All right. The worst has happened and now you're without electricity (or gas) for a wee while. Your house is intact and liveable, and you had enough foresight to put aside a supply of non-perishable food for situations like this. Now you're faced with another problem: how are you going to cook your food?
You could, of course, just eat things like baked beans, tinned fish and tinned peaches cold. You'll still get all the nutrients you need out of it. However, if the electricity's off and you're doing things by candlelight after a disaster, having a hot meal is very comforting and good for morale. It also warms you up from the inside, which is a good way of keeping warm.
If you have a barbecue that runs off charcoal or its own separate gas bottle, you won't have any problems. Most things can be cooked on a barbecue one way or another, even if you just stick a saucepan or kettle over the hot bit of the barbecue and let something boil or simmer away. Some barbecues are even able to bake and roast things, so if you have one of these, you will have absolutely no problems whatsoever – you will probably be able to cook for yourselves and all your neighbours, thus making yourselves very popular indeed.
No barbecue or even a little camping primus? You're going to have to cook over a fire of some sort. As we learned in high school science, one of the key things that make humans humans rather than apes is that we can make fire. We'll assume that you have matches and some old dry newspapers for this article.
Start with the fireplace. If your house has an old open fireplace or a pot belly stove, you have a good start. If you don't, you're going to have to make one.
The fire should be lit as normal – tinder down the bottom, then kindling and then bigger stuff. As you are going to cook on this fire, chemical firestarters, petrol, etc. are not a good idea, as the fumes will get into whatever you're cooking. Use wood, not coal. For cooking, you need plenty of embers rather than flames, so use big logs or charcoal.
Now you have to look at what you've got. If you have tinned foil, some items can be wrapped up in the tinfoil and baked on the ashes near the hot coals. Fish, potatoes and apples are good possibilities here, as are bananas, although the bananas only take a few minutes.
The biggest mistake anyone can make when cooking over an open fire is to put your frying pan or saucepan directly onto the hot embers. If you do this, you will burn your dinner very quickly. Your pan or pot should be above the embers, not on them (exception: kettles containing just water – but make sure they don't boil dry). You can put things on the bricks and stones surrounding the fire, which will expose them to the heat but will not burn them. Remember to keep stirring, though, to make sure it cooks evenly. If you can find a metal grid or grille of some sort, this can be rested on top of the bricks across the fire for an instant barbecue grille. Rest saucepans and frying pans on top of this. Don't touch the grille or grid – metal heats up quickly. A sheet of corrugated iron can be used but it isn't quite as good.
If you can get a number of long poles, you can make a spit. This is not for spit roasting whole animals or fish. What you do is make a bucket-style handle on all your saucepans with some wire if they don't have one already (round the sides of the pan in a big circle, then a loop over the top). If you have a large tin can, punch holes in the sides near the top and make it into a sort of bucket. The spit goes through the wire "handle" and the pot dangles over the fire. Getting it off again is a two-person job. This works for boiling and stewing things.
You can cook directly over the embers without anything fancier than a toasting fork or a sharp stick. Ever toasted marshmallows over a bonfire? Then you know what do to. You can cook kebabs, sausages, toast and melted cheese like this. You can also bake the Australian classic known as damper, which is dough – either bread dough or scone dough – wrapped in a long coil around a stick and held over the embers until it puffs up and turns golden brown.
If you can boil it, grill it, fry it or bake it in tinfoil, you can cook it. Stews are best, as they make best use of the nutrients and are more filling. You can also add more to a stew and still have it tasting great, especially with the addition of a little curry powder.