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.”
The new survivalism market may not be based entirely on individual paranoia. One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is to be prepared to help oneself and one’s neighbors in adverse situations. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used to preach the necessity of having enough supplies on hand to feed one’s family for an entire year; according to the LDS website, that recommendation has since been dialed down to three months. Even so, with a membership of 14.4 million scattered all across the country, the Mormon Church is a very large customer base to be tapped (although none of the survivalist company websites I’ve seen refer explicitly to Mormonism, or any church).
Whatever the motivation for consumers to stock up, there’s no question that survivalism is entering the mainstream. Many of the products I’ve mentioned are available through major retailers: Wal-Mart sells food storage kits from Auguson Farms. I first learned about Shelf Reliance from a promotional email from CostCo offering $300 off the usual $1,999.99 price for “THRIVE Essentials Grains and Proteins Kit,” which included 15,698 servings of food in 36 buckets. Hardly an impulse buy, but a bargain at about 11 cents per serving.
That particular kit, while massive, only includes the most basic staples: wheat, rice, oats, beans, instant milk, etc. It barely scratches the surface of the Shelf Reliance line of products. The website offers vegetarian and gluten-free options, freeze-dried whole strawberries and grapes, and bacon and chicken and beef. With ingredients like butter powder, egg powder, and spices and seasoning, you could make just about anything by just adding water and heat. You could live on this food in your everyday life, even in the absence of a new world order. But would you want to?
I decided to order some of this stuff to taste it for myself. First, I got a sampler pack from Survival Gourmet's "Go Foods" line (slogan: “Feed your freedom”), which contained a generous selection of freeze-dried entrees and drink powders, plus an audio CD narrated by a co-founder of the company (Track 1, “Hunger in America,” Track 3, “Challenges of Our Times”). The drinks I made from the Orange Passion Green Tea powder and Kona Joe instant coffee mix both smelled pretty good, but tasted like sugar-free gum and dirt, respectively. Of the entrees, the Creamy Tuscan Pasta (“Best if used by August 23, 2027”) was the best; its bow-tie noodles and sun-dried tomato sauce were reminiscent of Hamburger Helper. The Chicken Cheddar Rice (which was actually vegetarian) and Western Potato Chowder had a similar sort of creamy, salty, comfort-food vibe, but their inclusion of vegetables highlighted the biggest problem with re-constituted freeze-dried food: the texture.
This was also what made the Shelf Reliance cooking ingredients hard to love. From them I ordered the ingredients of my favorite breakfast, a cheddar-tomato omelet—which in Shelf Reliance terms means a can of powdered eggs and a Mylar pouch each of shredded freeze-dried cheddar and diced freeze-dried tomatoes. I added the prescribed amount of water to each ingredient before frying them together, and it all cooked easily enough, and again, smelled great. But I couldn’t get over the squeaky texture of the eggs, the sad, sour sliminess of the tomatoes, and the chewy cheese that just didn’t want to melt.
In other words, not the best food I’ve ever had, but I’d happily eat it in an apocalypse. However, these companies aren’t just marketing freeze-dried ingredients for use in an emergency. Instead, they’re encouraging customers to buy it for everyday eating, all year round. The food storage gospel teaches that buying in bulk isn’t merely a precautionary measure; it’s a whole new lifestyle. And in the case of Shelf Reliance, that gospel is spread by “consultants” who, eager to earn discounts and extra income, attend conventions to learn how to sell food to their friends and neighbors at Tupperware- or Mary-Kay-style parties.
In one consultant training video online, a pretty, aproned young mom named Amber gives out snack samples and talks about how much she incorporates THRIVE freeze-dried food into her everyday cooking. She describes “The Q” system, a food investment plan to build up your food storage system with a set monthly budget. This is the Shelf Reliance soft sell, encouraging customers to gradually incorporate the freeze-dried stuff into what they’re already buying every month anyway. If you spend $600 a month on groceries, say, why not spend just $400 in the grocery store and $200 on your monthly allotment of THRIVE, shipped automatically to your door on pallets? Soon, you’ll have built up your whole food store without even realizing it. And from that supply, you can start incorporating freeze-dried ingredients into your family’s favorite recipes in lieu of fresh ones.
Only at the end of her presentation does Amber tell the story of a “rice crop failure” three years earlier that sent prices skyrocketing and all her neighbors dashing to the grocery store. Meanwhile, she sat calmly in her living room. She had all the rice she needed. “So I didn’t have that sense of urgency or worry,” she said. “There are so many little perks to having a home store.”
The threat of disaster takes up a very small portion of her presentation, however. Most of it is about how she saves money and time by not driving to the grocery store and by not wasting any unused food. Got mushy mushrooms in your fridge? Replace them with THRIVE freeze-dried mushroom powder! Tired of preparing messy sausage and smelly onions? THRIVE has dry replacements for those, too. Never want to go to the grocery store again? Amber happily demonstrates how easy it is to replace fresh food with canned items, and to gradually convert to the “THRIVE lifestyle.” She makes it all seem incredibly sensible. This pitch—that you can cook with these ingredients all the time—carries the implication that having a year’s worth of food on hand isn’t paranoid; it’s just smart shopping.
Amber’s chipper training video, set in a beautiful, modern, suburban kitchen, makes no mention of the dark fears that underlie the impulse to hoard. Nor does it make explicit the most insidious, and the most cynical, aspect of survivalism’s sales pitch: the message that when disaster inevitably strikes, we won’t be able to rely on our friends and neighbors (and certainly not our local authorities) for help. By then, it will be too late for social gatherings and cooking demonstrations. We won’t be able to trust anyone but ourselves.