Register Sunday | November 17 | 2019
If You Can't Take the Heat Illustration by Mathilde Cinq-Mars.

If You Can't Take the Heat

A survivalist tests recipes for the apocalypse.

Editor’s note: Last November, the owners of the high-end Montreal restaurant Joe Beef—chefs who frequently hosted the late culinary star Anthony Bourdain, not to mention Barack Obama, when he came to town—published a cookbook for the end of the world. Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse is “a book about doing it yourself, about making it on your own, and about living—or at least surviving—in style.”

Every good review is written by an expert in the field. So we asked Jen Moses, a wilderness guide renowned for her survival skills, to try out the recipes, using the most realistic post-apocalyptic conditions possible. Moses lives near Dingwall, at the northern tip of Cape Breton. 

She enlisted her children, ages eight, twelve and sixteen, to help. What follows are her emailed dispatches, printed nearly verbatim.

March 12: I read the ingredients list mentioned in the book promo: “Think Watercress Soup with Trout Quenelles, Artichokes Bravas, and Deer Beer Belly—alongside Smoked Meat Croquettes, a Tater Tot Galette, and Squash Sticky Buns.”

I have to say that in my current pre-apocalypse life, I am a good five-hour round-trip drive from the nearest watercress or artichokes. At best. So I don’t know in what post-apocalypse zone these folks plan on ending up in... but it might be a little lusher than my current reality.

I suspect, in the initial days of the apocalypse, we will eat a lot of old rice and squirrels and drink really harsh grain alcohol make from fermented leftover chicken feed.

It’s no problem to cook outside right now—we are just at the start of our maple syruping season and run a small off-grid sugar bush, with a wood-fired evaporator and a very old wood cookstove. The kids sometimes have their own fire.

April 1: The Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse cookbook has arrived. It is certainly a beautiful, detailed and weighty guide. It looks quite fun, and I am delighted with ideas like wrapping fish in soaked birch bark before cooking over the fire and adding dulse to my potatoes; the canned bread, lined with a little bacon, sounds genius. I can see a recipe or two used at an oceanside fire this summer with fancy friends, while the children frolic in the surf as the sun sets. 

This is no guide for the apocalypse, though—no Prepper’s Manual, no Survival Handbook. In fact, I’m pretty sure the people who wrote this cookbook will be the first ones eaten by zombies (they will be delicious. Useless, but delicious). 

The paper foldout, “The Cellar,” is in fact the true treasure of the cookbook, probably its most useful element in terms of the end of times. It is this pretty little bonus feature, with thick matte paper that’s nice on the hand. It folds out like a map in an old National Geographic. And that is kind of what it is—a little map of how to set up your cellar, a few directions for preserving food.

Maybe, of course, your sole goal is a totally hip party with the last of the fancy food looted from Pete’s Frootique [an upscale Halifax grocery store] before everyone takes a cyanide pill, as per the cookbook author’s prediction; or maybe you imagine the end of the world to be akin to a weekend at a bush camp.

Like I said before, the future looks darker here on the edge of things: more green crab and snail, less Bavarian Cream à la Doris and Gateau Renversé aux Truffes. More fermented cabbage and less Toasted Hazelnut Cordial. More cattails with earthworms, on a slow slide to starvation. 

Maybe I have it wrong.

I am going to have a go at the canned bread and the spruce cough drops. I’ll let you know how it goes (although technically, looting a fish pet store for antibiotics and antifungals would be a lot quicker and more effective than trying to gather the ingredients for the cough drops).

April 19: Dulse on potatoes is terrific. The brown paper bag thing is for the birds. I should explain: you’re supposed to cover the potatoes in a paper bag. They suggest it’s not a fire hazard, as you are, after all, to keep moistening the bag. But really. Decidedly a fire hazard in the hands of the general public.

I enlisted the children (the twelve-year-old is the master chef and also most likely to go Mad Max-style survivor) in my canned bread experiment. It brought a lot of joy. Things got a little out of hand. We didn’t want to work in the controlled confines of my oven, and the children are more than apt at creating their own cooking fires. We went for a grill and a nice bed of coals, and we used soaked birch bark as can covers, to keep out the ashes. I did not use my lovely cast iron Dutch oven, because I will not be carrying that heavy girl through the apocalypse, I assure you.

Things got out of control briefly when the birch bark dried out, and again when we got to the fish. To back up a minute, we were supposed to cook fish between soaked pieces of birch bark. But we are a month out of fish and halibut season doesn’t open here until Monday, so the children decided to cook pancakes in the birch bark instead.

The result of the other recipe, the canned bread, under apocalyptic conditions? Well, if it tasted anything like it looked, it tasted like sadness. Which is about how we can expect the apocalypse to taste. Like sadness.

We didn’t taste it. We had planned to recreate it inside—you just cook the bacon and dough inside an empty can—but Google tells me it could have ended up loaded not just with ash and sadness, but BPA leached from the can. The cookbook showed nice new-looking shiny cans, of course, but regular poor-person cans are not really for reheating.

I didn’t get to the spruce drops. I said at the start of this, I wouldn’t drive five hours round-trip to Sydney to buy anything for this cookbook. Which really cut down the number of recipes I could even consider. I have pet honeybees, so that’s a check on the honey; I have a small maple forest and sugar shack, so check on sugar; got the spruce trees. It’s spring, but more like a second winter...or is it a third winter? It’s some ice-encrusted horror, and I am six months from harvesting the dried yarrow and clover flowers. I do have chamomile tea deep in a cupboard, but slippery elm bark and wild ginger? 

The point of this digression: unless I head out in search of fancy stores, all these recipes would require a year of preparation, of planning and harvest and preservation. And possibly years of travel. Do truffles grow in Canada? 

Well, I just checked; the answer is yes. Sort of. So I’m excited about that.

It is a lovely cookbook. I’m going to give it to my friend for her birthday. It feels nice when I hold it. The pictures are pretty. It’s just not for practical people. Tired people trying to live on their land. It has too many words with too few practical facts. Too many ingredients from too far from home. 

Cooking in the apocalypse, to me, says losing all your possessions, walking away from your comforts. It says cooking in tin cans over a cozy tire fire. It’s decay and unpleasant. It is an aftermath of war. I just can’t quite bring the worlds together.

Please do not think I discredit the authors’ genius. Everything does, in fact, sound dreamy. Surreal. I would not object to such comfort and care. To having such time. I find this cookbook takes us back to a slower time... you’ll have to read it to see what I mean. Unless you are too busy. Or broke.

Then just keep moving. Hoard a fifty-pound bucket of rice. Tuck away a couple mickeys of rum and some bottles of Advil. If all else fails, you’ll be able to take out at least one prepper, one Vogon, one zombie, by throwing this heavy-as-heck cookbook at them.