Stop Snickering In The Bread Aisle, You

Bread and milk before the snowstorm: the ultimate panic-buying cliché. I enjoy the jokes as much as anyone. A short while ago, it looked like we here in New Jersey were going to be smacked with a Weather Event right on top of Thanksgiving. Here’s me on Facebook, yukking it up:


Now I’ve started thinking more about that pre-storm supermarket rush. “Why is everyone so uptight about the bread and milk?” we clever people ask.

But this is also a serious question. Why is everyone so uptight? What chord is being played in our cultural memory?

Dedicated reporter that I am, I flexed my fingers and began Googling. Very quickly, sharp insights piled up, like: “Because we are stupid,” and “LOL.” I was, as ever, impressed by the discourse, but refused to be intimidated. Time to dig deeper, into the snowstorms of the past.

The deep, dark past.


Drumroll, please:

1967 and 1979, Chicago.

1969 (the “Lindsay Storm”) and 1983, New York.

1978, New England (well, New York, too, but geez, have you even seen those pictures from Rhode Island?).

Now, let us picture life in 1967, 1969, etc.

You don’t have Costco or Sam’s Club. Buying anything by the case is unthinkable. Who do you think you are, Mr. Hooper? So your bunker is not bursting with Fritos and Cheetos to get you through the night. You don’t have shelf-stable milk in pour-spout boxes, although if your mom is forward-thinking, there might be a box of dried milk flakes in the pantry if things get dire. Eeew.

Nobody has snow blowers. You lean on your dinky shovel and contemplate your driveway. It is a blank river of white, the Mississippi on steroids. Somewhere in it is a slight lump indicating your car.

If you are (say) dependent upon prescription medication or baby formula, you might be able to walk to your local pharmacy for the former and your local supermarket for the latter. That wouldn’t be bad. But both of these places are laughably small, square-footage-wise, compared to the emporia of today. If you think you’ve seen the definition of “overwhelmed” at your local mega-mart, imagine a rush on a downtown A&P the size of … hmmm, what? A typical storefront branch library? OK, maybe bigger than that.  But not by much. The place is going to be stripped bare in a couple of hours, max.

And it might not be open anyway. There is not an expectation that stores stay open 24/7, even if anyone were to say “24/7,” which they do not. In this world, it is not unheard-of to tough things out until Monday morning, even in dry weather.

Most everyone does have a telephone (which is not called a “land line,” because there is no other kind of line yet), but then as now, this telephone is quite dependent upon how well the wire that connects the house to the outside world resists frozen, snowy branches or frigid winds. Of course, that’s if you are in your house. If you get stranded someplace else, better hope you have a lot of change for that pay phone, and better hope it’s working.

My theory is that all of this adds up to a cultural echo that breeds bone-deep fears of frenetic rushes followed by prolonged periods of bare shelves and silent phones. And it is a mental image with an underlying reality that we don’t quite grasp anymore. We have recourses now, I remind myself. The driveway can be cleared faster. The cell phone will likely work. And there’s always another megamarket to drive to, anytime. But I have my own historical, illogical panic buttons that I must remind myself are throwbacks, not necessities.

When I was a kid my parents kept a publication called “The Big Snow” about the 1967 Chicago storm. We had been living in New Jersey for several years by that point, but my parents had spent five years in the Windy City. They retained a deep fondness for Chicago and healthy respect for its winters, so the 1967 blizzard held a hypnotic fascination for them. This supplement is long gone from my grasp, of course, but what hypnotically fascinated me was a picture I swear I remember of shoppers standing bewildered in a supermarket bread aisle that was completely empty. Maybe there was one loaf? They weren’t even trying to grab it, though. They were just gobsmacked at the blankness.

No bread. No milk. No delivery trucks. No hope.

Excuse me. I have to go to the supermarket now.

Bonus: Snowstorm geeks in the New York metropolitan area will like this chart of historically terrible area snowstorms. Enjoy.


2 Comments on “Stop Snickering In The Bread Aisle, You”

  1. Helen says:

    Blizzard by Jim Murphy is a non-fiction account of March 12, 1888–the day two storms converged to create an East Coast blizzard some called the Great White Hurricane. NYC and its environs were hit particularly hard (800 people in the city perished) and Murphy describes how all citizens from all walks of life in Manhattan, New Jersey and Connecticut were impacted by the devastating cold and snow. Written for the middle schooler, I think it’s a fascinating read for anyone. Hard to imagine those times, when we didn’t hear about snow events for days in advance!

    • Oh, yes! The photos of 1888 are still hard for me to comprehend, no matter how many times I look at them. Also worth noting is the NYC Blizzard of 1947 (snow total, 26.4 inches), which held the metro snowfall record until 2006. In this post I was considering snowfalls in living memory (well, OK, in my living memory) so my list is more recent, but it’s sobering to think about those massive older storms and having to deal with them without the benefit of today’s early-warning systems.

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