How to Eat Breakfast After the Apocalypse
At the beginning of Deborah Moore's new book, A Prepper’s Cookbook, she introduces herself with verse. “Now don't be thinking I'm crazy,” starts one stanza. “Not a sociopath, not even mean, / But if you come knockin' / Keep your hands where they are seen.” The poem, called “A Woman’s Ode to Prepping,” is equal parts charming and militant. In sing-song rhyme she name drops her guns (“a Smith & Wesson / AK and Mossberg too, / One Colt, two Beretta’s / A Kell Tech… Hmm, that one’s new”) and a small lexicon of abbreviations: “SWHTF,” or “Shit Will Hit The Fan”; “BOB”, or “Bug Out Bag”; “TEOTWAWKI,” or “The End Of The World As We Know It.” There are also bonus references to the 2006–2008 CBS show Jericho (a cult hit among preppers) and the practice of disguising an outdoor security camera in a satellite dish. Prepping is its own language, and Moore speaks it fluently.
The American Preppers Network defines preppers as people who take “steps to mitigate the long-lasting effect of a severe impact on their world. They do this through stocking items that are critical for their continued well-being.” The common denominator is the act of preparation itself, usually a combination of skill acquisition and supply stockpiling. A prepper can be a rural man with 30 guns; a prepper can be a suburban woman with a giant pantry. As Moore tells it, a prepper is a child who gathers wild peppermint in summer to burn in the fireplace in winter. A prepper is a mom whose diaper bag is supplied for nearly every outcome. A prepper is a grandmother who tends a large garden and cooks on a wood stove.
“It’s having what you need before you need it,” Moore says when I ask her how she explains the lifestyle to people who’ve never heard of it. “Life can go in a lot of directions.”
Moore has lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for over eighteen years. Accounting for about 30 percent of Michigan’s landmass, the UP contains only about 3 percent of its population. And with over 14,000 square miles of its 16,000 square miles covered by forest, it’s safe to call this place the woods. Moore fills A Prepper’s Cookbook with anecdotes that illustrate her life in this near-wilderness: bear cubs scratch at her glass door, a doe eats out of her hand. But her morning routine is especially evocative:
“The first thing I do in the morning is light the stove. While the kindling is catching, I feed the cat. Then I add three or four pieces of wood, light the kerosene lamp, check the temperatures outside, and add larger logs to the fire. Now it’s time to put the coffeepot over the firebox. Then it’s back to the warmth of the bed. It takes about twenty minutes for the water to boil and another twenty to perk. By the time the coffee is ready, the room is also warm.”
There’s a familiarity here—getting out of bed to make coffee. There’s a foreignness, too, and a genuine coziness—like something out of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. There’s more work but more time to do it, a satisfying physicality along with a satisfyingly well-ordered routine. “This was my destiny,” Moore writes about her first year living off-the-grid. “I was in heaven.”
What does one cook out in the woods? A Prepper’s Cookbook is no doomsday catalog of freeze-dried or powdered foods—it’s a hodgepodge paean to self-reliance, shaped by Moore’s personal preference and local availability. Moore instructs readers not only in how to cook on a woodstove and maintain an icebox but also in how to make—from scratch—cheesy crackers, sushi, baba ghanouj, “catsup,” and, of course, stuffed French toast, bagels, crepes, sourdough pancakes, and sourdough English muffins.
It’s an idiosyncratic collection (there are many variations on choose-your-own-protein Wellingtons): Some recipes are invented, or approximations of dishes Moore has tried elsewhere, or snagged from friends. One, a graham cracker recipe, was copied from an 1886 suffragette cookbook. It’s also clear that Moore eats very, very well, with freshly foraged mushrooms, freshly caught fish, freshly collected eggs, freshly butchered chicken, freshly harvested produce, even freshly milled flour—you get the drift. In the winter she eats the veggies and fruits and bacon (yes, bacon) she’s canned the preceding fall. Eschewing processed sugar for the most part, Moore also makes her own maple syrup. You’re just not going to be able to get that at Whole Foods.
There’s no sacrifice in food quality—in fact, there’s an improvement—but the ethos behind A Prepper’s Cookbook asks of its readers more time, more labor, and a larger initial investment in ingredients, storage supplies, and tools. (Moore, for instance, has both an electric mill and a manual one for grinding grain.) It’s meant, in theory, to free people from their reliance on external food sources and to serve as a backup in case of a job loss or a health crisis or—you know—TEOTWAWKI. But there’s an aspect to any prepping guide that locks a person into a new system of consumption as well as new (and perhaps equally onerous) obligations.
That doesn’t mean you have to grow your own tomatoes to make a pasta sauce from A Prepper’s Cookbook. You don’t. But Moore believes in the importance of knowing how to do so. “A vital key to base storage foods” like rice or wheat, she writes, “is knowing what to do with them, so don't forget to learn how to make bread, bagels, cornbread, along with ketchup, mustard, and jam.” In the same worst-case-scenario vein, she recommends that families stock up on favored flavors, whether it be vanilla extract or cinnamon sticks or anchovy paste or tahini. “They can go a long way toward making a dish more normal during a not so normal time.”
A city kid, Moore grew up in Detroit, where her dad worked as a cop. “Back when I first moved to ‘the country,’” she writes, “I didn't know very much about very much.” Though she always had that instinct to prepare (childhood’s bunches of peppermint, motherhood’s well-supplied diaper bag), she methodically acquired the skills she needed through trial and error (canning, cooking), taking classes (gardening, mushroom hunting), and asking for informal instruction (pie baking, shooting). It was a lifestyle she eased into—graduating from a Detroit supermarket to a small Lower Peninsula garden to a full-fledged UP homestead to, almost two decades ago, extensive Y2K preparations. (“When Y2K happened, I doubled the stock in the pantry,” she writes. Her then-partner “was furious that I would even consider something would happen and I was just as angry that he didn't.”) Millenarianism—a belief in TEOTWAWKI—has existed for as long as there have been people and a world and belief, and the modern American survivalist movement has roots that go back to the Mormon Church of the 1830s and the fallout shelters of the 1950s. But in 1998, when she first moved to the UP and her off-the-grid house in the woods, Moore would have described herself as a homesteader. She even published a few instructional articles in the homesteading publication, Countryside & Small Stock Journal: one on pantry organization and another on woodstove cooking, an appliance Moore helpfully informs readers she bought from an Amish retailer.
Moore’s sense of community—her identity as a prepper—came with the internet. After she and her then-partner split up, one of Moore’s adult sons (she has two) encouraged her to get on Match.com. “I had never been online before,” she tells me. “I had used a word processor, but the internet was a foreign country to me.” From Match.com her internet use “just snowballed.” She currently owns or moderates “maybe a dozen” Yahoo groups. Primarily she talks with other women in the prepper and survivalist communities. “It’s very eclectic,” she says of the community’s membership, referring to relationship status, race, sexual orientation. “It just turned into a very tight-knit group.”
Moore describes overlapping communities—homesteaders, preppers, and survivalists. “Homesteaders are preppers, but not all preppers are homesteaders,” she explains. Of the survivalists, Moore continues, “their whole focus is guns. They’re the he-men.” She estimates that maybe 70 percent of the survivalist and prepping communities are men, but that the women who make up the remaining 30 percent do 70 percent of the participating. “Men think it’s all about guns and shooting,” she says. “It isn’t. When the men come home they want to eat and have clean laundry. You better believe that the men are going to depend on [those skills].” But Moore has also wholeheartedly taken on the coded-masculine world of firearms. She tells me about her concealed pistol license, the weapons she owns, how she practices. “On my ten acres, I have my own shooting range,” Moore says. “I have a handgun, a rifle, a shotgun. Why should I not do this just because I don’t have a man here to do it?” There is no “why not” when it comes to gender—but there’s still a why when it comes to guns. Why own so many weapons? Why carry one loaded and concealed on your person? What future is Moore and the thousands of other firearm-centric preppers getting ready for?
In her series of novels called The Journal, Moore’s TEOTWAWKI scenario is a catastrophic earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, a bullseye in the center of the continental United States that hits the shared borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. “I keep coming back to a disaster that’s real enough to read,” she says, which is one way of saying not zombies. “It might not even be in your state but it’ll still affect you. If something happens to Florida, where are you going to get your oranges?”
If Moore’s fiction offers her vision of the future, A Prepper’s Cookbook is her present. Looking at both, it’s clear that Moore isn’t preparing for a future she fears. She’s preparing for one in which she emerges triumphant—her years of preparation suddenly validated, an “I told you so” on a global scale. Moore’s life won’t fundamentally change in her own personal shit-will-hit-the-fan scenario. TEOTWAWKI is a place where Moore already lives, and she likes it there.
Human beings are social organisms—like bees, like ants, like termites—albeit in a society writ large. We have built systems on a global scale to distribute food as well as the internet, Game of Thrones, Wacky Wall Walkers, ammunition, antibiotics. And while we are so often very bad at it (see: nuclear weapons, global warming, colonialism), building and maintaining these systems feel like the point of being human. How would Moore be able to make bagels in the woods without the Jewish bakers of 17th century Kraków, without the boats that transported their children to the Americas, without New York City’s food culture, without the work of popular marketing? True self-sufficiency would look like something impoverished, half human. Her breakfast menu would also take a serious hit.
Moore recognizes this tension, celebrating and protecting the small UP community where’s she’s made her home but also firmly recommending her friends and neighbors to pull their own weight by making their own preparations. “So many people don’t know how to cook,” Moore says to me—and it’s true.
“What they call the millennials now,” Moore says, “They don’t know where their food comes from. They pick up a package of chicken in a grocery store—they didn’t know that someone had to raise that chicken, feed it, slaughter it. They don’t know what it takes to get it on the table. That is alarming.”
The last two lines of Moore’s poem, “A Woman’s Ode to Prepping,” deepens the message: “And I got flour, sugar, and my salt,” it goes in ominous refrain, “And if you don't, it's your own damn fault.”