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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 15, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Boarding Houses, Emergency Food

Nowadays we all take it for granted that when you travel, you stay in motels or hotels. A few people "rough it" and camp -- for me, though, "roughing it" means staying at a hotel without a pool.

It gets more complicated if you're going to a place where you have to stay for a few weeks. Then, with any luck, some rich company will pay for you to stay in a Residence Inn or some such longterm hotel -- you know, the kind with a small kitchen so you can buy your own food and cook at least some of your meals yourself.

But most of these places didn't even exist in the not-too-distant past. And the quality has definitely improved as Americans grew more affluent.

Hotels didn't even exist two hundred years ago, and for a long time they were only for the rich.

For most people, through most of American history, when you traveled or moved to a new town or were simply poor and alone, your only choice was a boarding house.

"Boarding" was not a surfing term in those days. It had to do with food being spread out on a board -- a table -- for you to choose from. "Bed and board" referred to a place to eat and sleep.

The concept was that you were staying in somebody's private home, eating at their table, in exchange for which you paid them a small amount of money -- usually barely enough to make ends meet, and even then it was hard for most boarders to pay it.

Some people only paid for the food -- they slept somewhere else and came over at mealtime. Others, though, slept right in the house -- along with the family that lived there.

In the era before hotels, the traveling rich ate and slept in taverns. But the poor would ask around when they entered a town, and get steered to places that might take them in. Sometimes they even paid for their lodging with labor, since they had nothing else with which to pay.

Who ran these boarding houses? I'm happy to tell you that there's a wonderful book coming out this September that will give you as complete a picture of the boarding-house culture as you're likely to find anywhere.

Boarding House Reach: North Carolina's Entrepreneurial Women, by Alice E. Sink and Nickie Doyal, is a marvelous collection of anecdotes and memoirs that, taken all together, gives a pretty broad picture of the many kinds of things that made up life in boarding houses.

Most boarding houses were, indeed, run by women. It was one of the respectable things that a widow could do to support her family, in that era when women were not expected -- not even allowed -- to pursue an ordinary career.

Running a successful boarding house required all the skills of a hotelier and a restaurateur -- including the vital skill of not cooking too much food.

But there was more to it than that. Most boarding house keepers also did laundry for their guests (and, often, other people as well), took meals to prisoners in the local jail (paid for by the sheriff), did some sewing and darning, and also kept a vegetable garden and often a dairy cow and chickens.

From the crack of dawn till they could finally throw themselves onto their beds at night, these women had a life of nearly unrelenting toil, and if they had children, the kids were put to work doing chores as soon as they were able.

Unlike most chores today, they weren't optional: If you didn't weed the garden, milk the cow, feed the chickens, gather eggs, or whatever other task you were assigned, then your already-exhausted mother had to do it -- or it wouldn't get done at all, and you might lose a customer, which could spell the ruin of the family.

Not that all boarding houses operated on the edge of poverty -- some did quite well, and the women were able to keep servants to help with the work. The boundary line between their operations and a modern suites hotel could grow rather thin.

Many people in Guilford County know something about boarding house life, because of the long tradition of Furniture Market. Twice a year, out-of-town buyers would flood the county, needing a place to stay.

Hotels were rare for many years -- they could hardly stay in business year-round based on two weeks of business. So local residents would rent rooms in their houses -- or even take a vacation and rent out their whole house.

It was (and for some people, I hear, still is) a sort of part-time boarding house operation. Some visitors would come back to the same house year after year, until it almost felt like their second home -- a kind of ad hoc timeshare.

It's a fascinating way of life, and one that is almost entirely gone. But for generations, boarding houses were part of every town, and most men could expect to spend at least part of their bachelorhood in a boarding house.

Reading Boarding House Reach will make that lost time come alive again. And since boarding house culture was similar throughout America during that era, the general facts you learn about North Carolina boardinghouses will apply pretty much everywhere else, too.

By the way, the publisher, DramTree Books, specializes in North Carolina titles. You might want to visit their website, http://dramtreebooks.com, to see what else they're offering that might be of interest to North Carolinians.

*

I don't know about you, but every time there's some kind of disaster somewhere in the world, I start thinking about what I would do if my family and I were trapped in such a situation.

Obviously, living in Greensboro, North Carolina, I don't have to worry about a hurricane causing the levees to break and bring the Gulf of Mexico into my city -- no levees, no gulf, and way above sea level.

But even here, there are emergencies that can cause you to flee your home with almost no notice. Flash floods, chemical spills, fires, terrorist threats -- some of these are more common than others, of course, but all are possible.

What would you do?

We hear stories of people rushing back into a house on fire in order to save some irreplaceable object -- but none of you are that foolish, right? Still, what if you had time to grab one thing (assuming you've already made sure all the people are safe): What would it be?

72-hour Refugee Pack

There's a lot to be said for having a "72-hour kit" -- a collection of essential items, all in one place, which could keep you going, in a pinch, for three days.

You keep a kit for each person in the household. They're in backpacks, one for each person capable of carrying their own, and bigger ones for parents who have to provide for small children. Backpacks especially make sense because there might be a disaster that makes it impossible for you to use a vehicle.

You have copies of vital papers -- immunization records, for instance; longterm prescriptions, even birth certificates.

You keep a change of clothes and underwear, not enough to put on fresh clothes every day for three days, but enough that you could replace a set that was ruined by fire or flood or whatever drove you into refugee status.

You have enough clean water to keep you alive for three days. That's a lot of water, the heaviest single item in the pack.

You pack at least one first-aid kit.

You cycle through prescription medicines if someone has a chronic condition that needs treatment. (For instance, the last thing you need is a bipolar family member going off his meds cold turkey in the midst of an emergency). When you refill the prescription, you put the new stuff in the kit, then take out what was in the kit and use that up.

Some people include sleeping bags, but others figure that shelter is a separate problem, and sleeping bags make the packs too bulky to allow you to grab them and flee in a real emergency.

And ... you have three days' worth of food. Enough calories to keep the backpack carrier alive and healthy.

It doesn't have to taste brilliant. But it does have to be as lightweight as possible, packaged and prepared so that it will stay usable regardless of temperature, and able to be eaten cold or hot.

You don't want cans of beans, for instance. Cans are heavy. They also require a tool to open them. Lose the can opener, and what are you going to do? Pry it open with your teeth?

What many people do is buy MREs: "Meals Ready to Eat." The kind of ration packages that are used by soldiers in the field.

Where do you find such things? Well, one source is a company called Emergency Essentials, and you can see their wares at http://www.BePrepared.com.

Recently we decided that it was time to buy our 72-hour MREs. But instead of taking pot luck, we'd sample the food before we ever needed it, in order to find the best -- or least awful -- rations to put in each person's pack.

So we ordered one of everything that sounded remotely edible.

The Great Taste-off

Then we invited over another family and had a massive taste test. We boiled up all the packs that were supposed to be heated. Though all of them can be eaten cold, we didn't think that we should base our taste test on the very worst of circumstances.

In preparation for the great taste-off, we printed up ballots and allowed each person to rate the MREs on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being best. We made sure everyone understood that the word "good" was not part of the equation. The idea was to find food that you could stand. If you actually liked one of them, so much the better.

This was an excellent standard to use, because not one of us found that any of the MREs was good enough that we would want to eat it instead of any of the meals we normally eat at home.

Some of the MREs were awful beyond description. For instance, the "egg omelet with vegetables and cheese." I suppose we should have insisted they specify the species that produced the egg (I assume, from the taste, that it was platypus).

In any event, the "omelet" was brown and rubbery, and the first person to try it was a 17-year-old male who is famous for being able to eat anything. The "omelet" was so dreadful that he cried out in shock and declined to swallow.

So the omelet did not make it onto anyone's list.

Similarly loathsome was the "lentils and vegetables." I like lentil soup. I like vegetable soup. But somebody apparently got the weird idea that okra was a vegetable. The result was that the lentils and vegetables were covered in a mucus-like substance that made me gag the moment I got it in my mouth.

The "peas and pasta" had conjured up visions of a nice alfredo sauce. Wrong.

So, okay, there was some pretty awful stuff. But there's good news: Most of the MREs were edible, and some of them actually gave pleasure to various members of the group.

The most popular entree was "breaded chicken breast patty with rib meat in tomato sauce with pasta." I didn't like it much, but I've always been suspicious of any meat that was breaded by strangers. I always think: What are they hiding?

What matters is that a whole bunch of children thought it was pretty good. It got a lot of 5s. If you have young kids and you're refugees, wouldn't it be nice, that first day, to have food for them that they kind of like?

The second favorite, only one vote behind, was the "beef ravioli in meat sauce." It looked good, it tasted good.

There was much less consensus on the other favorites. Pretty much every MRE had somebody who absolutely hated it -- but then, that's the reason for the taste-off. We wanted to make sure that each person's kit had something he or she liked -- and nothing they hated.

So the other winners were "penne pasta with spicy vegetable sausage" (my personal favorite, by the way); "cheese tortellini in tomato sauce," "spaghetti with meat and sauce" (not noticeably worse than, say, Chef Boyardee), "chili and macaroni" (which looked bad but tasted okay), and "meatloaf with brown onion gravy."

Among the side dishes, the big winners were "refried beans," "raspberry applesauce," and "mango peach applesauce."

We were evenly divided on the two kinds of rice: "Mexican rice" and "fried rice." People liked one and hated the other, but they ended up about even in the voting. And kids who can stomach anything called "macaroni and cheese" found the MRE version to be swallowable; I knew better than to even try it.

The "crackers" were dry as dust, but those who could stomach the "cheese spread" found that it made them edible. (Some of the kids actually got non-MRE crackers so they could finish off the cheese spread, they liked it so much. They'll grow out of this phase, fortunately.)

But stay away from the "mashed potatoes" and the "cornbread stuffing."

All the other selections found some who could eat them and some who couldn't; but when it comes time to order, we'll let each person decide whether they'd rather have nine different MRE meals, three versions of three different MREs -- or even nine versions of the one they liked best.

What Does It Cost?

Fifty bucks can buy you enough MREs for one person for three days. The packages last for three to five years. So figure that every four years, on average, you'll spend about $50 per person in your household to replace the MREs.

You have to decide for yourself whether it's worth the cost. Just remember: In certain emergencies it can be two or three days before emergency relief gets there with food and water.

You can get very sick drinking bad water, and very weak with nothing to eat. And if there's no water at all, you can die. So you have to decide whether to be self-sufficient -- or hope the government or the Red Cross gets to you in time.


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