The disaster preparedness community contains multitudes. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, in general its members fall into one of three camps: survivalists, who have a wilderness focus; homesteaders, who are the liberal wing of the self-sufficiency crowd; and preppers, who keep a weapons cache somewhere.
I recently ventured to Chantilly, Virginia to get some tips on outfitting my underground bunker’s pantry at the fifth annual East Coast Preparedness Convention, or EC PrepCon V. The convention took place in a building that was somehow simultaneously a church, a gym, and an event space, which felt apropos of something, although of what, I’m still not entirely sure.
PrepCon is organized by a company called SEPS LLC, which stands for Survival and Emergency Preparedness Skills. SEPS seems to be embodied in one man, Jay Blevins, who published a book by the same name in 2012 and now speaks frequently on the prepper circuit. Blevins is a big, infectiously enthusiastic man with a wide smile. (He likes to tell dad jokes, which feels a bit incongruous for someone whose author bio reads “Jay can turn his suburban home into a prepping fortress and will be able to defend his family and home from any outside threat.”)
Along with finding a new personal mantra at the convention—“I always buy ammo when I buy milk”—I learned these seven food-related tips that may come in handy when you’re hungry at the end times.
1. You Can Eat Hostas
You know those decorative plants with round-ish leaves that your mom definitely had in her garden? In addition to being one of the most popular ornamental plants in the U.S., they’re also edible. In Japan, where the plant is called urui, tender shoots have been added to stir-fries and salads for ages. According to Michael Cooley, who consults on and designs permaculture landscapes with an eye toward preparedness, “it doesn’t taste much different from lettuce or kale; it’s just another green.” Cooley offered a primer on permaculture for the prepper set that at times wouldn’t have been out of place at the farmers’ market: “What I’m going to show you here today applies whether you’re planning to bug out somewhere or just make your property more productive,” he told the crowd, before extolling the virtues of Jerusalem artichokes, lamb’s quarters, and other greenmarket favorites. The key is to plant complementary edibles together, mimicking natural relationships in which plants fertilize and protect one another. This allows you to a) grow your own food with minimal effort and without the use of chemicals and b) disguise the plants as random patches of weeds rather than an edible garden, discouraging the neighbors from raiding your precious resources after the inevitable electromagnetic-pulse attack takes down the power grid.
2. Freeze-Dried Food is Pretty Good
While perusing the many bug-out bags on offer, I was drawn by the unmistakable scent of chicken noodle soup to a kiosk selling freeze-dried food. It had been made entirely with freeze-dried ingredients—freeze-dried noodles, freeze-dried chicken, etc.—and it tasted like, well, chicken soup. My last experience with freeze-dried food was astronaut ice cream, so the bar was pretty low, but everything I tried, once reconstituted, just tasted like food. The weird thing was that these freeze-dried options were being marketed not just for all of your bunker needs, but also as food to cook with regularly in your own home. I couldn’t imagine why I’d use them instead of normal food, but then again, I wasn’t exactly the target demographic.
3. But Most Survival Food is Disgusting
Meals, Ready-to-Eat, are the U.S. military’s combat cuisine option, but they can also be bought by civilians, as evidenced by the buckets of them available at the prepper conference. Do not eat these. Ditto Yoders canned meats, which are big, emergency red-and-yellow cans labeled TURKEY CHUNKS, BEEF CHUNKS, CHICKEN CHUNKS, and so on. There is much better food to leave in your closet for fifty years. One presenter felt the need to tell the crowd, “Please, stop it with the potted meat,” exhorting the audience to consider food fatigue—when your food supply is so unappealing you stop nourishing yourself properly—and encouraging everyone to keep salt and seasonings with their emergency kits. She added the caveat, however, that after a couple of days, when food is scarce, you’ll have to resort to eating foods that don’t release an odor so that your neighbors won’t break in and steal your food—then it’s back to beans straight from the can.
4. You Can Buy Antibiotics Meant for Fish on the Internet
For a number of fairly obvious reasons, most doctors don’t want to prescribe tons of antibiotics for people to store. However, you can buy antibiotics marketed for fish online and then give them to your loved ones. These pills are not FDA-approved, not even as medications for animals, so you have no real way of knowing what’s in them. But, should you feel you need a serious antibiotic supply and that one bottle of Cipro you didn’t take four years ago isn’t doing it for you, the fish community is there.
5. Everyone Loves a Good Sauerkraut Crock
The prepper and foodie movements most closely align in the home-preservation department. There were sauerkraut crocks on display, canning accoutrements, and a variety of canning-related books and products. Homemade fermented vegetables and canned foods are obviously much more palatable than the potted meat mentioned above and, from the prepper perspective, vastly more sustainable. If not for the underlying assumption that these products would no longer be available in stores after the end times, it would have felt very much like something you’d see next to a table hawking switchel or organic, grass-fed beef jerky.
6. There’s a Prepper Culinary Seed Bank Company
The company is called Texas Ready and they package what they call Liberty Seed Banks in army ammo boxes. Their brochure reads, in part, “Does it alarm you that so much of our food is genetically modified, chemically treated, and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics? Would you like to add tasty, healthy, organic, nutrient-dense produce to your diet? Taken further, are you at all concerned about the possibility of an economic collapse or some other catastrophic event?” Is it just me, or did that escalate rather quickly?
7. Not Being Prepared At All is as Insane as Being Over-Prepared
Almost everyone I met at the conference was a very friendly, very helpful person who generally wanted to help others prepare for emergencies, and most of them correctly identified such emergencies not as zombie apocalypses but as high-impact, low-probability events that could be mitigated by basic levels of preparation. Everyone agrees that three days’ worth of food and water is an important precaution for shelter-in-place emergencies, and yet the vast majority of Americans do not meet even this basic level of readiness. I certainly don’t plan on ordering questionable drugs off the Internet any time soon (at least not antibiotics), but I did pick up a few freeze-dried meals and remembered to stick a couple of gallons of water in a cabinet when I returned home. I’m not, of course, at liberty to divulge where I’ve planted my emergency rhubarb patch.