Storm Food, or Why Beefaroni Matters

Well, on the Friday before Irene was to devastate Wrong Island (friends, that’s Long Island to you), I realized that we hadn’t prepared for disaster.  So I exhumed our limp flashlight and menorah emergency candles, tested the 1985 Sony shortwave (“skies are clear in Pacific Samoa”) and drove to the drugstore for a life-saving flat of water-filled plastic.

But what if we lose power for days on end? Bulbs flicker when even the shadow of a smile clouds WIPA, the Wrong Island Power Authority; our Costco meat-bounty would be fly-encrusted in no time. So I drove to Stop and Shop to stock up on storm food.

Yes, lovers of culture, I am aware that true storm food is rum and lime, with a spritz of Edward G. Robinson spittle. But that’s the movies, and we won’t be able to watch and be reminded because DVD players don’t have hamster wheels attached. So I get behind my wire chariot and gladiate the supermarket aisles.

“I look at what they others are buying and buy that,” I read on Twitter (hashtag #Irene) before I left, so I watched carefully. The ladies — almost all were ladies — spent careful time deciding between concentrated and evaporated milk; desirable boxed was gone.  Only sluggish pea remained among soups, and straggling cans of tuna were badly dented; the store’s few dutiful dads didn’t notice and scooped ’em up.

Hashtag. I bought a can of corned beef hash, on sale. No, don’t ask why.

Why was that crowd on Aisle 13 making such a ruckus? A pale, cowering stocker was attempting to unpack a single carton of Beefaroni, not the big cans, but the small, microwavable portions with Budweiser flip-tops.

It was like nylons in 1945 London. Move it, slowpoke, get out of my way!

I scored three.

Then, away from the scrim, I thought, Beefaroni. Chef Boyardee was never nominated for a James Beard award. Copy editor that I am remembers his name with hyphens, Boy-Ar-Dee, but he was a real chef, from Cleveland, home of world-famous Italian food: Ettore Boiardi. I bet you didn’t know that, and with a hurricane approaching, wouldn’t care.

Boiardi marketed himself not through palate appeal in taste, but palate appeal in pronunciation (check the hat). Gosh, I just noticed, he looks a lot like my father.

I wonder if Dad opened cans of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee for our lunch. Probably not. He was at work selling Packards and made much better food than that when he cared to lift a pan. My mom may have wielded the opener, but, now that I think about it, I never, ever had Beefaroni before. Our household bought only Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli, because Beefaroni was for the masses. I had asked what ravioli was, but was corrected to inquire what ravioli were and never received an answer I understood. I ate the sweet lumps with preliminary Continental pleasure, even if they were slightly chilly inside.

Not completely cold, as they would be during a Wrong Island hurricane.

So, we made out OK and never lost power — just cable and Internet, which, as I have learned these past few days, is lost power squared. No flooding in our basement or backyard, no murderous wooden limbs, nothing but voyeuristic, unsettling apprehension.

Relieved at shining sun and azure sky, I took stock of my stash of storm food. In cans: chili and beans. Southern seasoned mixed greens. That hash. An embarrassing amount of evaporated milk.

What should I try first? A soy-rice peanut bar that some graphic artist had a field day with, on special for a buck.

Human caulking, spat it out.

Then I did what anyone with any sense would assume I had wished to do since I had been thrust on my adult stage: nuke that Beefaroni.

Let me admit that in all my growing up I have never learned another useful language: no dour German, no Spanish for gay southern visits, no retrograde French. Yet I did master a “language” at age six or seven that has enabled me to communicate effortlessly with the entire United Nations of Things. It’s called Jingle.

Name a product, even one that was never popular and is long dead, and I speak the jingle: “Co-cil-la, la-la-la-la-na, Cocillana cough nibs.”

A cartoon Callas sings this.

“You’ll la-la-la like how they’ll bring, fast relief when your *throat* is sore.”

Google that if you like. The man who wrote the poetry is waiting in his rocker, ready to spit at the screen when Mad Men resumes its season.

“We’re having Beefa-RO-ni, it’s made with maca-RO-ni.” (Somewhere along the line, this was changed to, “it’s beef and maca-RO-ni.”) “Beefaroni’s really neat, Beefaroni’s fun to eat. Hooray! For Beefaroni.”

The untin can says heat for 45 seconds, but it took two minutes in my old machine to get hot. I’m not an idiot, so should have known that I hadn’t the means to resist what would happen: at the very first, steaming bite, I became babyface Rod Taylor in a pablum time machine, whirled back to a Brooklyn kitchen table and the smell of burnt tomato.  It all was either too hot or too cold, but I ate almost everything in front of me with an awful measured pleasure, one I couldn’t help but record. Good, bad, made no difference. That stewed, adulterated pap forced me to wake up and sing.

Purists never understand that when a hungry mind and body are poised, they leap at anything.

Now, storm over, all we can do is clean up after the wind.

Lunch after Irene