My new favorite online cooking show looks a lot like your typical Food Network programming. It features a cheerful host, bright lights, and a huge, spotless kitchen set up in front of a studio audience. Today’s episode is Western-themed, so Chef Todd is wearing a cowboy hat while demonstrating a hearty beef stew that you can cook over a campfire using nothing but a cast-iron pot. But something is different: there’s no food. Not food as you’d ordinarily picture it, anyway.
The beef and onions he starts off with are freeze-dried chunks, and all the vegetables and spices are powders scooped out of No. 10 cans (of which there are plenty more on the shelves behind him). He adds a lot of water and stirs. This process is pretty much the same for each of the five dishes he makes over the course of the half-hour episode, including a dessert of peach cobbler. Not even Rachael Ray is as fast, he proudly points out. I notice, though, that he never shows us what the finished product looks like.
This show, THRIVE Live, is produced by Shelf Reliance, a company that sells a wide range of emergency preparedness products: freeze-dried food kits, solar ovens, water purifiers, and even gift baskets and cookbooks. It also has a celebrity endorsement of a sort: The company provided a year’s worth of food to Matt Rutherford, a young sailor who completed a 27,000-mile solo circumnavigation of North and South America without stopping once. Shelf Reliance is one of a new crop of companies that are slowly and subtly bringing survivalism into the mainstream. These vendors aim to fight the stereotype of the tin-foil-hat-wearing mountain-dweller and make long-term food storage a way of life for everyone.
Self-sufficiency without government services is not just a point of pride for many libertarian-minded citizens (and the basis of a ubiquitous political slogan). But whether or not they’re Ron Paul supporters, Americans have never had so many motivations to stockpile food. Stock market crashes, job losses, extreme weather, and the lingering trauma of terrorist attacks all do a number on our national psyche. So-called once-in-a-lifetime storms lately feel like regular, yearly events. Reasonable worries about the next layoff, or the next hurricane, can grow into paranoia—about, for instance, martial-law-enforced food rationing following a natural disaster or catastrophic terrorist attack. Bombastic politicians and screeching television commentators vocalize these secret fears, and fictional TV dramas (like NBC’s Revolution) and reality TV spectacles (like National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers) reflect and perhaps magnify our angst.
Thankfully, reality rarely bears our fears out. In 2010, Glenn Beck quoted “inflation experts” on his Fox News program in predicting that food prices would soon rise “700 to 1,000 percent.” He brandished a loaf of wheat bread that he calculated would cost $23, and a 2-pound box of sugar that would cost $62, as early as 2011. (In New York City in 2012, they’re about $4 and $2.50, respectively.)
But our anxieties, whether founded or unfounded, prompt the question: How much time and money should we be spending preparing for the very worst? Packing a “go bag” of essentials makes perfect sense if you live in a frequently-evacuated flood zone, and having some extra flashlight batteries and bottled water in the cabinet in case of a power outage is smart thinking for just about everyone. But even in extreme cases, we generally understand that power outages, floodwater, road closures, and other obstacles to hot, fresh food are temporary. Even for people in New York and New Jersey who have been made homeless by Hurricane Sandy, donated food and shelters are available, thanks in part to charities both official and spontaneous.
But companies like Shelf Reliance aren’t just selling food for tragic scenarios like the one Sandy brought to the East Coast this fall. They’re selling a lifestyle. How bad would things have to get for a family to have to survive for an entire year or more on what they had stockpiled, an eventuality for which many survivalist food kits are designed? Cormac McCarthy’s The Road bad, I’m guessing.
Survivalism’s new, softer sell acknowledges all of these fears—it trades on them—but with savvy and subtlety. A quick search for “gourmet survival food” uncovers a number of websites displaying beautiful-looking food that can apparently be made from companies’ bulk ingredients—ingredients with a 20- to 30-year shelf life. Auguson Farms advertises “delicious peace of mind.” Prepared Planet’s tagline is “The art of self-sufficiency.” The “Sean Hannity special” kit by Food Insurance includes freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches. My favorite website, Survival Gourmet, features a picturesque log cabin on its homepage and offers a wider selection of meals than a Greek diner, from “Beefy Stroganoff With Mushrooms” to “Thai Coconut Noodles.” Of the noodles, the website brags, “You’ll think you are in the heart of Thailand when you enjoy the robust flavors of this seasoned spicy delight!”
The threat of danger is lurking just beneath the high Web-production value, however. “Is the government secretly stockpiling food?” asks a provocative “in the news” link in a sidebar of Prepared Planet’s site. “Not being properly prepared only puts you at a disadvantage and at the mercy of civil authorities and other prepared individuals around you,” declares the Survival Gourmet website, adding (as if it were necessary), “This is not the situation you want to be in.”
The language of fear is stitched artfully into the description of each item for sale. A video on Shelf Reliance’s site about fuel pellets begins with predictable B-roll of people hiking and mountain-biking—but camping is only one use for this product, says the host. “Fire is so critical for our mental and our physical health” in emergency situations, he reminds us. Canned food kits describe not only the delicious flavor of the food inside, but the benefit of its high calorie count. “The daily calories in this package will keep you going during stressful times with hearty grains,” reads the description of the Shelf Reliance Supreme 1-Year Freeze-Dried & Dehydrated Food Supply kit. “Each of the package’s 180 gallon-sized cans give you the security and safety of having tasty food on-hand when tough times strike.”