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I Attended A Natural Disaster Dinner Party And It Made Me Feel Better About The Big One

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When the "big one" hits — the earthquake that splits freeways, topples buildings and reduces Los Angeles to one massive Lord of the Flies-esque scrum for survival — don't expect anyone to rescue you.

Don't believe us? Let Crisanta Gonzalez, a rep for the L.A.'s Emergency Management Department, tell you. A few weeks after this summer's Ridgecrest earthquakes, she was asked about the aftermath of a major earthquake. Her response blunt: "We're not coming." Not enough police officers. Not enough firefighters. Busted infrastructure. Sorry, kids, you're on your own.

Now, that you have this information, what do you do?

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Maybe you listen to the terrifying yet helpful podcast The Big One. Maybe you dive into the world of "prepperism" and online survivalist communities. Maybe you stockpile water, non-perishable food and first aid supplies (which should also come in handy when climate change forces us to live as goatherds on the Iowa steppes). Maybe you get an invite to an "edible earthquake" dinner and instead of snickering and hitting delete, you RSVP "yes."

Funded by a grant to food-art collective Los Angeles Eats Itself and sponsored by L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, this free event promised an "edible experience based on prepperism." I was dubious. Would it feel like goofy disaster cosplay or, worse, first-world insensitivity? But my curiosity outweighed my skepticism and I registered for a ticket.

At midnight on Oct. 26, the day of S/H/O/O/K: The Last Survivalist Supper, I received an email with three instructions.

  1. Don't come hangry
  2. Look for the man with the bucket backpack
  3. Wear comfy clothes

Expecting to return home tired and unsated, I ate dinner at 4 p.m.

When I arrived at East Hollywood's Barnsdall Park at dusk, along with 60 or so other disaster diners, we received folded mylar ponchos and handcrafted sterling silver whistles. On the lawn of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House stood the evening's centerpiece, a six-foot tall beige canvas pyramid. It had been installed 30 days prior and was filled with canned goodies from chefs and "food fermentators" David Anthony David (aka D.A.D.) and Jessica Wang, who had prepared a dinner of freeze-dried dishes and non-perishables. But before we could eat, we had to build our tables.

We were divided into four groups and given hand-crank radios. Our hosts, artists Tony Bañuelos and J-Sun, used them to guide us as we unpacked the pyramid's contents. We inflated giant beach balls and hoisted them onto plastic pipes attached to cement-weighted buckets. When we hit a switch, the LEDs inside of them lit up, turning them into beacons. We set up four triangular, red tables in a flower formation. Underneath, we found a pyramid of 60 red buckets and dozens of jars. The buckets and the jars, Bañuelos told us, contained our dinners.

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At our tables, we dumped out the contents of the buckets and turned them over to use as chairs. Our supplies included a three-piece mess kit, several freezer bags that looked like something you'd buy in a science museum gift shop, a small light and a beautiful red napkin/bandana printed with earthquake survival tips. As the sun dipped below Griffith Observatory, I put on my mylar poncho and leaned into the weirdness.

I felt like I had snuck into a meeting of the Aetherius Society, whose members believe they can save the world using "radionic energy" gathered from Mount Baldy. A passerby walking his dog asked, "Is this some kind of cult thing?"

For each course, chefs David and Wang had created a localvore M.R.E. That's the military acronym for "Meal, Ready to Eat" and they're typically freeze-dried versions of recognizable foods — chili, beef teriyaki, gumbo, tortellini, spaghetti, curry chicken, hash browns — with the instruction "just add water." Soldiers bring them into battle, astronauts rely on them during shuttle missions and now, confused Angelenos munch on them at weird outdoor dinner parties.

The first course was a bastardized version of elotes (canned baby corn dipped in a chocolatey "survival molé") next to a tomato "taco" (a smoky, pickled heirloom tomato folded in half and covered in fermented mango curry). The "curry" was closer to chimichurri, the tomato was goopy and I missed having a tortilla. Along with that, we sipped a tart watermelon shrub kombucha out of speckled mugs.

The main course required us to do a little more work. My fellow diners and I formed a line and dumped our individual packets of David and Wang's instant pad Thai into a giant pot. After J-Sun stirred it up, we received servings of the communal pad Thai along with packets of peanut butter and tiny Ziploc bags of raw peanuts we could add as garnish.

The final course, dessert, featured Cosmix freeze-dried ice cream bars (an Apollo-era astronaut favorite), Wakka instant coffee and a Native Wildflower honey straw. "The Ancient Egyptians had honey. Honey was here before us, honey will be here after us. There will always be honey," said J-Sun. Scientists studying colony collapse disorder might disagree with that assertion but who am I to quibble?

Between courses, I chatted with a new friend about how brownie dough tastes better on the second and third day. I watched a man show three girls how to create mood lighting with their LEDs. I overheard a Russian immigrant reminisce about his grandmother's fall pickling tradition.

Each course was blessed by a spoken word piece from Bañuelos. Combining '90s rap lyrics, prepper language and reports from natural disasters, he intoned, "1994, 4:31 am, blind thrust. We started rolling, the feeling just got stronger and stronger... We heard a hard rumble. It came down and everything changed from that moment, forever... B.O.B. Bug Out Bag."

Spoken word poetry is best when it's... well, spoken, but his words inspired me to reflect us I crunched around the darkness in my silver poncho, scooping noodles into my mouth with camping flatware. I thought about where I usually am at 4 a.m., in a deep sleep in my East Hollywood motel-style apartment. If there's another earthquake as strong as the one that hit Northridge in 1994 — and eventually there will be — how long would it take for me to react? Would I have time to get to safety? Would any of us? Are we any more prepared for "the big one" than we were 25 years ago? I was filled with anxious visions of natural disasters, past and future.

To close out the night, our hosts asked us to "form our own earthquake." We flipped over our buckets and pounded on them in a frantic, prolonged drum roll for several minutes. When we stopped, the stillness of the park set in. Some of us giggled. Others were lost in thought. Despite the awkwardness, I savored this final attempt to release my inhibitions and embrace a little serenity. J-Sun announced the event had reached its conclusion. Silently and without being asked, we began breaking down the tables, stacking our buckets and deflating our beach ball beacons.

Mainstream prepper culture is inherently isolationist. It demands we wall off ourselves (and maybe our loved ones) from the rest of the world in an attempt to survive potential disasters. Earthquakes, fires, floods, nuclear war, societal collapse. Prepperism is also expensive. Need a $100 "fiesta bucket" with "all the fixin's to prepare over 100 delicious Mexican food favorites"? How about a $369 "shield" to protect your home from electromagnetic pulses and solar flares? There are websites waiting to sell them to you. At $89.99, Costco's 23-lb. bucket of mac 'n cheese is a bargain.

Zombie flicks and disaster movies usually depict humans descending into violence — looting, pillaging, lowest common denominator stuff — until a hero, probably The Rock, swoops in to remind us of our shared humanity and rescue the most attractive among us. But shared trauma also has a way of building bridges across cultural divides. The Last Survivalist Supper offered five dozen Angelenos an alternate vision at how we might work together to save ourselves — and each other.

Later, when I looked at the website for the event, I noticed the meaning of S/H/O/O/K. It stands for "Surviving Humans Of Other Kinds." Making it through a mass disaster isn't just about surviving the initial impact, it's about what we decide to do in the aftermath.

For all its goofiness, this "gourmet" prepper dinner made me feel better about not owning the latest "go bag" or building an underground bunker lined with canned goods and buckets of food. I stopped visualizing severed overpasses, exposed wires and stray pets. I started imagining the kind of communities we might be able to create. We're all worried about what will happen when "the big one" hits. Instead of hunkering down with our shotguns and freeze-dried burritos, we might consider how we could lean on each other for strength. After all, your Twitter followers won't be around to dig you out of the debris — but your neighbors might.

Current:LA/Food hosts free food and art events around Los Angeles through the end of November. Los Angeles Eats Itself will continue its L.A.-themed series of dinner experiences with a Bling Ring Banquet in mid-2020; the date has yet to be announced. Sign up for their newsletter for more information.

An employee works at the cash register at Ridgecrest Market which remained open since a 7.1 earthquake struck the community on July 6, 2019.

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