A Tissue Of Lies

Frances Bezek walks through the storm in Fairfax. Could she be heading for a supply of MBTP?
Frances Bezek walks through the storm in Fairfax. Could she be heading for a supply of MBTP? (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Let's put this whole milk-bread-and-toilet-paper myth to rest right here, right now.

You, sitting there all comfy and warm awaiting the first blanket of white, know exactly what we're talking about. Since time and TV weather forecasts began, milk, bread and toilet paper -- MBTP -- have been the media stars of every snowstorm, cliches wrapped in plastic.

Milk certainly qualifies. And bread, too. But toilet paper? Toilet paper doesn't really belong in the holy grocerial trinity of every snow panic.

MBTP are supposedly what everyone runs to the store for at the first sign of a flake or flurry. More than staple commodities, they are the supposed bench marks of the region's ability to "cope" with a few inches of snow. Look! gawp the TV weather people, zooming in on denuded supermarket shelves, as if a Dupont Circle supermarket had suddenly turned into a Soviet supply depot. It's not really snowing until someone reports a run on MBTP.

Only it might be a bit of an urban myth. Yesterday, after predictions of the season's first good storm, spokesmen for the Safeway and Giant grocery store chains said they saw plenty of evidence of hoarding and panic buying -- but no straight-to-the-top-of-the-sales-chart relationship among milk, bread and toilet paper.

Compared with a snowless Dec. 5 a year ago, milk and bread sales roughly doubled Monday at Safeway's 100 stores throughout the mid-Atlantic region, spokesman Greg Ten Eyck said. Those two products were among the chain's best sellers, he said. Then again, so were bacon, scrapple and eggs ("People are planning big breakfasts after the snow," he said), along with fruit, water, soda, infant formula, Kool-Aid and boneless chicken breasts.

And toilet paper? Ten Eyck checked with his company's sales department. "Toilet paper wasn't in the top 50 products" sold, he said.

Giant spokesman Barry Scher, too, said there was nothing special about his company's MBTP index. Everything was moving briskly, he said: bread, eggs, canned goods, luncheon meats, batteries, even -- go figure -- ice cream.

Scher is an old hand at this; he's been with Giant for 39 years. And it's always the same on snow days, he said. At the first media reports of an approaching storm, Giant starts laying in extra provisions of everything. "In Washington, people run for the hills the minute they hear about snow," he said. "They think they're going to be stuck in their house for days, and they're going to need provisions."

The media help stoke the frenzy. "The TV people always call me and want to do an interview," he said. "I tell them to use the interview they did with me five years ago, because there's not going to be anything new about this [storm] that wasn't true about the last one."

Even in places that get plenty of snow, there's nothing really noteworthy about toilet-paper sales. In such frosty Midwestern and Western states as Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado, the big sellers are bread, milk, kitty litter, batteries and shovels, said Jeff Stroh, a spokesman for the Safeway division that represents that region. "Everyone can agree on bread and milk," he said, but beyond that "we don't have a top-three or -four list."

Stroh said there's a good reason why people don't necessarily need to hoard toilet paper before a storm -- because it's usually in abundant supply around the home. Think about it, he said: You run out of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread fairly quickly, and need to resupply at regular intervals. But toilet paper comes in humongous packages: 12-roll packs, 24-roll sizes, 48-roll monsters that could withstand a blizzard of gastrointestinal distress.

So if just about everything moves off the shelves before it snows, why does MBTP still enjoy so much ink and airtime? Why were they so closely linked in the first place?

It's possible that there's some kind of subliminal chromatic unity in MBTP and snow. The mind naturally links all that white stuff outside with all the white goods in the pantry. (Of course, if this were the case, you'd have to include eggs. And forget about rye, wheat or pumpernickel bread.)

Milk and bread are certainly good to have when there's nothing left in the cupboard. Symbolically, they're easy to decode. Bread is the host, the staff of life, a palpable object of survival. Milk is a no-brainer, too -- it's the sustenance that a mother provides an infant, a biblical promise ("a land flowing with milk and honey"), a smooth and nutritious foodstuff (except for the lactose-intolerant).

But toilet paper is harder to fit into this symbolic survival schema. It possibly represents some kind of talisman of civilization, a minimal luxury and comfort when the normal rhythms of civilization are disrupted. Think of the struggles of our hardy prairie forefathers, stuck out there on the frozen tundra, with nothing but milk, bread and the pages of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue to get them through another long winter. Not pleasant.

On the other hand, Scotch, chocolate and a good steak are pretty good minimal luxuries, too, and you don't hear half as much about them when it snows.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company