HOUSTON >> No matter what, cooks are going to cook.
That’s really the only way to explain why Al Marcus, 70, was tending to 140 pounds of brisket in a backyard smoker just 12 days after Hurricane Harvey filled his midcentury house with 4 feet of bayou water.
The smoker is steps away from what was a big, comfortable kitchen. Over the course of 26 years, he has braided a thousand loaves of challah and taught dozens of children to bake cookies here. On a really rocking Thanksgiving, he packs in more than 100 people.
Now the kitchen he shared with his wife, Barbara, is a jumble of drowned appliances, stained spatulas and stink from a three-day soak in floodwater.
Somehow, the washing machine ended up near the kitchen counter. After a few swipes with a bleach-soaked rag, it made a good enough surface to serve some of the brisket to the people from All Hands Volunteers who were ripping out soaked Sheetrock at his house and homes all over Houston.
Like thousands of people whose kitchens have been decimated by the hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Marcus just had to cook.
“What else am I going to do?” he asked.
Though no one keeps an official count of such things, it’s a safe bet to say that never before have so many American kitchens been taken out of commission at the same time.
In Houston alone, officials estimate that floods have damaged more than 100,000 homes. Harvey destroyed tens of thousands of other houses throughout south Texas. The wreckage in Florida and other parts of the Deep South from Irma has yet to be tallied. Between the two, the cost could run as high as $200 billion, according to early estimates from Moody’s Analytics.
For many, the emotional and cultural impact is most keenly felt at mealtimes. The kitchen is the heartbeat of a home and, by extension, of a community. It’s where the day begins and often where it ends.
Gone to the storms are the kitchens where the woman who made the best tamales on the block perfected her craft, and grandmothers churned out the pans of macaroni and cheese that kept the family together. Gone, too, are the ones where homesick college freshmen bounded through the door, young marriages began and a child first tasted peas.
“It’s where I spent most of my time, not only cooking but reading, living and catching up with my son when he comes home from school,” said Francine Spiering, a Houston food writer and recipe developer whose home sat in water so long that she didn’t get back inside to start cleaning up until last week.
The list of what she lost includes her favorite knives, 40 cookbooks and countless plates and platters. Her kitchen was her office. Salvaging what she can and rebuilding may take six months. “It’s a nightmare,” she said.
Some people have already started to recalibrate life in new kitchens. Others will spend the next weeks and months cooking in upstairs bedrooms and mucked-out garages — anywhere they can MacGyver a place to make a meal.
Dana Karni, a lawyer, and her three children set up shop on their second floor in the city of Bellaire. The first floor is nothing but studs and concrete.
When the water started pouring in, fast, just before dawn on Aug. 27, they had less than two hours to try to save what they could.
“Think about how you would prepare your kitchen for a potential storm,” Karni said. “You unplug things. You put things on cabinets. But you don’t think about what you would save.”
As the water rose, she and her 16-year-old son struggled up the stairs with a small chest freezer that held the salmon she had caught on a trip to Alaska with her father. Her daughter, 14, who loves to bake, grabbed the KitchenAid mixer and put it next to her bed.
Karni carried up her expensive Japanese knives. If the waters rose too high and she and her children had to retreat to the attic, she imagined that she might be able to use the knives to cut a hole in the roof so they could climb to safety and wait to be rescued.
As it turns out, the water reached only halfway up the stairs but the entire first floor was a loss. So the family hung plastic, tore out the floors and the Sheetrock, and moved the kitchen upstairs.
The central playroom holds a little microwave and mini-fridge. An espresso machine is on the vanity in the master bathroom. The linen closet is the pantry. When her son heats up some schnitzel that an aunt dropped off, the smell drifts into the bedrooms.
They probably won’t get back into their kitchen until March.
“You don’t realize how much you miss it, how central it is to the rhythm of your life,” she said.
Veterans of natural disasters can only advise patience and offer sympathy to the newly kitchenless. Judy Walker, the former food editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, had to wait a year before her kitchen was rebuilt after the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina.
She limped by on the second floor with a hot plate, a microwave, her electric frying pan and a Crock-Pot. “It’s stunning what all you can do with that,” she said.
The biggest issue for her was getting the cabinets made, because there weren’t enough workers. Others couldn’t find flooring or appliances. Many people in New Orleans, she said, simply drove 10 hours to the Ikea in Houston. Others were given FEMA trailers, which they parked in their driveways just to have a kitchen.
Big concerns in New Orleans included saving recipes and deciding which equipment to sanitize and salvage. Many people didn’t want to save their flood-damaged cast-iron cookware, Walker said, which made a hero of the man who drove around afterward handing out free cast-iron pans from his trunk.
For people who lost everything, rebuilding a kitchen is far down the list of immediate concerns. For those who can rebuild — whether rich or poor — there is some hope in imagining what a new kitchen might look like.
Andrea White, the wife of the former Houston mayor Bill White, wants to move her cooktop from a center island to a counter by the wall once she cleans up from the foot of water that seeped into their home in the exclusive Memorial neighborhood of west Houston.
Perla Moncivais, her four children and her husband are living with her parents while they gut their modest home near Greens Bayou, northeast of downtown. She, too, is taking some solace in dreaming about a new place to cook for her family. “I want an open concept with a table since I have so many kids,” she said.
Marcus, the brisket maker, has a food business called the Grateful Bread. He sells his handmade charcuterie and sauces to chefs, online and at the Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers Market.
Even the little kitchen losses are painful, he said. His oak casks of homemade vinegar got soaked. So did a big glass jar packed with vanilla that he had been aging for 15 years. It had been sealed with wax, but couldn’t withstand the floodwaters. Last week, the jar sat uncovered near the front porch, crammed with ruined vanilla beans.
“Looking at that hurts in ways you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “If I started this vanilla again tomorrow, I’ll be 86 years old before it’s ready.”
Marcus knows that his kitchen — with dining spaces big enough for two long wooden tables — is probably a total loss. Rebuilding doesn’t make economic sense at his age. Besides, the house has flooded twice before.
He thinks about all the holidays spent here, all the simple breakfasts he shared with his wife and son.
“It’ll never be the same, but it’s not over,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m upbeat but I have to see the bigger picture here. We’ve been through a lot worse, and we’re not destitute.”