Harvey Hangover: Dining and Drinking Through The Storm

Stocking up pre-Harvey
Stocking up pre-Harvey Photo by Marco Torres
The faces of Houston meteorologists were tense and serious. The forecast was dire. We hoped against hope that their predictions of nonstop rain for days were weatherperson dramatics. As Hurricane Harvey neared the Texas coast, we did as Houstonians always do: We stripped the grocery store shelves of chips and Oreos.

As I made my last pre-storm foray for groceries, I noticed that people prefer junk food for hunkering down. The produce section was still filled with apples, lettuce and bananas, but the snack sections were as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. And there wasn’t a loaf of bread, white or whole wheat, to be found. Difficult times call for carbs. And food covered in powdered cheese.

There is something in the American spirit, left over from our pioneer days, perhaps, that seems to delight a little in hardship. We want to have our mettle tested sometimes, to see what we are made of in the face of adversity. And we will face that adversity with plenty of Doritos and Shiner Bock.

We loaded up on steaks. The possibility of power outages had us turned on. Our primitive hunter instincts were in full force and our families would have bone-in-rib eyes cooked over fire, or at least propane.

Folks who had not willingly drunk anything other than Dr Pepper and Chardonnay in decades were hefting cases of bottled water into their dangerously overloaded shopping carts. Cans of soup and SpaghettiOs were flying off the shelves. Despite the worry and unpredictability, there was a sense of “we are all in this together.” People were conversing with strangers, laughing with neighbors they had bumped into, each encounter ending with “you stay safe.”

The first night, as my husband and I sat watching nonstop news coverage, drinking cheap cabernet and eating take-out pizza, we realized that we were stuck inside for a while. A long while. While the southwestern part of our coast was enduring high winds and storm surges, we were about to suffer a 500-year flood. We poured a third glass of wine at midnight as we stared out at the relentless rain, not daring to go to bed. Eventually, my husband and I decided to sleep in shifts.

Over the next four days, Facebook became a vital connection to the outside world and to our friends as the baleful waters rose around us. We could see photos of each other’s neighborhoods and reassure ourselves that we were all okay.

A friend posted a photo of a cake she made with a design of a hurricane in colored sprinkles. She said she was stress baking and her family was stress eating. We laughed. It was early days yet and we were all still hopeful that it wouldn’t be as bad as predicted.

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The Roth Family handled their hurricane stress with cake.
Photo by Shannon Brewer Fisch Roth

And we ate. The potential of a power outage had me emptying the freezer for a seafood extravaganza. Not a bad way to weather a storm.

Scrambled eggs and pancakes became popular dinner choices among my friends, as did chili and, subsequently, Frito pie. Three days in, we realized that things were getting dangerously worse. We began to hear military helicopters above our neighborhood and later discovered that some of our neighbors were rescued from their kitchen table.

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Hurricane Harvey scrambled eggs a la Gordon Ramsay.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

When our friends had to evacuate by boat from their flooded home, the television coverage was no longer just news. It was our friends and family. Our neighbors. It was us.

Once the water came over our porch, we began to use our welcome mat as our flooding barometer. Sometimes it covered “ welcome” and sometimes it would recede enough for one to make out the lettering.

My family and I moved precious items to the second floor. It is a surreal feeling to make choices on what possessions you want to save. For my family, it was our photo albums and books. Between my husband and me, we have more than four thousand books. Needless to say, we didn’t get them all put up.

We unloaded the pantry into grocery bags and hauled our provisions upstairs, along with some sterno cups and disposable dishware.

My daughter asked, with panic in her voice, “Is that all the food we have left?” I informed her she was going to have to eat other things besides Goldfish crackers and Cheez-Its.

There was still plenty of fruit and veggies to be emptied out of the refrigerator, but it seems no one wants healthy food when disaster is imminent. Apples are not comfort food.

Fortunately, we never lost power. Around one o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, I looked out to see our welcome mat, once again legible. When my husband awoke, I told him the good news. Then it started to pour rain again. And I started to pour another glass of wine.

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Hurricane Harvey took the welcome mat a bit too literally.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
In the end, we were fortunate to only get floodwater in our garage. A quick triage of friends and neighbors found devastation on different levels. Our friends in Dickinson were taken by a military transport plane to Dallas. Our neighbors camped out on their second stories.

When the sun came out on Tuesday afternoon, we emerged from our water-logged houses to let it shine on our faces, a little rounder from junk food and booze.

One friend said, “I need a salad.”

It was our 19th wedding anniversary. We had no champagne, so we split a can of Modelo Especial.

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Beer, magical beer.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
When I asked friends who had stayed in shelters about their experiences, they said that they ate surprisingly well. The kids raved about the hot dogs and burgers. At the Dallas-area shelter, they were given delicious breakfast tacos and samples of barbecue from Not Just Q. Our friends talked to the owner, Eric Hansen, and discovered he was a native of Kansas City like themselves. Small world, big hearts. It is a simple act of kindness to feed your fellow human being.

All across Texas, so many people stepped up, literally, to the plate. Restaurants that had sustained damage still managed to churn out tens of thousands of meals for first responders and victims. Many people donated their time and money to keep some sort of normalcy for residents who were displaced. Churches and nonprofits loaded up vans and delivered meals. Neighbors had cookouts in their driveways for the volunteers who had offered their time and labor. Beers were opened and new friends were made. Texans and even folks from other states came out in full force, helping strangers rip out sodden carpet or drywall. Families donated money to people or organizations in need. Friends helped friends pack up their lives to put in storage until home is once again home.

Many of us ate out of stress. Others ate out of hunger because they had gone without food for days.

Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey began, we sat with our recently returned friends on the Marais patio beside the Dickinson Bayou, which had severely flooded the town and caused unbelievable amounts of damage to homes and businesses. Now, it shimmered under the fading sun.

We toasted the beautiful weather with prosecco and enjoyed a feast of delicious appetizers, including a particularly tasty tower of lump crab and mango salsa. The stress and anxiety abated for a while.

There is conviviality in a shared meal, whether it be with fellow evacuees, strangers helping to remove flood-ravaged belongings, or friends still dressed in stinky, sweat-covered cleaning clothes.

Food can be pleasure, fuel or comfort. For Houstonians in the middle of a disaster, it was all three.

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The sun was a welcome sight after Harvey.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.