite until finally all finishes and is assembled on the plate. Presentation takes center stage. A deglazed sauce dripped across the artfully arranged meat and a parsley sprig to accentuate the delicacy pairs well with a full-bodied Pinot Noir or a Bordeaux Merlot.
Only the best silverware will do. My table set on the porch, I situate myself comfortably. Below my house on the hill, the old neighborhood spreads out, catching the moonlight in shadowy blue and black, illumining the collapsed frames, the burned out hulks and broken cars. I raise the first bite to my lips, anticipating the rush of flavors, the complex mix of spice and heat, texture and flavor that only a well-prepared meal can offer. Civilization's best achievement. Such a treat.
I pause, holding off for a moment that first, heady bite. In the distance, tomorrow's dinner barks at the night.
With joy, I eat.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 18th, 2017

Author Comments

Like many of my stories, this one came from thinking about how different people would respond to the same situation. Lots of people have written about the scruffy survivors, fighting each other and the environment after an apocalypse. I wanted to think about how people survive emotionally. Yes, the world may have gone to hell, but you have to go on anyway. What makes you happy? What are your obsessions? From that kind of thinking, this story about a man with a taste for the finer things in life arose.

- James Van Pelt
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