In the fabulous resource that is the National Library of Australia’s Trove, I found this in the Singleton Argus of July 1951:
All Ready For The A-Bomb
Baltimore is the first American city to plan its menu for the first day after an atom-bomb attack. Stew, with coffee, tea or milk, will be dished out from canteens in paper plates and cups. Emergency Food Committee chairman Howard Busick apologised, “We’re not catering to people’s palates, you know. We merely want to keep them alive. [He said] “All food stocks in the city will be immediately commandeered by the authorities after the first bombfall.”
The Australian Women’s Weekly picked up the story.
By the time I was at primary school the Vietnam War had replaced the atomic threat from the Soviet Union as Public Anxiety Number One. But every now and then we’d be reminded of the need to be prepared. Exactly what this preparedness involved was vague, but I do remember being told that we should urge our mothers to keep their cupboards stocked with canned foods, which we’d need in the event of … whatever.
My mother and father probably laughed when I passed on this instruction. But for at least one of my classmates it wasn’t a joke. Everything about Stuart T was big. He was big for his age, he lived in a big house and was given to boasting big time. His family, he told us, had their own bomb shelter. Don’t believe you, we said. Have so. Show us then.
So one day after school he took us down a flight of steps into his family ‘shelter’. Now I think about it I’m pretty sure it was simply a basement with grey concrete walls and shelves of tins—peas, pineapple, potato salad, Fray Bentos corned beef, Heinz baked beans, Campbell’s soups—and bottles of cream soda and ginger beer. More Famous Five than Armageddon. Five Go Into a Fallout Shelter.
Wouldn’t a nuclear attack cut off the power supply? And wouldn’t that mean sitting in your ‘shelter’ eating cold soup? I don’t recall getting satisfactory answers to those questions, but decades later my mother informed me that Stuart T’s parents had died and their house had been sold. Did the new owners know their basement was full of ancient tins of Spam and spaghetti? The Pantry That Time Forgot full of vintage packaging and food way past its use-by date.
Continuing with this theme, I have a booklet from 1964 put out by the US Department of Defense Office of Civil Defense: Fallout Shelter Food Requirements.
‘The purpose of provisioning fallout shelters with food is to provide basic nutritional requirements during the period of confinement so that shelter occupants can resume active and productive lives upon emergence.’
‘Basic requirements for shelter food … are that the food be palatable or at least acceptable to the majority of the shelter occupants; have sufficient storage stability to permit a shelf life of 5 to 10 years; be obtainable at low cost; be widely available or easily produced; have high bulk density to conserve storage space; require little or no preparation; and produce a minimum trash volume … The four food items selected for the provisioning program are as follows:
a. Survival Biscuit. A wheat flour baked product containing small amounts of corn and soy flour developed by the National Biscuit Co. for the New York State Civil Defense Commission.
b. Survival Cracker. A wheat-corn flour baked cracker, similar to the survival biscuit, except that it contains more corn flour and no soy flour, developed by the Midwest Research Institute for the State of Nebraska.
c. Carbohydrate Supplement. Adapted from a standard product in accordance with a military specification and contains sucrose, glucose, and flavorings.
d. Bulgur Wafer. A wheat-based cereal product developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Office of Civil Defense. The bulgur is parboiled, pulled, dried, and compacted into wafer form.’
Compared to that menu, tinned carrots and rice pudding sound positively ambrosial!