In times like these, spread it around

Things are getting kinda choppy, aren’t they?

A comfy sitch for many has turned turbulent, on a dime, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Turn on the tube or go to the Net and it is Y2K to the tenth power. Chipmunks in a coffee can. Doom and gloom everywhere you go; one prediction of disaster after another, each more dire, more anxious than the last. Financial meltdown. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

This baby is global, too. For crying out loud …Iceland is broke!


With my severely limited attention span and marginal analytical power, the whole mess is basically incomprehensible and I have reduced my reactions to two necessary and therapeutic moves.

First, I called my “investments” broker and notified him that, if he sends me one more letter that includes a graph with a red line that plummets down and off the right side of the page, I will firebomb his office and slash the tires on his SUV. I’ll wait at the scene for the fire engines and the law enforcement authorities and turn myself in. I see no other way to respond.

Numbers, the guy can send me — all of them he wants. I don’t have the patience to deal with them and, shortly after I start to read, I will be distracted by a new episode of Car Jack Theft Unit or Paula’s Party. Numbers do not affect me in a negative way.

The red line that crashes down and to the right, however, I understand. I am a visual sort of guy. The red line makes me edgy. Incendiary, if you will.

Second, and more important: I am preparing for Great Depression II eats — boning up on all manner of thrifty foods, honing my less-is-more skills in the kitchen.

As part of my research, I came across a wonderfully informative article in the Summer 2008 edition of Gastronomica — to my mind, the best “Journal of Food and Culture” available today.

The article, “’Breaking Bread with a Spread,’ in a San Francisco County Jail,” is by Sandra Cate, an anthropologist at San Jose State University, in California.

Cate’s article centers on a culinary practice she observed in certain jails and prisons — the creation of “spread,” a class of alternative meals prepared by inmates, most of which rely on the use of instant ramen noodles. Yep, ramen noodles — the centerpiece of the college student, boho diet.

Prisoners mix the noodles, sans seasoning packs in most cases, with just about any food product imaginable, so long as the food product is available as a leftover from the bland prison meals served at the institution or, most notably, stocked by the prison commissary.

Thus, one finds spreads that include beef sticks, jerky, pork skins, jams and jellies, tamales, tuna, fruit, cheese puffs, pretzels, mayo and other condiments (from the tiny individual serving packs), veggies salvaged from lunch or dinner.

You get the picture: Spread is a vehicle that can tote just about any relatively palatable cargo. And, in the care of a master jailhouse “cook,” spread can be more than merely interesting.

Noodles are softened with hot water in plastic bags. Additives are warmed in microwaves (yes, inmates often have microwaves in their “pod” common areas — this isn’t the Gulag, after all). A mélange is assembled and devoured, by individuals, by groups.

Some inmates have even found ways to create desserts and, most notably, fruit pies. A few inmates buy wall- and razor wire-confined fame with their spread skills, much like those obnoxious celebrity chefs who, on the outside, get their own TV shows.

The point?

According to the financial pundits, and the damned red line on my investment reports, most of us (with the exception of the 1 percent of the population that holds more than 50 percent of the wealth) are headed in the general direction of jail food.

So, it looks like it’s spread time, kids.

Once the cataclysm is upon us in earnest, we are going to have to be as resourceful as our incarcerated brethren when it comes to the fundamental elements in our spreads.

My daughter and son-in-law are already pretty handy at this. They wait for delivery trucks to lose their brakes and crash, then they sniff around the scattered contents, ferreting out the edibles. Interestingly enough, the last wreck they happened on was ferrying — guess what? — Ramen noodles and, glory be … Spam,

Ideal foundation for the first of my spread experiments.

So, I scoot over to their house and do my scavenging there. I heist a couple packs of ramen and a can of America’s favorite processed, porklike product.

Now, what else to add?

I determine to practice with what might be available to me when it’s deep crisis time so, instead of going to the market (soon to be beyond the reach of the average consumer, existing only as a site for the occasional shoplifting adventure) I hustle off to the nearest convenience store.

I find a pack of cheese puffs with a sale date somewhere within a decade of the present and, when the clerk is not watching, I pocket several of those small packets of picante sauce, mayonnaise and mustard. Practice makes perfect.

I take the booty home and prepare the feast, as it were.

I puff up the noodles in hot water, using a ziplock freezer bag as my container (you can wash and reuse the bags, you know). When the noodles are soft, I plop them in a bowl (I assume I will have a bowl or two left following Econ-Armageddon) and I toss in the cheese puffs and the contents of the picante and mayo packets. I take a third of the spam and dice it, put it on a plate (I assume I will have a plate left, as well), cover the meaty mess with a paper towel and I nuke the Spam until it resembles lardons, or chunks of crisp bacon. Into the noodle mix goes the meat and the grease that has seeped out during nuking. The bowl goes into the wave and, after giving the spread enough time to warm, I ring the dinner bell.

Of course, I am the only one who answers the bell.

The way I see it, a series of practice runs gives me some advantages.

I can test the basic recipe and determine additional elements that will allow me to vary the mix night to night, with “pleasing” results. Italian Night could be followed by Mexi-Night, then by Asian Fusion Night, etc. Do a bit of Dumpster diving in addition to my pilfering and I will have nearly every ingredient I need. You know, the outside of an onion gone bad appears totally rotten, but if you remove enough layers of mushy, discolored crud, there’s always something edible near the center.

I can also work on technique, especially with regard to speed, knowing that at a date in the not-too-distant future I will be unable to pay the electric and gas bills and will no longer be able to use the microwave or stove at home. Thus, I need to polish my wave style so I am fast enough that I can sneak in a few critical minutes at the convenience store before the clerk realizes I am not warming a purchased, textured vegetable protein burrito and runs me off.

I also need to start riding a bike, since I will no longer be able to buy fuel for my truck (I’ll convert the bed of the derelict vehicle to a garden plot). As part of my pre-cataclysm regimen, I will pedal the three miles or so to the convenience store with my items salvaged from a truck wreck or shoplifted from the market, whip up a fine meal, then see if there is anyone nearby who will give me a ride home. After all, it’s an uphill ride to the house and I will be crammed to capacity with spread — sardine or tuna, if I am in luck and haven’t been nabbed by the security staff during a side trip to the market.

I’ll keep working on recipes and will alert you to developments. I have some promising ideas about sweet and sour pork skins.

After all, in a pinch, as we teeter on the edge of a scary cliff, we need to spread things around.