What were postwar Americans planning to eat in the event of a nuclear attack? Hint: It wasn’t very appetizing.
With Cold War tensions escalating in the 1950s, the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack cast a terrifying shadow over everyday American life. In schools, children learned to “duck and cover,” diving under their desks and staying far away from windows in drills designed to protect them during an atomic strike. Families across the country (at least those who could afford it) built fallout shelters in their basements and backyards. Community shelters were constructed beneath municipal buildings, and emergency government bunkers were carved into hillsides.
As ridiculous as it seems now, given what we know of the power of nuclear weaponry, these and other U.S. civil defense policies in the ‘50s and early ‘60s were based on the significantly flawed notion that most of the nation’s population would survive a catastrophic nuclear attack.
And when they did, they would need something to eat.
In 1955, during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) urged every family to keep a seven-day supply of food and water on hand in case of an atomic emergency. To encourage people to build this stash of provisions, the FCDA launched an initiative called “Grandma’s Pantry,” based around slogans like “Grandma was always ready for an emergency.”
The government produced 1,000 Grandma’s Pantry exhibits to use in stores and at fairs. According to a 2017 story in Eater in 2017, the department store giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. exhibited 500 of them in its stores, alongside shelves lined with fallout shelter-friendly consumer foods like Hawaiian Punch, Campbell’s Soup, Tang drink mix, candy bars and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
The doomsday diet: survival crackers
During the crisis over Berlin in mid-1961, President John F. Kennedy expanded the nation’s civil defense programs, calling for more than $200 million in appropriations for the construction of public fallout shelters in the United States. Kennedy also encouraged Americans to build private shelters, the estimated number of which rose from 60,000 in June 1961 to some 200,000 in 1965.
By the early 60s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had already developed what it considered the ideal “Doomsday food”: nutritious, easy to prepare and reasonably priced, with a long shelf life. The result of its efforts? A bulgur wheat biscuit dubbed the “All-Purpose Survival Cracker.”
Bulgur, a Mediterranean staple made from parboiled whole grains known as groats, has been consumed for thousands of years by everyone from Chinese emperors to ancient Babylonians. As Paul Visher, then the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for civil defense, argued before Congress in 1962, bulgur’s “shelf life has been established by being edible after 3,000 years in an Egyptian pyramid.”
Though the bulgur biscuits were originally produced in a single plant in Seattle, the Pentagon soon enlisted the help of the nation’s biggest cereal and biscuit companies, including Sunshine Biscuits, Kroger, the Southern Biscuit Company, Nabisco and Keebler (then the United Biscuit Company of America). In all, these companies churned out more than 20 billion survival crackers by the end of the program in 1964.
General Mills also developed its own fallout shelter offering—though it bore little resemblance to actual food. The granulated synthetic protein known as Multi-Purpose Food came in a large white can and was included in the Emergency Pak Food and Water kits that consumers like Dr. Robert Parman, of Topeka, Kansas, purchased in the early 1960s.
According to the Kansas Historical Society, the three kits Parman bought to stock his family’s fallout shelter in 1961 (he later donated one to the Kansas Museum of History) were manufactured by a company called Surviv-All, Inc., of New York City. Along with the sand-like Multi-Purpose Food, they contained 24 pint-size cans of water, which was supposedly enough sustenance to keep survivors alive for two weeks—the amount of time civil defense authorities estimated it would take before radiation levels dropped low enough for people to emerge from their shelters and forage for food.
Canned meat, drink mix and ‘Doomsday cookies’
While bulgur biscuits and synthetic protein grains may have been the government’s idea of the perfect fallout shelter food, many ordinary Americans turned to more conventional options when it came to stocking their emergency pantries. Canned vegetables and beans and preserved meats (think Spam and hot dogs) were popular choices, along with peanut butter, boxed cereals, canned juices, drink mixes and packaged crackers and cookies.
In her book Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, Sara Mansfield Taber wrote that she and her classmates “brought in cans of tuna fish, chicken noodle soup, jars of Tang (the drink of the astronauts), and Vienna sausages for the emergency stockpile” before hunkering down in the basement of a classmate’s home as part of a school air-raid drill. Tang also showed up in a 1960s shelter unearthed in the backyard of a Wisconsin home in 2013, alongside individual packs of cornflakes and cans of pineapple juice.
Though published in 2012, the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul Cookbook featured a Cold War-era recipe for “Doomsday Cookies.” The recipe’s author, Barbara Curtis, recalled doing duck-and-cover drills at school in the 1950s. At home, Curtis’s mother made her signature oatmeal, walnut and chocolate chip cookies in massive quantities to stockpile along with the “cases of Spam, Vienna sausages and oil-packed tuna” stored in the family’s garage.
The long afterlife of fallout shelter foods
Though fears of a Soviet atomic attack had largely receded by the 1970s, replaced by concerns over the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, some fallout shelter foods proved to have an even longer shelf life than their government boosters might have predicted—sort of. In 2006, workers in New York City were conducting a routine structural inspection of the Brooklyn Bridge when they came across a blast from the Cold War past: a stockpile of medical supplies, water drums and an estimated 140 boxes containing more than 350,000 “Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Crackers.”
“It tasted like cardboard, but with a nasty backbite that stayed in your mouth for hours,” reported Iris Weinshall, the city’s transportation commissioner at the time. "I cannot think of eating a saltine now without that taste coming up."
The Food That Built America
Watch every season of the hit show The Food That Built America. Available to stream now.