Apocalypse Chow 

Are doomsday dinners worth living for?

click to enlarge Be it ratatouille or PB&J (below) each MRE offers a taste of the end times

Jonathan Boncek

Be it ratatouille or PB&J (below) each MRE offers a taste of the end times

The bowl of "brown sugar and maple multi-grain cereal" oozed like a septic wound. I scooped a spoonful hoping for flavor redemption. The fauxtmeal tasted like a waterlogged granola bar discovered in the marsh. One hour into eating survival food for a week and already I was losing the will to live.

But what if this really was an emergency? Lest we forget, Charleston is an apocalypse waiting to happen. According to 2008's U.S. Geological Survey, the Holy City is still a high-risk bulls-eye for future earthquakes (Google: earthquake of 1886 for a quick devastation reminder). Meanwhile, the Weather Company has projected the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season to be the most active in four years with a total of 14 named storms, eight hurricanes, and three major hurricanes forecast. One day we could even face a tsunami. It's not out of the realm of possibility. In 2014 The Post & Courier reported that a tsunami happened here 18,000 years ago when "a 30-mile long chunk of the Continental Shelf broke loose off neighboring North Carolina and slid into the depths." Following the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people in 2005, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated preparedness protocols certifying 28 states as tsunami-ready. South Carolina is one of them.

So yeah, a Boy Scout attitude to living in Charleston isn't a bad idea, and that goes beyond keeping an extra set of flashlights and batteries in the house.

But even with a just-in-case food kit on hand, can we stomach that kind of survival?

When the 1,000 year flood hit our city last October, the tweets I saw coming from people on the peninsula weren't about sandbagging front doors or looking for shelter. No, many Charlestonians were most concerned about what restaurants might still be open for dinner. I know because I tracked the openings all day as tweets and emails poured in asking for suggestions. People were so concerned with where to get their next charcuterie hit, they were ready to face the deluge rather make due at home. Boys and girls, Bear Grylls we ain't.

In this case, we're warning you not to drink the Kool-aid because of a severe lack of any flavor - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • In this case, we're warning you not to drink the Kool-aid because of a severe lack of any flavor

But back to breakfast. In order to examine what it would mean to make it through a calamity here, I ordered a week's supply of food from Wise Company, a long-term survival food storage business. Why Wise? Honestly? Google. It was the third search result that came up. Plus, the video testimonials were as intimidating as they were convincing. In one a survivalist says, "You may not be a prepper now" — crack of thunder — "but you will be." In another, conservative political commentator Laura Ingraham plays to the worn-out mom crowd: "Hi everybody, it's Laura Ingraham talking about how busy life can get, especially if you're a mom. Some days you're rushing around so much it's hard to fit in a shower, let alone plan meals. Your answer: Wise Food Storage. They make gourmet meals and the kicker, kids love 'em!"

Kids love 'em? Well, damn Laura, sign me up.

Ultimately though, I picked Wise because of its affordability. At $85.99 a box, I had 21 meals for $4.09 a pop, a sum that crushes my weekly consumption budget.

Now, don't get it twisted, the life of an alt-weekly cuisine editor is not all fancy dinners and liquid lunches. Far from it. I'm more apt to shove a homemade turkey sandwich down my maw than take a two-hour lunch at Xiao Bao Biscuit, as much as I'd like to. But, the truth is, when I begrudgingly pull up the pie chart of my personal expenses, more often than not the biggest piece is allocated to food — things like those 167 Raw fish tacos I just had to have last Thursday or the snail cake sweet roll from Spring Street's new Bearded Cafe that's made from a 20-year-old sourdough starter (don't ask, just get one). Then there's the regular weekend farmers market visit and the inevitable trip to goat.sheep.cow that follows. Gotta have cheese to go with that EVO baguette I got at the market. Not to mention the pressure to try each new restaurant in this city as soon as it opens. It adds up and it adds up fast.

Which is why I figured eating a box of survival food for a week would be a breeze — a break on my pocketbook and my paunch. That, however, was before I put Wise's Savory Stroganoff on the stove. Suffice it to say, what bubbled up from the vacuum-sealed pouch looked more like something served in the gulags than the smetana-coated dish I'd enjoyed in St. Petersburg. With the addition of a final cup of water, flecks of brown rehydrated, taking on a beefy hue in what I assume is the same biochemistry used to keep Lenin's cheeks rosy. The box the food arrived in proudly proclaims, "Just add water," like it's a good thing. But I couldn't help but wonder, what if I didn't have any clean water, let alone electricity and a working stove to prepare it on?

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Worse, as I force-fed myself spoonful after spoonful of the dreck, I realized each Wise Company pouch basically tastes the same. And that's when a sodium-laced epiphany hit me: should disaster strike, the food fanatics of this city are doomed.

Charlestonians are to dining as Daniel Day-Lewis is to milkshakes. We drink it up. And this presents a problem. Takeaway our milkshakes and we'll lose our shit. How do I know?

The viper-like stares I gave my husband on morning No. 4 were my first indication. My Daria-levels of melancholy were the next. By day five of eating bland survival food I'd reached feelings of clinically stabby. The cause was two-fold.

First, come to find out, a monotonous, carb-heavy diet has been shown to make people depressed. I literally can't function on anything less than the best of Charleston's cuisine. It's science. Jenny McCarthy told me so.

Second, eating garbage is against my religion. Don't roll your eyes, I've seen you at my church — Cathedral of the Holey Ciabatta. We're like Scientology but for fine dining. What was once the Holy City has been usurped by our pagan tribe, a legion of gluttons who worship at the shrine of tasting menus and food trucks. Early Sunday services have been swapped for 2 p.m. brunch, our rosaries traded in for strings of AMS sausages. And communion? Oh, it's still wine, but a good pinot noir. None of that cheap shit, dammit.

Yes, we're a vicious lot. We take over King Street proselytizing about kimchi and hot chicken. We 'gram our meals, then pay penance in huge bar tabs. But just like Caligula, we may be on a path to destruction. If my historical sources are correct (that'd be Seasons 1 and 2 of HBO's Rome) this is how Charleston falls. With the Romans, it was the arrival of the Huns and, bam, no more togas and tiaras, er, laurel wreaths. For Chucktown, our culinary hubris will be our armageddon.

Picture it, a hurricane or earthquake or, more likely, a restaurant-destroying meteor, smacks this city and pow, no more eating out. Faced with this fresh horror, the sophisticated palates of the peninsula will face off Game of Scones-style, fighting one another for the final bites of Husk and FIG leftovers still sitting in their fridges. When those are gone, they'll pillage one another's at-home bars for any remaining local liquor and beer. Using forks as tiny tridents, they'll stab one another to get their hands on the what's left of the city's High Wire Sorghum Whiskey and HopArt IPA. Drunk but starving, the last gasp of the doomsday dinner will be a final quest to eat the city's remaining artisanal products. Dehydrated, people will moisten their eyes with drops of Jack Rudy bitters, they'll swallow bottles of Sugar Bakeshop sprinkles like Vicodin, then snort the last of the grits off Geechie Boy Mill's floor.

Finally, panting and confused, the wasted epicures will succumb to delusion. Shivering, they'll look at the humanitarian aid boxes of survival food that have been dropped, pull out a pouch, open it, sniff, and scoff.

Eat food that has no flavor? Not in this city. Give us gourmet or give us death. -KG

click to enlarge Even something as wholesome as spaghetti takes on a sinister air when served from a pouch - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Even something as wholesome as spaghetti takes on a sinister air when served from a pouch

A week of MREs will have you ready for the fallout

On the evening of March 11, 1958, an atomic bomb was dropped over the community of Mars Bluff on the outskirts of Florence, S.C. Accidentally released from a U.S. Air Force B-47 flying overhead, the explosive device landed in the garden of railroad conductor Walter Gregg, according to the next morning's edition of the Florence Morning News. Mrs. Gregg was less than 150 feet from the impact, sitting in her sewing room as the couple's three children played with their cousin outside.

"I remember sewing and the next thing I recall is crawling from under boards and plaster," she told a reporter after the accident. "I remember the children and my husband were in the yard when it happened. I had no idea what had taken place until someone said a bomb had fallen."

If you're asking how the Gregg family was able to walk away from the explosion and you don't recall the news of Florence becoming an irradiated wasteland, it's because the atomic bomb that fell on Mars Bluff that day was missing its nuclear core. Armed only with the TNT used as part of the trigger mechanism for the device, the explosion injured six, shattered the windows in surrounding homes, and left a 35-foot-deep crater that remains there today. A historical marker stands at the site of the accident, reminding all those who pass of the possibility of annihilation that exists in the Atomic Age.

So with that in mind, it's never too soon to start planning for the apocalypse. Now, with today's low-yield warheads, which are much smaller than those on standby during the Cold War, the dropping of an atomic bomb doesn't necessarily spell the end of the world. You'll just want to remain sheltered until the nuclear fallout has time to dissipate. According to a report developed by a federal interagency committee led by the Executive Office of the President, citizens with adequate shelter should stay put for at least 24 hours, but sheltering for more than a day may be desirable if the appropriate resources (food and water) are available.

In an effort to better understand what life will be like while waiting for the outdoors to become a bit less radioactive, I recently ate my way through a one-week supply of MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat). Arriving in a large cardboard box marked "Emergency Essentials," these precooked entrees have a shelf life of five to seven years and require no refrigeration or reheating. Anyone interested in staying underground indefinitely can get a year's supply for just under $4,200.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

As a point of comparison, my diet prior to going on the doomsday meal plan went something like this:

Mon. April 25 — Two cups of coffee, half a Mt. Dew Code Black, one Lean Cuisine chicken with peanut sauce.

Tues. April 26 — One cup of strawberry mango yogurt, three cups of coffee, one turkey sandwich.

Wed. April 27 — The other half of that Mt. Dew, two cups of coffee, one cup of yogurt, and a chicken burrito.

You get the idea. My normal diet is not what one would refer to as regular, which made the prospect of eating three meals a day from pre-separated packets all the more exciting. Maybe my new life as a well-fed doomsday prepper would be a step up. Just like the upbeat '80s hit about nuclear armageddon, the future was so bright, I had to wear shades.

Day 1 of my all-MRE food plan started small. I waded into my emergency rations by plucking an olive-green pouch of diced pears from the stockpile. They were fine enough, like any canned fruits, but the "juice" that surrounded them could best be described as snotty. It wouldn't be until lunch that I realized the true horrors of a survivor diet.

Shuffling through my food crate, which I came to lovingly refer to as The Box, I found a package marked "Vegetarian Taco Pasta." Tearing open the plastic bladder that contained my lunch, I found a mixture of tender ribbon-cut noodles, imitation sausage crumbles, and tomatoes floating in taco sauce. This dish had three things going for it: The sauce had some nice heat to it, and there was a fair amount of beans, which will most likely become a form of currency if society does crumble after the fallout. Also, it was nice to see a vegetarian option on the menu for those survivors who want to maintain a strictly meat-free diet until they are ultimately forced to resort to cannibalism in the wasteland.

My first day of dining from The Box wrapped up with a dinner of hearty beef stew, corn bread, and a chocolate chip cookie. I don't know where you fall in the whole debate over sweet corn bread, but the fact that this side item came packaged with a tiny pouch of iron powder to absorb any oxygen that may enter the pouch and promote a longer shelf life was disturbing. Baring the words "DO NOT EAT" in all caps, these little packets do not whet your appetite so much as fill you with the sense that you've made a poor life decision.

It took me a while to pinpoint exactly what I was tasting with the stew, but I was finally able to figure it out. You know that sensation when you get hairspray in your mouth? Well, that is what you can expect from stew that is designed to last for half a decade at room temperature. One positive of the MRE selection is that you can piece together a respectable meal complete with a side and dessert. And when you're looking at a long week of nothing but rations, a cookie can go a long way.

Capping off my evening, I grabbed a packet of orange-flavored drink mix that accompanied my MREs. After adding in a bit of water and vodka (because you'll definitely want to have a stockpile of alcohol while you're weathering the fallout) I was ready to enjoy my first doomsday screwdriver. I thought, "Maybe the end of the world won't be so bad after all." In this, I was very mistaken.

Going into Day 2, I was feeling optimistic and well-fed. That was until I tore open a bag of marinara sauce with meatballs. While they tasted roughly equivalent to your average Chef Boyardee entree, the meatballs would soon mount an offensive against my body and mind. I had not so much eaten this food as I had let down my defenses and allowed it to pillage my insides. Whether this was my body readjusting to eating regularly or attempting to repel an invading attack, I was beginning to realize the severity of my situation.

Dinner that evening consisted of au gratin potatoes and a "grilled jalapeño pepper jack-flavored" beef patty. Kindly enough, the makers of this MRE had added caramel coloring and a few imitation grill marks to the beef to fill me with nostalgia for fun family cookouts before my life with The Box began. For dessert that night, I tried a prepackaged fudge brownie that I was unable to finish. Offering the remainder to my wife — who is a fan of chocolate, but was not joining me on my bunker diet — proved to be a mistake. After one bite, her eyes registered a look of betrayal. But it wasn't that I as her husband has deceived her. No, it was more serious than that — chocolate had let her down. And this was a more serious offense than one can imagine.

The next several days began to rush by. Without the hope of a decent meal in sight, I had shifted to autopilot. Any time feelings of hunger began to swell up inside me, I'd sadly walk over to The Box, blindly grab a pouch, and ready myself for another meal. I began to think of the men and women in the Armed Forces who regularly face a diet of MREs. Currently, the U.S. Army is looking for volunteers for a study to examine the effects that eating nothing but rations for 21 days may have on digestive health. According to the Daily Mail, they've also enlisted the help of dieticians to develop ways to make MREs more appetizing. As I attempt to keep down a pouch of pork sausage and cream gravy that resembled paint in both look and taste, I prayed that their work goes quickly.

As I neared the end of my experiment, I mainly subsisted on the giant crackers and cheese spread generously provided by The Box until submitting to a dinner of chili mac and ratatouille. As my week neared its end, I finally summoned the courage to break open a package marked chicken. My better judgment told me that consuming chicken meat that's been sitting in a gun-metal gray bladder under my desk all week is unnatural. Examining the package, I found something disturbing in the nutritional information. There is zero protein in this chicken. As a point of reference, there was at least 13 grams of protein in the vegetarian taco pasta. There was more protein in the cookie I ate than in the entirety of this sack of chicken meat. After heating it up in the microwave, I attempted to sample a bite, but my body revolted, saying it had had enough. It was time to leave the bunker. Because whatever dangers may be waiting for you out in the world, no dystopian future is as bleak as one without the promise of a good meal. -DW

click to enlarge PB&J meets MRE - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • PB&J meets MRE

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Some of the, er, highlights of our doomsday dinner experiences:

The Good

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake
It may have been that my standards were dramatically lowered after several days of bagged chili, but this was the best pound cake I've ever eaten. Never have I pinned so much of my hopes and dreams to a baked good, but this is the meal that got me through a tough time. —Dustin Waters

Teriyaki and Rice
The most promising of the pouches, the teriyaki and rice dish, fresh from the stove, tasted just like teriyaki and rice — if you closed your eyes and used your imagination real, real hard. —Kinsey Gidick

Cheese Spread with Bacon
This "cheese" was very similar to the kind that you might squeeze out of an aerosol can, which means it was delicious. The addition of "bacon" made this even more of a special treat to congeal between two crackers. —DW

The Bad

Brown Sugar and Maple Multi-Grain Cereal
A personal affront to "America the Beautiful," this bowl of mush mocks our nation's amber waves of grain. —KG

Ratatouille
I had never eaten ratatouille before sampling it in MRE form. Apparently, it is a chili-flavored vegetable stew, or at least the variation of this French dish presented in The Box was. —DW

Southwest Beans and Rice
If this is what beans and rice taste like in the Southwest, I want to stay home. —KG

The Ugly

Creamy Pasta
Neither creamy nor pasta, this amalgamation of science had the consistency of the gummy film that lines the lid of a JELL-O pudding snack. —KG

Pork Sausage in Cream Gravy
This MRE selection was reckless and has forever damaged my ability to enjoy food. While these meals are able to last for at least five years, it will be much longer than that before I'm able to look at gravy the same way again. —DW


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