Coping food

Community and simple comfort food came to the rescue when Wendyl Nissen found herself without power and contact with the outside world.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of being completely out of contact.

No phones, no internet, no power. Suddenly an off-the-grid lifestyle some people crave and others, like myself, think would be lovely, is foisted upon you.

I was at home in the Far North watching Cyclone Gabrielle blow our trees over and we weren’t even in the worst of the storm. When trees blow over at our place it means many, many more blow over in the area and we will be without power for some time. Then after two days the cell phone towers’ batteries go flat and usually the phone line and internet stops at the same time. Which is exactly what happened.

The practicalities of having no contact with the outside world are doable. We have a generator that my 90-year-old father bought years ago for just such an occasion.

I would sometimes look at it in the garage covered in dust and think it was a waste of money and even if the power was off long enough to use it I doubted it would start. Which it didn’t. But that’s where having a 90-year-old dad who is good with engines comes in. For half an hour we reverted to our old father-daughter relationship when I was a child and we would tinker on car engines together, me handing over the tools and watching as he fixed stuff. I used to love doing that and now I have a quite good grasp on basic engines.

I handed over and he tinkered for a while and then our much-neglected generator burst into action. We could now save the food in our freezers and recharge lights.

Our two freezers had enough food to keep us and our animals going for at least a month and probably more, we had rechargeable torches, batteries, candles, and a gas cooktop.

So, we could remain alive in a relatively normal fashion for quite some time.

But what I didn’t realise would be debilitating was being unable to contact our kids to let them know we were okay. That hurt. We have five adult children who we are in touch with regularly and I knew that they would be very anxious.

Thankfully the youngest, who works in media and politics in Wellington, took over their group chat and monitored our electricity supplier’s outages on their website and the Chorus outage map to let the others know when estimated reconnection dates were. Which was more information than we had in our off-the-grid bubble.

Before the cyclone hit there was talk of large tides, possibly even tsunami, and we live on the water. There are no evacuation sirens where we live. We knew that we would not know to evacuate and therefore drown. I did not take my eyes off the water.

By day four the journalist in me spoke to the coper in me and told her to get up on the road and wave cars down.

In my younger years I door-knocked streets and streets of houses to get information if I needed it for a story. These days I never thought I would be that person again but there I was at the top of my drive, waving down every car that went past.

Did they have power? Did they have cellphone coverage? Were they alright?

One car thought there was cellphone coverage down in Opononi, but after driving down there I could see there wasn’t. The Four Square was open but running on generators and the Civil Defence guys were having a picnic of packaged crisps and Coke on the outdoor table, chatting away to each other. I asked if they knew anything like when the power might be back on? Cellphones back? They continued crunching and shrugged their shoulders. Even when I put my journalist voice on they knew nothing, even though I could see a satellite phone on their picnic table.

In times of stress I find food is very helpful. Comfort food for me involves carbohydrates in the form of bread, freshly baked and warm, slathered in butter.

“Great to have you here looking after us,” I sniped as I walked back to my car.

I was tense and therefore a bit rude.

I guess their job description didn’t include helping a community cut off from the world.

What I did see down at the Four Square was our community out in force. There is a piece of lawn in front of the shop which my neighbour calls the “Village Green” and every time she does it I laugh my head off. It’s not a village green, it’s a bit of grass.

But today it actually was a village green, as people stopped and talked, swapping information and offering help. The village had come together to act as a village does, a community of help and communication. While I was chatting, I heard many offers of places to stay, sharing of food, cash, torches, you name it.

The next day, my neighbour – the Village Green one – came over to see us because that morning when I had popped over to check on her she had been out and I had managed to dent my brand new electric car as I backed out and tried to avoid her new puppy who was running around my wheels.

I poured her a glass of wine and we sat down for a good old catch-up. She had been out. She had been to Kaikohe – 45 minutes’ drive away. She had done some shopping. She had also talked to her kids on her cellphone.

“Your cellphone?” I said enthusiastically.

“Oh yes, they have power over there and the cellphone came to life. I was on it for an hour.”

“Hurry up and finish your wine,” I said at the height of rudeness.


“I’m driving to Kaikohe to call the kids. Chuck it down.”

“Yes of course,” she said obediently, gulping down her wine.

My husband and I were out of the house in five minutes and on the road.

As we drove we saw tree after tree upended and lying over power lines.

In my younger years I door-knocked streets and streets of houses to get information if I needed it for a story. These days I never thought I would be that person again but there I was at the top of my drive, waving down every car that went past.

We knew then that we were going to be off grid for a while. We stocked up on petrol for the generator and fresh food and had a longer than usual chat to the checkout girl who filled us in on the state of things. 

When we got home we grabbed Dad’s battery-powered transistor radio – who has those anymore? We listened all day every day for some news about what was happening in the Far North. But Hawke’s Bay was having a very rough time and up in the Far North we are used to not being talked about much. In fact, we are neglected in most things including roading, helpful Civil Defence crisp-eating men and effective help for the many who are living in poverty.

There was no news for us.

In the old days, when I was a child,

I can clearly remember being stranded on Kawau Island during school holidays in cyclones, listening to the radio.

There would be some poor sod who basically sat on the microphone for hours reading out everything there was to know, region by region. He would start at the top of New Zealand and work his way down, giving updates on expected power reconnections, phone line connections, whether more bad weather was coming, that sort of very helpful information.

As I knitted endless baby cardigans and listened to the not very helpful radio, I talked myself into campaigning for the AM channel which broadcasts Parliament to be set aside for emergencies and to nominate some retired broadcaster to have the sole job of getting into the studio and reading out all the updates. I would even volunteer to do some shifts. Then I heard the government is planning to close the AM network so that’s a thing I don’t want to think about.

By day six it was very much a day of acceptance. I looked around and realised that Dad was okay, we were okay and the animals were all getting fed. And so, I started cooking on the gas element.

Fortunately, like many Kiwis, I have been camping. So, I know that on a single gas ring you can create wonders. I did wish I had kept the old four-sided metal toaster I used to have that sat on the gas flame and made great toast.

I missed my crunchy Vogel’s with Marmite.

In times of stress I find food is very helpful. Comfort food for me involves carbohydrates in the form of bread, freshly baked and warm, slathered in butter. But baking bread involves an oven and ours is electric so that wasn’t going to happen.

Then I remembered a recipe I have been using for years for pizza bread. I usually cook it on the barbecue then drown it in garlic butter and no one can resist eating all of it.

But instead of pizza bread, I decided to opt for a fried bread option. I divided the dough into little balls and fried it in some olive oil.

What emerged were fluffy, warm, comforting, delicious, tasty pieces of wonderful fried bread, or if I added a little sugar, very nice doughnuts.

Teamed with butter and homemade plum jam, these were our saviour.

Forget nourishing soups or slow-cooked casseroles for comfort food, these little morsels were just what we needed. The three of us devoured them every day and waited it out. Eventually, everything came back on after 10 days – for some, it was much longer.

The generator now lives in a box to keep it protected from the dust and knows it is much loved. Our new electric car, which couldn’t have got us very far safely as there was no electricity to charge it, has been given a 10 for effort but a 0 for practicality. We now have what we call in the north a “hard car”.

It’s our daughter’s old Toyota Corolla station wagon with 230,000kms on the clock.

And I ordered satellite internet, which arrived very quickly. We can now have internet powered by our generator no matter what happens, and a petrol car that can get us to safety so we will never be unable to contact our kids again.

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