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At Cold War Nuclear Fallout Shelters, These Foods Were Stocked for Survival

February 26, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Bulgur biscuits and a granulated synthetic protein dubbed ‘multi-purpose food’ promised long shelf life—but not much else.

What were postwar Americans planning to eat in the event of a nuclear attack? Hint: It wasn’t very appetizing.

With , 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

Supplies line the walls of an intact fallout shelter dating from 1962, pictured 2017.

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.”

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