Salt and Prepper

By  |  February 27, 2019
 “Disaster Dog Daisy’s Bug Out Bag” by Allison Stewart, from her book, Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear “Disaster Dog Daisy’s Bug Out Bag” by Allison Stewart, from her book, Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear

The other day I ate a puffy omelet in a diner and was quite impressed because my own omelets are flat and lumpy. My wife explained to me that the correct term is “fluffy” and it results from adding air to the eggs. My first thought was to insert the nozzle of an old bicycle pump into a bowl of eggs and get a little exercise by working the handle. Dissuaded of that notion by the degree of exertion involved, I concluded that bigger eggs would do the trick. It stood to reason that they’d contain more air—whatever air is, exactly. Nitrogen and oxygen, as it turns out, plus a scrap of argon, known as a noble gas. (I had no idea the British peer system extended to invisible stuff.)

To acquire big airy eggs, I offered to go to Kroger with my wife, which momentarily confused her because I’d mispronounced the name. In my woeful ignorance, I assumed it was like Kmart, and had referred to the store as “K-Roger.” We then discussed the fact that “Kroger” has no rhyme in English, although how she’d know this is a deep marital mystery. She expressed gratitude for my company because, although she usually does the shopping, she never really likes it. This news surprised me. My wife makes food lists, reads cookbooks the way I read video game instructions, and maintains a running tally in her head of every item in the pantry. I’d assumed that the grocery store was to her like a Norwegian going into a Big and Tall Men’s clothing store. (Although in Norway they just call them Men’s Stores.) 

On the drive to Kroger my wife said the place made her claustrophobic because it is always very crowded with long check-out lines. She dreads going and leaves exhausted. I’d accompanied her before but, according to her, my presence added thirty minutes and a hundred dollars to the bill. This time she laid out two ground rules—don’t talk to anybody and don’t buy a bunch of snacks. I agreed because I had a short list of large eggs.

The local Kroger is a medium-sized store that serves about thirty thousand people. It’s widely believed that the company blocks all attempts for a rival chain to establish itself in Oxford. Four years ago Kroger brought jubilation to everyone in town by announcing that they were expanding to a superstore. The plan was to take over the adjacent spaces next door, knock down walls, and renovate. Four businesses were forced out—a liquor store, a nail salon, a cigar shop, and a restaurant. This not only inconvenienced customers but also cost those shops a pretty penny in lost sales and relocation expenses. Since then, the empty storefronts have remained sadly vacant and Kroger is still crowded with long lines. Admittedly, I do not fully comprehend the intricacies of large corporations. On the surface they seem to behave like two-year-olds—uncaring about others, and ignorant of consequences for their selfish actions—while still having the same rights as adults! Still, the whole scenario did provide me an opportunity to improve domestic harmony by going to the grocery as my wife’s wingman. 

Due to a startling abundance of clientele, the only available parking place was a quarter mile away from the store. We broke a sweat on the stroll across the blacktop, during which I told her I’d fetch whatever she wanted—after I got some giant air-filled eggs. My wife became so overcome by laughter that she had to stop and rest in the shade of a massive SUV, a pretty good use of such a silly behemoth. She never did tell me what was so funny. 

Once in the store, she put me on simple vegetable duty. This puzzled me because I’m unacquainted with complex vegetables, or even ones with elaborate personal problems. Confounding my task was the long, slim plastic bag that refused to open. I turned it one way then another, pulling and squeezing, but was unable to discern which end was openable. It was like a mucus membrane that adhered to itself or a maddening Rubik’s Cube. Believing I’d gotten a dud, I pulled a few more free of the handy dispenser, none of which would open. Several wound up on the floor and a few stuck to my clothes. A baleful store employee opened the bag for me and I nodded my thanks, complying with my wife’s instructions not to talk to anyone. Finally I left the produce section for dairy, another enigma—why are eggs shelved with milk? Are cows and chickens more intimate than I realized? I selected a dozen Extra Jumbo Eggs and set off to find my wife. Instead I discovered a magazine stand!

The periodicals were arranged by gender appeal, with the men’s magazines on the top shelf. The CDC reports that men are, on average, five inches taller than women, and apparently these tall men are interested in sports, guns, fishing, and trucks. At the end of the row was a title I’d never heard of—Prepper. I reached for it, thinking it was related to food, perhaps a slang term for “prep cook,” and that it might offer insight into aerating eggs. Eventually my wife arrived with an overflowing buggy and a familiar expression I recognized as disappointment. Yes, I’d escorted her to the grocery store but all I’d managed to do was slip a cucumber into an overlarge condom.

After a silent car ride home I offered to carry the bags into the house, thus sparing my wife the 120-degree heat in the garage. It was a conciliatory effort to make up for my failure as a shopping helper. She would have none of it, and hauled her share of bags inside, effectively nullifying my attempt at rapprochement. While she fanned herself briskly, I turned to Prepper, which is aimed at regular folks like me who want to prepare for the upcoming apocalypse. That time is closer than most people think and will take many forms, including terrorism, invasion by a foreign army, natural disaster, civil unrest, and cyber attacks—all of which will destroy the national power grid. I became quite anxious but knew I couldn’t ask my wife to quell my fears. She’d turned the air-conditioning very low and was cuddling the dog beneath a blanket. I felt left out—exactly how I’d feel when the apocalypse struck. 

An in-depth article on natural disasters helpfully defined them: 

A flood is when water overflows onto land that is not normally water-covered. 

I pondered this, wondering who the target audience was. It seemed to me that anyone who could read would also comprehend a flood. This conundrum was cleared up in the next part: 

Examples include when a storm surge from a hurricane flows inland, or when a lengthy period of heavy rain causes a river to overflow its banks. 

I then understood that I was reading a magazine aimed at tall men who didn’t live near water. But then—what did those folks have to worry about? Oh yeah, getting overrun by marauding refugees from river towns!

I read the whole thing, then ordered a few more such magazines. After they arrived, I learned that I am an utter ignoramus when it comes to catastrophes. One recommended way to prepare for them was to purchase an eight-hundred-dollar kit that included three military-style MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), nine food ration bars, a compass, and some paper napkins. Also included was a first-aid chest, a whistle, two Bic pens, and a pad of paper. As a writer, I was grateful to see the pens and paper but was curious as to how others would use them. Maybe you could leave a note for a renegade looter bent on prying your cold dead fingers from your pen—Hey man, leave me alone! Go back to your flood zone! I’ve got a whistle! Unfortunately, the compilers of the kit displayed their lack of experience with practical matters—the ink of Bic pens dries out fast and the beveled design hurts your fingers, the very fingers you will desperately need to defend hearth and home when disaster strikes!

A prepper’s primary objective is stockpiling essential goods, mainly food, guns, and ammunition. Dozens of periodicals exist that compare the specs and features of firearms. One is devoted to the best method for reloading during a gunfight—a magazine for magazines! As a Kentuckian living in Mississippi I’m comfortable with a variety of weapons and have inherited several, with a few more on the horizon from elderly members of the family. My mother’s purse contains a wood-handled ice pick that’s been embedded in a cork since the 1950s. She began carrying it as a teenager on the advice of her grandfather, a career bookie. Mom is eighty-four and healthy but I know that one day that ice pick will come my way, hopefully not wielded by her in a fit of dementia.

The basic prepping recommendation for the modern tall man was to accumulate enough food to ensure your family could eat for one week. If a nationwide disaster lasts longer, you can either eat each other or rob your neighbors. (This latter option also serves as a motivation to arm yourself.) Still, it was good to know that catastrophes operated on a predictable schedule like spring break. 

One article emphasized the value of certain foods and displayed photos of Cheerios, Spam, Skippy peanut butter, and a few cans of Del Monte fruit. The accompanying text was quite insightful:

Don’t overlook the importance of junk food and other treats. A crisis is not the time to worry too much about sticking to a diet. Comfort food makes us feel better and reduces stress, two things sorely needed in an emergency. 

I found this tremendously relieving. A sudden nuclear attack by the North Koreans did not mean I have to give up Pringles. Another interesting tip was about dishware:

Using paper plates and bowls will conserve water, as they can be burned or tossed in the trash after dinner. 

Frankly, the apocalypse was sounding better and better, like a big picnic. 

All the magazines were presented in the same format: heavy on photographs and light on text. The sequence of articles followed a clear pattern—first, a brief overview of a specific calamity which ended with a power-grid collapse. Next came a section of expensive products I could purchase, complete with website addresses. The purpose of these articles was to induce dire paranoia, then sell goods to alleviate the fears of tall men. The magazines appealed to the worst of male vanity—the possibility that you are not fulfilling societal expectations. If I didn’t prep for national upheaval, I was a deficient man who did not love my family. 

Every prepper magazine carried an article on water, mainly because there are a lot of overpriced devices out there for gathering, purifying, and transporting it. This gave me a sense of ease because as a rural man, I have my own well and am not dependent on external sources! My mitigation was fleeting—the pump runs on electricity. Just like that, I became a selfish, uncaring, deficient man, dependent on the power grid. A section on “Clean Water Wares” gave me serious concern due to its opening line:

With very few exceptions, water is the most important element required to survive an extended emergency. 

For the life of me—in this case literally—I could not imagine an exception that might be more important than water. Perhaps a gun so I could shoot people before I died of thirst? Or maybe the latest expansion of World of Warcraft? In my case, a cache of Pilot G-2 07 pens—the best on the market, preferred by food writers everywhere. 

Because my height does not qualify me as a tall man, I recognized the overt method of commerce in the magazines. However, I was not immune to the tantalizing allure of the imagery. It appealed to my gender, to my identity as husband and father, and to the illusion of being tough, smart, and independent. It only made sense to invest in the security of those I loved by purchasing an underground shelter that contained a large armory, night-vision goggles, a vast medical setup, a shortwave radio, a survival library, hatchets, machetes, and the materials necessary to build a makeshift solar oven. Most of all I wanted a supply of spray-on vehicle armor that was four times stronger than Kevlar. I could paint my house with it, or maybe my shooting hand. 

I may be a lousy man in regular life—lazy, cranky, preoccupied by sex, comic books, and video games—but with disaster looming I could fulfill my destiny and be a warrior. Then my ungrateful family would finally appreciate me. If not, they could go live in a hostile environment with no power grid.       

I resolved to assemble my own prepper stockpile, an idea about which my wife expressed strong misgivings. Fortunately, I was ready with a multi-pronged counterattack based on an article about how to win over a spouse. (Apparently it’s a common phenomenon for short wives to question the time and money tall men devote to prepping.) Here’s the advice: 

Instead of trying to overwhelm them with facts and figures, work real-life examples into the conversation. Keep it somewhat light and avoid major end-of-the-world predictions. For example, perhaps you know a neighbor who recently lost his job to downsizing. If they’d thought ahead to set aside some food and other necessities, it would’ve made their lives easier. And if disaster does strike, try to keep the “I told you so” comments to a minimum. 

This was ideal, because my wife’s mother had recently been fired so the company could hire a younger woman at a lower salary. I suggested that her mom could have planned for this and stockpiled a bunch of white wine with ice. My wife became so irritated that I had to leave the house. I spent a couple of hours in the backyard feeling grateful for the power grid and planning where the underground shelter would go. Upon re-entering the house, I considered it prudent not to mention my buried bunker. Instead I prepared an omelet so puffy that it resembled a wedge of lemon cream pie. My wife loved it. I felt manly at last.


Chris Offutt’s Provisions for the Coming Apocalypse


500 cans of Pringles
2,000 Slim Jims
Some water
Mom’s ice pick
A whistle
5,000 pieces of nicotine gum
Twinkies (an unwrapped one in Maine has lasted since 1976)
A box of candles
A bunch of books
All comic books by Seth
Popcorn because my wife likes it
Some aspirin for her, too


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Chris Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, and lives near Oxford, Mississippi. He is the author of four books of fiction, including Country Dark, and three books of nonfiction. His work has been included in many textbooks and anthologies, such as Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize 2017. Reach him at offuttchris1@gmail.com.