By the time you read this, there could be three inches of snow on the ground, with more to follow. Or there might be 10. Of course, there also could wind up being none. It might be sunny. There might be a rainbow out over the airport.
This is Charlotte, after all, and sometimes forecasting the weather around here is a little like trying to predict how the Panthers’ season will go before it even starts.
But there’s one thing you can be certain of. One thing that happens without fail every time the local TV meteorologists start getting visibly worked up about a winter weather advisory, every time the kids start asking whether school (or such and such weekend activity) might be canceled, every time an anti-icing truck from the city’s tiny fleet is spotted trundling down the interstate.
Bet on it: If you were to visit a grocery store on Saturday, you’d find very little milk and very little bread.
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At about 11:40 a.m. Friday, I walked the Harris Teeter at Park Road Shopping Center – whose lot was so jammed that the spot I found for my car was practically in SouthPark – and the first words I heard came from a woman asking an assistant manager where the bread was. The second thing I heard was two people talking about the weather in a self-checkout line that snaked halfway down the beauty products aisle. I quickly counted 17 people in line, and noted that 12 of them toted loaves of bread and 11 of them had cartons or jugs of milk.
At 11:40 a.m. on a Friday.
“Bread and snow go up because kids are out of school and people have to feed them,” my colleague Kathleen Purvis told me, and she happens to know something about the subject, as both a parent and the Observer’s food editor.
I said, yeah, but this particular snowstorm’s on a Saturday. She said, right, but weekend or not, kids – and their moms and dads – are still stuck in the house if the roads aren’t passable. “Your white-bread loaf,” she said, “makes the fastest lunches.”
This theory seems to bear out, certainly for parents.
Rachel Fuchs of Charlotte told me on Friday that she stocked up on both “because I have four kids, and if we do get the snow called for, I need to be able to feed them.”
Another mom of four, Nicole Creech of Fort Mill, put it a bit more bluntly: “You can’t feed kids cheese and whiskey.”
But the real answer, I suspect, is a little more complicated. Right? I mean, you see photos in your news feed of empty bread aisles and milk coolers, and you laugh at all the milk sandwiches jokes, and then you go back to whatever it is you’re doing... except... this feeling is starting to creep over you: Shoot, does that milk we have at home expire tomorrow?
Next thing you know, you’re standing in a self-checkout line behind 16 other people at a Harris Teeter at 11:40 a.m. on a Friday, with a carton of milk, a loaf of bread, and a package of Oreos in your basket.
Now, the Oreos I understand. (They were an impulse buy, obviously.) But what is it about bread and milk? I reached out early Friday afternoon to a few of the big North Carolina universities to see if they had psychologists who I could talk to; within 15 minutes, I got a note from a Duke University media relations specialist saying: “I’m checking, although most people are preparing for the forthcoming snow storm.”
Which I interpreted to mean that the majority of Duke’s faculty were at the grocery store buying milk and bread right then.
Wake Forest, meanwhile, responded with a potential lead that didn’t pan out, but signed off their message with a cheerful “Enjoy some French toast this weekend!”
Anyway, in lieu of scholarly expertise, here are a couple of theories to offer:
1. In 2014, a writer for Pittsburgh Magazine set out to unearth the “milk, bread and toilet paper” mystery, and traced it to a 1950 blizzard that yielded almost 3 feet of the white stuff – despite weather folks initially only calling for 1 – along with a widespread shortage of those three grocery staples. The big Blizzard of 1978 dropped 27 inches on Boston and Providence in New England and had a similar effect on bread and milk inventories.
These are prominent examples, but surely not the only ones, and so the presumed total effect is that the habit of always stocking up on the two items in the face of ominous forecasts has been a viral phenomenon. (It’s also worth noting that, if true, these are trends Northerners started, giving Southerners an opportunity right here to say “STOP MOCKING OUR REACTIONS TO THE SNOW!”)
2. Along similar lines, but more broadly speaking (here’s probably the answer that the Duke prof who was out buying milk and bread would give), it’s very likely that people are compelled to stockpile in times like these simply because it’s something proactive that they can do.
In an article for HowStuffWorks Science, New York City-based psychotherapist Lisa Brateman said, “In one way or another, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to feel in control, and buying things you might throw out still gives the person a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation.” This gets at something that’s always bothered me about the whole milk and bread stampede, which is: If you’re that worried, shouldn’t you be buying stuff that won’t go bad in a week??
Look, ultimately, I get it. It drives me nuts sometimes to see people around here go so berserk at the first whiff of a snowstorm, and at other times I can’t stop laughing at the absurdity of the milk and bread fixation, but I do get it. The roads will be bad, we rarely get big storms so our local governments aren’t funded in a way that allows for much plowing, and what’s wrong with making sure you’ve got groceries?
Now, personally, I’m more of an “OK, if we’re going to be snowed in this weekend let’s make sure we’ve got stuff to make breakfast-for-dinner, a six-pack of strong IPA and a good TV show to binge on” kind of guy.
But everybody’s got their own favorite comfort food, and as usual in these situations, the most popular comfort food in Charlotte this weekend appears to be French toast.