My dad is an End Times kind of guy. As a small child, I can remember him telling me that we were needed to prepare for the time when Jesus would return to take us “home.” It was a concept I grew up with, but even as a child, I thought the Apocalypse was a long way off.
But my dad really thought it was going to happen, and soon. He and my grandmother had a survival plan. I never knew a thing about it, and I don’t think my mother did, either.
One day, we found out how serious he actually was. The evidence was in our basement.
Our basement was dank and wet and always scared the bejeezus out of me. I never went down there for longer than was necessary. If my dad asked me to go downstairs to get a rake, I did just that, and then I ran pell-mell up the stairs back into the comforting light of the kitchen. Imagine the iconic basements from Home Alone, IT, and Sweeney Todd, all rolled up into one. As I got older, I delegated these responsibilities to my younger brothers. There might have been a giant, stinking ogre living in one end of the basement and I would have been none the wiser.
In the mid-1990s, my father began cleaning out our basement. It was pretty weird, because he never cleaned anything. But one day, he began bringing up large, neatly sealed boxes. My brothers and I were recruited to help. I remember thinking, Where did those come from? Are they presents for us kids, or some other kind of surprise? We were puzzled, but hopeful.
And then we were disappointed.
My father opened a few of the boxes one by one. Inside each box sat six large cans. Like Maxwell House coffee cans — but sealed up on top. Each can had a different colored generic label. One can would be simply, “Eggs.” Another was labeled, “Hash Browns.” Each of the cans, we found, contained a different kind of dehydrated food which could be re-hydrated and served in an emergency.
On the bottom of each can was the reason my father was pulling them up from the basement: An expiration date.
It turns out that in the 1980s, my father and my grandmother bought a year’s worth of survival food to sustain our family during the end times. But the end times didn’t come fast enough, and all of it was going to expire — and soon.
So, my mother was instructed to use the dehydrated food as often as possible in our upcoming meals before the food expired. My dad is a bit extreme, and the only thing that motivates him as much as his faith is the possibility that something valuable might go to waste. He would not be moved on this decision.
There wasn’t much variety in those cans, so my mother faithfully did her best to work the dehydrated food into each meal. She’d mix fresh ground beef with the survival rice and beans and add American cheese to the re-hydrated scrambled eggs (which came with “real” bacon) and serve them with freshly made pancakes. She’d substitute vanilla pudding mix to pound cake or cookie recipes. She’d add the dehydrated peas and carrots to soups. For a while, it worked.
A year and eight months later, our family of five got down to the last few cans of food that we didn’t like much (and therefore survived the longest), which included hash browns, bone-dry strawberries that resembled and tasted like strawberry astronaut iced cream, powdered milk, and the too-sweet butterscotch pudding. Writing this, I can still remember the taste of the chicken soup, which had cubed chicken that could have been blocks of yellow sponge for all I knew.
At some point, I argued, our stomachs just could not take anymore. Still, my father insisted the re-hydrated food had to be finished.
Between my 140th and 150th bowl of butterscotch pudding, I swore I would not eat another meal made of dehydrated re-hydrated food. I told my parents I didn’t care if they kicked me out of the house. I said I’d spend my babysitting money and buy myself dinner every night from the deli around the corner.
I’m not sure how it happened, but eventually, the last of the cans disappeared from the kitchen. I suspect my mother finally hid them in the trash and put them out on the curb.
My younger brothers have very few memories of this period of time in our family’s history. My youngest brother remembers loving the scrambled eggs, and the middle brother really never complained about anything. If it could be classified as food, that kid ate it, no questions asked.
To this day, I refuse to eat hash browns, anything that looks remotely freezer burned, some kinds of strawberry ice cream, butterscotch pudding, and certain brands of canned chicken soup. To say the survival food impacted me would be an understatement. It was a gastronomical experience of the weirdest and most memorable kind that made me appreciate whole, fresh food for the rest of my life.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit my parents’ house. On top of the refrigerator were two large boxes labeled: Three-Month Emergency Food Supply. I shook my head, opened the fridge, and grabbed some of my father’s freshly picked blueberries.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Esther Hofknecht Curtis, MSM-HCA is an independent writer living in Dover, Delaware. Follow her on Facebook — go to https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/