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The last sound I heard before the lights went out at 5 pm last Monday, October 29th, was the sizzle of a little boneless leg of lamb searing on my stovetop. It had been marinated in wine and fresh herbs, and it smelled marvelous. As it always does, that sizzle held so much promise, but this time it was not to be.
Potatoes were scrubbed and the oven was hot and ready to bake them. Brussels sprouts glazed with bacon drippings were trimmed in preparation for roasting to a sweet golden brown.
Along with the lights went all power, heat, and running water as the first gusts of Hurricane Sandy reached me, nearly 100 miles from her ferocious epicenter that literally tore people’s lives to pieces.
The sizzle of the meat faded, and scrambling to save dinner for my husband, son and myself, I sliced the potatoes and threw the sprouts in a cast-iron skillet.
Braving the wind, I crammed it all onto my deck-side propane grill, just two steps out the door. There was a sudden crunching sound 10 feet to my right, and a 30-foot tree fell across my line of vision. This is when I realized that although I may be an ingenious cook desperate to salvage a hot meal, no dinner was worth dying for. I cleared the grill in a hurry and retreated to the relative safety of four walls.
We ate every bite of that meal, and it was delicious, but it churned in our stomachs all night long as we huddled around candles listening to what sounded like freight trains circling our home. We cringed each time a loud crack and bang echoed in the darkness, praying that the next one wouldn’t come crashing through the roof.
An eerie calm greeted the daylight and we were awed by our luck, but many neighbors were not so fortunate. Instead of being surrounded by the sounds of destruction, the grinding whir of chain saws filled the air as people rallied together to literally cut their way out of their homes and neighborhoods.
Soldiering through the moderately cold temperatures with help from a warm fire in the fireplace, we made it through night two. Then survival mode set in and the grill became our lifeline, heating soup, boiling noodles and grilling the quickly defrosting meat and seafood in the freezer.
We also heated water on the grill to give ourselves sponge baths, wanting to retain at least a semblance of normal routine. Offers of shelter came in from far and wide, but we were determined to stand our ground, feeling that we were so much more fortunate than many others.
I have chosen to make cooking my vocation for many reasons, not least the power of food to provide not only sustenance, but comfort. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, humble or elaborate, they all bring people together in good times and bad.
But it was when the temperature dropped, the sawdust settled and we realizde we couldn’t cook fast enough to save our stockpile of food, that I truly experienced the meaning and value of a warm meal made with care.
The cell phone lit up with messages from friends with generators. “I have a big pot of meatballs,” “pot roast on the stove,” roasting a chicken” read these heaven-sent offerings.
On night three, we drove slowly through the blackness, dodging limbs and wires. Turning onto our friend’s street we could practically see the warmth, physical and emotional, reaching out from their bright home, lit up like a beacon in a storm.
As that lovely leg of lamb went cold in the pan, I would never have imagined that nearly a week later I would be in a parka, writing this with an old fashioned pen and paper in my 40 degree house. We have given up trying to stay here, returning only to repack our bags and set out again like gypsies in search of a hot shower, warm bed, electric plug, and the comfort of friends.
The rotten food sits at the curb along with piles and piles of refuse that Sandy left behind. Someday, the storm and all its havoc will be a distant memory, but at a time when so many have lost so much, what I have gained from the kindness of family and friends will linger forever.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.