The instinct to hoard is in my genes. My Czech grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, saved everything. When she moved into a nursing home, my mother and I went through her house to get rid of stuff she wouldn’t need. I still remember, 40 years later, finding huge glass jars full of small items like rubber bands. One jar had nothing but bits of string, some as short as 4 or 5 inches long. After growing up in a time when people had almost nothing, she knew the value of pieces of string. You never knew when you would need to tie them together to make something useful.
My German great-grandfather came to this country from Europe as a young man. As a child, I would watch him eat every drop of food off his plate, as if it had been washed clean. In the old country, his family were peasants, never knowing if they would have enough to eat. In today’s language, they would have been called “food insecure.”
To this day, I can’t waste food. Even if a piece of cheese is going bad, I’ll carefully cut around the edges to eat what’s still good. It horrifies me when I see restaurant diners eating only a portion of their meal and not taking the rest home, which means perfectly good food is being thrown away. I’ve taken home friends’ meals when they didn’t want theirs, even when I didn’t particularly like their choices of entree.
Even though my parents provided my siblings and I with healthy and filling meals, I absorbed the idea of scarcity. When we didn’t eat all the food from our plates, we were forced to sit at the dining table until we did, while being told that children were starving in China. It was a valuable message: food was precious, and we were lucky to have it.
In this pandemic, my instincts to hoard have served me well. I’ve always kept at least one or two weeks’ worth of food in my refrigerator and cupboards: dried beans, canned soups, pasta, canned salmon and sardines, frozen vegetables and meat—and, of course, chocolate bars. Although I’ve been prey to the panic that other shoppers have felt—I need my yogurt for breakfast—I know realistically that I’ll be OK for a few weeks.
Last week I needed to visit Whole Foods to pick up frozen food for elderly neighbors who don’t cook. The frozen foods, milk and eggs were almost gone but the tables of fresh fruit and vegetables were piled high, a veritable cornucopia: green and red peppers, 10 different kinds of lettuce, four kinds of kale, cauliflower, broccoli, avocados, apples, oranges. I wanted to grab as much as possible.
It must have been how my great-grandfather felt when he went into the neighborhood market in Chicago: food that you could buy off the shelf, instead of having to find it in the earth, and a seemingly unlimited supply.
It feels like we’ve learned a valuable lesson: what you need won’t always be there when you need it. Some people will take that lesson and hoard as much as possible; others will learn to live without.
I’m following the example of a 95-year-old friend who survived the Great Depression, World War II, the untimely death of her daughter and the more recent death of her husband. She’s taking this pandemic in stride, continuing her crocheting and keeping in contact with friends over the phone. She grew up on a Wisconsin farm where the family bathroom was an outhouse, toilet paper was a luxury, and pages from the Sears & Roebuck catalog were all you needed.