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How Winter Storms Change The Meaning Of Food

New England snowstorms have sent customers to their supermarkets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

New England snowstorms have sent customers to their supermarkets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Being stuck in the house because of monumental snowstorms is nothing new for me;  I grew up in Wisconsin. But before this winter I had never seen the amount of snow that  buried the Boston area where I now live — eight to 10 feet accumulated in successive storms, accompanied by freezing temperatures.

Communities have created “snow farms,” formerly empty spaces where truckloads of snow from streets and sidewalks is dumped. We have been warned to clear our roofs to avoid cave-ins and have been bombarded with tips to do that safely. If we were unable to rake off snowy roofs, one suggestion was that we stuff a pair of pantyhose with noncorrosive ice melt and fling it onto the roof. But when seen from a distance, wouldn’t this get-up look like half of a murdered female body? I don’t want to think about it. Instead, I rush to crowded grocery stores between storms and stock up on food I don’t really need.

This siege mentality put me in mind of the horror of real sieges such as Leningrad in World War II when the Germans put the city under blockade and starved the citizenry. People were reduced to catching and eating domestic animals, digging up and devouring tulip bulbs from public gardens, and licking off wallpaper paste from walls. In contrast, what I am going through — a fear of running out of canned tomatoes in case I want lasagna — is a minor, if not decadent, concern. Nevertheless, off I go to the supermarket to stock up, and along with my neighbors fill my cart just as fast as store employees refill the shelves.

Stocked for any situation

I should say at the outset that I have three freezers that are always stocked with meat, bread and rolls, vegetables and cooked dishes such as thick soups and meat rolled in cabbage, our favorite winter dish. The truth is I probably could eat well for a couple of months if the snowstorms continued and made shopping impossible. Losing power concerns me, but I do have a wood-burning fireplace and would be able to grill steaks and chops and oversee a weenie roast complete with s’mores. When a friend asked me what I would do if power went out and my freezers stopped working I said, “Why I would bury all the food in a snowbank,” and we certainly have plenty of those.

Where the fear of scarcity takes us

Although I am well-supplied, I rush to the supermarket to stock up on what I think I must have if I am housebound. I first load up on staples. When I see the store’s supply of bread is depleted, I go to the baking department and, to my surprise, see that most of the flour is momentarily gone too. I stock up on other staples, buying half-and-half for coffee and a favorite brand of plain yogurt for my usual breakfast of  yogurt parfaits. Getting more coffee is not a problem because I buy large quantities online, but I do pick up grapes as well as a crate of clementines, which have been especially good this year. I cannot help but notice how much food is available. Grocery workers are everywhere, replenishing the shelves with abundant supplies. I fill my cart with canned goods — salmon, tuna fish, sardines, whatever can be eaten straight from the can, for you never know.

Retail therapy

I decide to go after goods I don’t normally buy, feel-good luxuries such as a Stilton from Neal’s Yard Dairy and plenty of candy, my junk food of choice. I only need the suggestion of hardship to think I deserve chocolate-covered peanuts or licorice from Australia. I look at other people’s carts and see huge jugs of bottled water and wonder whether some think that municipal water supplies will be endangered. I also see carts full of pretzels and chips, which I suppose serve as compensatory junk food. At home I struggle to find room on pantry shelves for recent purchases, then do the equivalent of window shopping by looking at favorite online food sites.

No matter what side of the street you live, there's no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

There’s no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Perspective amid the snow

At the back of my mind is the realization of just how lucky I am to be living in a country where only 6% of the household budget is spent on food, unlike poorer countries of the world where 40% to 50% must be spent, and 15% in the more prosperous European countries, as professor Anne McCants pointed out in a paper delivered at the MIT symposium “Consuming Food, Producing Culture.” I become aware that shopping for food and anything else has become a pleasant, and often, idle pastime. And when I think about my recent stocking-up foray to the grocery store, I recall how the aisles were cluttered not only with frantic shoppers but also with store clerks restocking shelves with massive loads of food, and I think again of the siege in Leningrad where people died of starvation. That it occurred in the winter is the only thing my Boston experience shares with that real siege. In all other respects I have it good, especially since I won’t have to think about how to cook the family cat and how that would taste.

Pantry Pea and Carrot Soup

Adapted from a recipe in “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer. I like this version because it is fast and because I usually have the ingredients on hand. Plus, it is really good.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 55 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes


3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced 1/8-inch thick

6 cups chicken stock (canned is fine)

1 cup green split peas

Salt and pepper


1. Using a large saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion, garlic and celery for 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil and add split peas.

4. Simmer partially covered for 45 minutes or until peas are very tender

5. Purée 2 cups of soup mixture in a food processor or blender and return to rest of the soup in the pot.

6. Taste for salt and pepper.

Main photo: The more the snow falls, the less is available on supermarket shelves as customers panic and buy out stores. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

  • michlhw 3·2·15

    It was uncomfortable for me to read about your comparison of events now and Leningrad. I know you don’t mean to be crass, and I don’t live buried under feet of snow, but surely, I am not the only one who feels that your article comes off like that?

  • Corie Brown 3·2·15

    Thank you, Barbara. My family and friends who have experienced Boston this winter say it is beyond anything they have ever experienced. The damage to homes hasn’t begun to be assessed. It is, indeed, time for soup.

  • Barbara Haber 3·2·15


    I don’t understand your point. What I am saying in the piece is that we Americans who have it so good act irrationally in times of snowstorms. We rush to supermarkets to stock up when we already have plenty of food in our houses. I contrast this to what happened in Leningrad, when there was a real siege when people starved. In other words, I am pointing out the folly of our behavior – my own in particular – when heavy snowstorms occur and we act as though there is a life and death crisis when there isn’t one.

    Why do you think this perspective is crass?

  • Barbara Haber 3·2·15

    Thanks, Corie – The weather in the Boston area has indeed been brutal, and small businesses like restaurants have been going through a tough time. When I am not thinking about soup, I am reading garden catalogues.

  • michlhw 3·2·15

    Barbara Haber– I just don’t think that a snowstorm warrants comparison to the siege of Leningrad. You raise a good point of irrational behavior, but surely there are other comparisons– hurricane disasters, etc, that would be more suitable. The depravity experienced in Leningrad is deplorable and I’m sure many survivors of that experience will reject your comparison. The snowstorm that parts of the US are currently experiencing is no comparison at all to Leningrad. Maybe this explains my comment better.

  • Barbara haber 3·2·15

    To MICHLHW: I can only repeat that I was not equating the snowstorms with what happened in Leningrad but was making a contrast, the same point you are making. A more careful reading of my piece should make that clear.

  • Amelia Saltsman 3·3·15

    There’s a fine line between simply too much snow and a natural disaster that wreaks damage to home, limb, and even life. I’ve always thought that the rush to stock up is preparation for the tipping point. I’m trying to wrap my mind around managing an urban life with so much snow over such a prolonged period of time. Wondering how I will manage when I head east soon for a brief visit!

  • David 3·3·15

    Barbara: Good article. Re Leningrad, some people apparently spend their whole day just looking for faux issues to be outraged about. I had no problem understanding your analogy. Indeed, your use of “real” in the sentence made it crystal clear.

  • Cynthia Van Hazinga 3·3·15

    Hi Barbara,
    Nice to hear from you. I’ve weathered the winter so far in NYC, where people are saying, “At least we’re not in Boston!” Here, where the supermarkets are so tiny (because of rents, I assume) a lot of them really clear out when a snowstorm threatens. And then the cashiers can’t make it in from outlying boroughs, so there may be one to 30 people in line. Not a desperate situation, but I have learned that their stocks really are shallow, nothing in the back room. No olive oil? Come back in a few days. We’ll see how things are in NH. BEST!

  • Jo 3·4·15

    I appreciate this piece. I understand it- because it sounds a bit like my own behavior. I live in New Orleans, and after several hurricanes (in Florida as a small child and now NOLA as an adult), I have a “stock up and be ready” mentality. I know that I am blessed to be able to panic/obsess at every major storm warning, but it doesn’t stop me from packing my shelves with soup/tuna/oatmeal/water bottles. Best of luck with the snow and thank you for the interesting article (that applies to many different natural disasters/situations).

  • beverly friend 3·4·15

    What I loved about your latest Zester piece:
    1. The humor — great pantyhose imagery
    2. Putting it all into perspective with your citing a real siege and then touting the value of living in the U.S.
    3. Revealing personal information — your three freezers, fireplace, etc.
    4. Your advice on stocking up — good in any weather
    5. The lure of tasty treats, the luxuries (which I truly identify with).
    Wish you would gather these essays for a book!

  • Barbara Haber 3·4·15

    David- thank you for your smart and understanding thoughts.

    Cynthia- great to hear from you, and your report from New York is so interesting. But I hear the sidewalks are slippery, so do watch your step. More snow is predicted for the Boston area, just inches, not feet, but still dangerous to roofs. Would love to see you again.