The key to making a gratin out of yellow squash, onion and potato is to slice the vegetables paper thin using a mandolin. The vegetable slices are then placed into a baking dish in rows like decks of playing cards that have been fanned out. Drizzle them with olive oil, top them with fresh rosemary and grated parmesan cheese, and the result is a dish that’s easy to make and gets rave reviews. I know because that’s what I was making last Monday night just before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Jersey Shore just south of me.
I hadn’t understood the magnitude of the coming storm until I visited my brother last weekend in the Finger Lakes, two days before it was supposed to hit.
“Uh, yeah, that’s why they’re calling it a Frank-en-storm?” he said, with the know-it-all tone of someone who follows weather.
As we drove home from my brother’s house back to our home on the Jersey shore, the storm just 24 hours away, I kept asking my husband if we should stop at various friends and relatives who lived along our route. “Maybe we should see if we can stay at Mark and Cheryl’s in the Catskills.” “How about your parents place in Pennsylvania?” “Maybe we should stay in Harlem.” “Do you think we should have stayed in the Finger Lakes?”
We arrived back at the Jersey Shore late Sunday afternoon and went for a walk on the beach, to take stock of things we weren’t sure would be there the next day. We took photos of the art deco casino that separates our town from the next. We walked on the boardwalk and out on the fishing pier, on the end of which there is a small building that houses the local fishing club. We walked out onto the beach and climbed the large dunes the public works department had built in a feeble attempt to keep the water back. With the full moon coming, 80 mile an hour winds expected, and the storm estimated to hit the coast near us at high tide, the waves were expected to surge as much as 25 feet. The little dunes that were erected reminded me of Wile E. Coyote, who, just as a boulder is about to fall on his head, will shield himself by opening up a little umbrella.
I felt nostalgic for the beach and boardwalk and fishing pier, even though they weren’t even gone yet. But more, I was pained at the prospect that the memorial bench I had bought for my dead father was likely to float out to sea, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It reminded me of when my father was dying, and I tried to save his life by feeding him organic food, removing all of the items containing sugar from his cabinets and taking him to see an acupuncturist. I wanted to stand on the boardwalk as the huge waves came crashing down and with Herculean strength hold on to the bench, but I knew I couldn’t change the inevitable.
That night, we went to a dinner party at our neighbors, Sherry and Will. After dinner, Will and I practiced the three songs we’ll be playing on our guitars at an upcoming Chanukah party while my son, Eddie, played with the toys Sherry still has in neatly labeled boxes stacked in a closet from when her sons, now adults, were children.
As we left, we invited everyone over to our house the next night for dinner, though by Monday afternoon, the wind began to whip through the trees, and the sea was getting so frothy, most people didn’t want to leave their houses. The hurricane was projected to make landfall at 8:00 p.m. At about 6 p.m., I had just baked the meatballs for my Italian wedding soup, and my husband, Bruce, and I decided to take a drive down to the ocean to see if the sea was rising as the weathermen predicted it would. We walked out on to the boardwalk and the wind was so strong, I had to hold on to a bench to stop the wind from carrying me backwards. The ocean hadn’t yet reached the boardwalk but the waves were already crashing in to the fishing club at the end of the pier. The fishing club sat on stilts, and with each wave, it would sway ever so slightly. I knew that by morning, it would be gone.
As we drove home, we saw a figure in a winter coat standing at the foot of our street hugging the pole of a street lamp. I opened my car door to see if she needed help, and the wind almost blew the door off of its hinges. I ran over to the figure and saw it was a woman of about 65. I told her to get into our car, but she would not let go of the pole. Bruce and I finally pried her off and stuffed her into our car. We asked her how she wound up there. She said every evening, she walks from her house, which is about two miles inland, up to the beach, and so she treated tonight like any other. It wasn’t until she reached the last ocean block that she found the winds were too strong to bear. She suggested that we drop her off just a few blocks inland, but we drove her all the way home.
When we got back to our house, I finished cooking the soup, made a salad with greens from our local CSA, and put the squash and potato gratin into the oven. I also threw in a pork roast because I knew if we had a power outage, all my meat would go bad so one by one, I planned to cook everything I had in the freezer. A few friends managed to make it over, despite the wind, and indeed at about 8 p.m. that night, just as the high tide rolled in, our lights went out. By the time we finished dinner, the wind gusts were so strong, we drove home our friend, Joyce, even though she lives just a block away.
Throughout the night and into the morning, the storm stomped through our town like a petulant child, kicking down trees, ripping out power lines, throwing sand and water everywhere. But in the end, the only damage our house suffered was a ripped screen. As for our town, we lost a few sections of boardwalk and the parts that remain now undulate up and down like an amusement ride. Large chunks of the roof on the big church in the center of town were torn off. One person said it looked like someone had peeled back a tin can, exposing everything inside to the elements. The fishing pier remained, but the fishing club that stood at the end of it was gone, as if a giant shark bit it off and left behind a couple of pilings and shredded bits of wood.
After the storm passed, the three of us went down to the boardwalk to investigate the damage. As Eddie ran up and down the boardwalk, I walked off to look for my father’s bench. Despite being concrete, most of the benches were thrown from the boardwalk onto a greenway nearby. Some were smashed apart. Others were upside down or half buried in sand. I walked from bench to bench reading every plaque and after looking at about a dozen, I spotted two benches knocked onto their backs but intact near the roadway. I ran over and saw one was my father’s. I touched his nameplate with my finger a few times and then ran off to catch up with Bruce and Eddie.
Over the next several days, concerned friends and relatives from Florida to Ireland tried contacting us to see how we were. They’d all seen photos of devastation on the Jersey shore. The only ones who hadn’t seen the extent of the damage was us, because we had no television or internet. I wondered if that was how it was for the victims of Katrina, though it reminded me of a t-shirt I have that bears the name of a girls basketball team. Whenever I wear it, someone will say, “Go Blue Hill!” and I’ll look at them askance.
“Your t-shirt,” they’ll say.
The biggest impact of the storm, for us, was the loss of power. For five days, we had no electricity or heat. And because we have an on-demand hot water system, which has an electronic igniter, we had no hot water, either. For the first two days, we didn’t bathe, and we were afraid to go running because we didn’t want to sweat. By the third day, we filled the bathtub with buckets of boiled water, and the three of us shared the same bathwater.
As we and all of our neighbors sat in the dark, and watched the meat in our freezers begin to thaw, we all began to cook, and cook, and cook. On Tuesday night, I had a dinner party for 12 neighbors, who walked over with flashlights and bottles of wine. We crowded around my candlelit table and ate rib eye steaks that I’d left out for an hour with salt and pepper until they’d reached room temperature, just as Saveur magazine advised. We had lamb chops rubbed with minced garlic and rosemary and chicken thighs that I’d brined and then baked. I was about to slather them with St. Louis barbeque sauce when my neighbor, Lee, who likes to drink, grabbed the bowl of sauce and poured some red wine into it.
“That’s what it needs,” he said. He then brushed the chicken with the sauce and carried it outside to the grill.
For dessert, I made a chocolate bundt cake with Kahlua and chocolate chips. Before bringing it out to the table, I sifted some confectioner’s sugar on top of it and stuck in a few candles because it was our neighbor Emily’s 83rd birthday.
For lunch on Wednesday, we had mussels in a white wine and garlic broth that was so finger-lickin good, we ate half a loaf of ciabatta with it to soak up all the sauce. For dinner, we walked over to our neighbors Jan and Emily carrying a little red lantern, to light our way, and had spaghetti with sausage and meatballs, and butter lettuce tossed in a sweet vinaigrette.
On Thursday afternoon, our neighbor, Lee, set up a barbeque in front of his house and began cooking up hamburgers and hot dogs, and soon, people were coming out of their homes like the inhabitants of Whoville carrying steaks, sausage, pork chops, anything that was about to go bad. Lee cooked for four hours, at first cooking for all of the neighbors and after that, he began feeding everyone who walked by. That night, I made my first ham. My neighbor Jan stuck cloves intermittently all over the outside of it, and I kept basting it as it cooked. Just before taking it out, I drizzled maple syrup all over the top, raised the heat to 450 degrees, and cooked it another 10 minutes in order to crisp the skin. We were about 10 for dinner that night, so I roasted some asparagus, zucchini and onions, and then steamed some broccoli that I tossed in butter, lemon and garlic.
Friday afternoon, our neighbor Mary made a big vat of chili, and that night, our next-door-neighbor, Shelley, made pelmeni, an Eastern European dish that’s similar to tortellini though Shelley serves it in chicken broth with sour cream and drawn butter. After dinner, we dug into Shelley’s Halloween candy, which had been sitting in a basket untouched because the holiday was cancelled on account of the storm.
On Saturday, our neighbors Cindy and Eileen cooked up enough fish and roasted peppers and rice to feed 25 people. During dinner, our neighbor, Lee, said he planned to pull out his barbeque the next day and cook all afternoon again, only this time he wanted to do it in the park at the end of our street because it was more visible. He wanted even more people to bring him their meat, and he wanted to feed anyone in need of a meal. At this point, he was running low on charcoal, so that morning, he pulled a couple of wagons out of his basement and started loading them up with twigs and branches from fallen tree limbs. Our son, Eddie, helped him find twigs and pulled one of the carts.
But while tragedies make saints of some, they make sinners of others. There were hour-long lines for gasoline and hot coffee prompting some to cut in line and tempers to flare. In Belmar, the windows of a clothing store were blown out and people ran in and stole merchandise. Another man was awakened in the middle of the night because he heard his generator go off, and he thought someone was stealing it. But seconds later, he heard it go back on, and he fell back asleep. When he woke up in the morning, he saw his generator was gone but that his lawnmower was left on, by thieves who were obviously experienced.
There were allegations of price gouging across the state, for everything from gas to generators to batteries. Scammers posing as contractors were taking deposits from people. There were reports that a fight broke out at a local Wegman’s grocery store, which was operating on generators and offering wifi and a place to charge phones and computers. But so many people wanted to use the plugs, a 30-minute time limit was imposed, and there were squabbles when people failed to obey the rule.
There were people with metal detectors scanning the beaches in search of other people’s belongings that may have washed away. Even the birds were capitalizing, picking at dead fish that had been swept up as the lakes overflowed and then deposited onto the streets when the waters receded.
With few traffic lights working and police stationed at only the busiest intersections, driving was hazardous. The upside? I had to drop my husband off in a nearby town, and a journey that usually takes about 20 minutes took seven.
The disaster turned our area into a police state. A curfew was imposed, prohibiting residents from being outside before 7 a. m. and after 7 pm. We got into the car one afternoon to see how our neighboring towns were affected, and police cars and cones were set up everywhere, blocking people from getting to the beach. In Asbury Park, I’d heard rumors that the storm literally threw the boardwalk into the plate glass windows of several oceanfront restaurants, and I wanted to see it but couldn’t get to it from any angle. Cones blocked the streets to cars, the boardwalk entrance from my town was blocked to pedestrians. The only way in was along the beach, but even that was blocked by police tape. One afternoon, I stood on the beach just outside the line of tape, but because it was low tide, I could easily walk around the line of tape if I walked close to the ocean. But I saw a man sitting on a loading dock off in the distance who appeared to be a cop, though he wore no uniform. I stood for a couple of minutes at the edge of the barrier, afraid to walk through, but I finally put one foot over the line.
“Stay back!” he said.
Damn, I thought.
Every day that went by without power, we grew a little more frustrated. I did all my cooking by candlelight and twice nicked my finger slicing vegetables. By the end of the week, I had band-aids on both thumbs. I watched my son, Eddie, playing with one of our two best flashlights one afternoon and thought nothing of it, until the sun set and we had just one flashlight between the three of us.
Every morning, our neighbor, Lee, would walk by our house saying, “There’s a truck coming in to the hardware store,” and he’d head off to see what was on it. I think he envisioned it would be packed with flashlights and generators and batteries, coffee and gasoline, everything that was hard to find right now. And every afternoon, I’d ask him what was on the truck, and he’d say, “It didn’t come in yet.”
Our neighbor, Jim, inherited a generator that he began to run early in the morning and into the night. The machine was loud, like a jack hammer, and initially, we all liked the sound because we thought it was public works and power company employees sawing downed trees and fixing power lines. When we realized the noise was so that one man could have power, it became a nuisance.
“I’m a good neighbor. I really am. But this is just too much, ” complained one woman.
Just then, Jim walked by with his dog and without prompting, apologized for the sound of the generator and said he would shut it off once he and some friends had watched a movie. He then told the woman who was complaining that she could plug into his generator with her phones, computers, even her a refrigerator, if she liked. Minutes later, she had a power strip set up in her backyard and had created a little charging station. She asked me if I wanted to plug in – once there was room. But at the moment, she and her husband had taken up every outlet on a strip.
As time went on, the temperature fell, dropping below 40 degrees at night. Some began to fear that we dodged a bullet with the storm only to have our pipes burst because our homes had no heat. The power company kept predicting it would be 10 to 14 days before we’d have power again. On the fourth day, I was standing in front of my house when a utility truck went by.
“How much longer? A week?,” I shouted as the truck went by.
“Tonight or tomorrow,” the man said.
“Really? Woo hoo!” I said.
I told everyone who would listen. About an hour later, my neighbor, Steve, walked by and said, “I hear you’re spreading rumors.”
“I’m just repeating what the power company said.”
I initially felt like the bearer of good news. Now, I felt like a charlatan.
Even my son, Eddie, was affected by the storm. Every story he told this week seemed to end with, “Boom,” and with his hands, he’d illustrate a tree falling to the ground from the wind. When he fell on the stairs, he said, “Boom!” When he dropped a toy, it went “Boom!” One morning, I gave him a pad and some magic markers and a package of stickers. He drew swirls and then placed stickers of fish all over the page, making it look like he had drawn a giant tidal wave.
On Saturday evening, just after I arrived at the fish fry down the block, I got cramps so bad, I had to run home to go to the bathroom. I must have eaten bad meat, I thought. I ran my mind through the food I’d eaten and made a mental diagram of those who said they’d felt sick over the last few days and which foods we’d eaten in common. I came up with chopped liver. By nightfall, I was shivering with fever.
I was sitting in the bathroom at about 7.30 p.m. when through a crack in the door I could see a bright light. I thought either my kitchen is on fire or the power is back on. I could hear cheers in the street. My husband said when the lights went on at the fish fry down the street, everyone began hugging each other and laughing, like it was New Year’s Eve.
I was glad the power was back on. It was beginning to get cold. I felt sick. I wanted a hot shower. And I was tired of having to travel in order to use my cell phone or charge my laptop. But just as the lights came on, I thought about the pot of chicken soup I’d made, and how with my freezer off, three packets of ground beef in the cooler had to be used, and I was planning on inviting some neighbors over for shepherd’s pie. And there was still the pork tenderloin and the chicken breasts. I was only beginning to think of ways to cook them. Well, there’s always the Nor’easter…