Beginning in the early 1950s, the American population lived in near-constant fear of nuclear attack. As Cold War tensions progressed, the expectation was that most of the population would survive the initial blast only to be killed by starvation or radiation in the following weeks. As a result, fallout shelters were constructed underground and in basements around the country, each carefully researched by FBI agents and engineers and then marked with yellow-and-black signs.
To supplement the man-made shelters, the government turned to mountains and natural caves across the country, the Army Corps of Engineers ultimately identifying 450 caves around the country that could house atomic refugees. In Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado and Raven Rock Mountain in Pennsylvania, small underground cities emerged while states like Tennessee evaluated their existing underground caverns, eventually concluding that 800,000 of the states 3.5 million residents would be able to take shelter there in case of a nuclear attack. Even the Boy Scouts became involved, mapping abandoned mines and underground caves that could be used to protect civilians.
Once there were designated places to survive a potential attack, the next problem became allocating enough resources to keep millions of people alive underground for up to two weeks. Government officials at the time didn’t believe that the contamination of food and water was a serious problem, with Steuart Pittman, John F. Kennedy’s civil defense head, stating that “if the [radioactive] particles got into the food, you could wash it out. It would be possible to harvest the crops in the field after a rain or two.” Any food and water storage was purely short-term, until people could safely leave the shelters to hunt, gather, and farm the resources they needed.
An early version of the survival cracker project was launched in 1955 by President Eisenhower’s Federal Civil Defense Administration. Named “Grandma’s Pantry,” under the justification that Grandma was always prepared for unexpected company, the program called for each household to ready a seven-day supply of food and water in case of attack. The general public began to stock up on products like Campbell’s soup, boxes of cornflakes, and candy bars, but it soon became obvious that this would not be enough, especially in areas that lacked basements and relied on public fall-out shelters. People could not be expected to bring their own resources in the advent of a nuclear emergency.
In response, the Eisenhower administration looked to develop a food that was nutritious, cheap, easy to eat, shelf-stable, and reproducible on a mass scale. All other attributes, including taste, would be disregarded in favor of the ultimate survival food, one that could be stored underground indefinitely.
In 1958, a study by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, concluded that the primary ingredient in this new survival food should be bulgur, a parched wheat. Drying wheat to make bulgur is a nearly 4,000-year-old process that was used by the Chinese, Babylonian, Hittite, Hebrew, Arab, Israeli, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations. It resists mold contamination and insect attack, remaining edible even after sealed for 3000 years in an Egyptian pyramid.
Crackers were determined as the best method to distribute the bulgur wheat as food to the general population. The cracker tin in the Baltimore Community Museum lists corn flour, vegetable shortening, corn sugar, salt, leavening and various preservatives in addition to bulgur wheat flour on its ingredient list. A study by the USDA found that after 52 months of storage the crackers only suffered a “discernible but inconsequential decrease” in flavor and they were presumed to have an indefinitely long shelf life.
Unfortunately, when some of the forgotten cracker caches were dispatched to Guatemala to aid victims in 1976 after a devasting earthquake, people reported “severe gastric disturbances” and, shortly thereafter, the equivalent to a nation-wide recall was announced for the crackers still in storage around the country. Bulgur wheat may be edible after thousands of years, but, unfortunately, the crackers made with it were not.
After discovering a way to distribute bulgur wheat and dubbing it the “All-Purpose Survival Cracker,” the government now had to find a way to manufacture the crackers on a wide-spread scale. When the program first started, nearly all the country’s surplus bulgur went to one plant, the Fisher Flour Mill in Seattle. Within five months, the government held $4 million in contracts with Long Island’s Sunshine Biscuits, Ohio’s Kroger Company, and Richmond’s Southern Biscuit Company. Nabisco and the United Biscuit Company of America, which is now Keebler, were also recruited to produce survival crackers. The crackers in the Baltimore Community Museum were made by the Educator Biscuit Company of Lowell, Massachusetts, which would eventually incorporate into Nabisco.
In total, there were 20 billion “doomsday biscuits” produced by the time that the crackers in the Baltimore Community Museum were entombed in 1964. One days’ worth of these crackers only cost about 37 cents per person to produce. Each government shelter was recommended to stock 10,000 calories of food per person for a two-week stay, which worked out to six small single-cracker “meals” each day of precisely 125 calories each. The shelters would have also included “carbohydrate supplements,” which were yellow and red hard candy, and 21-inch-tall fiberboard drums, lined with plastic, that would start as water storage containing 3.5 gallons of drinking water before being converting to toilets when empty.
Today, the government does not have plans to save the general populace in case of nuclear attack, only maintaining mountain bunkers in various locations around the country to protect a small number of high-level officials. While the crackers did eventually fail, turning rancid, the thousands of tins remaining in forgotten fall-out shelters are a tribute to human optimism and a will to endure, even when faced with the improbable odds of surviving a nuclear apocalypse.
1. Graff, Garrett M. "The Doomsday Diet." Eater, December 12, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2018.
2. Kaye, Leon. "Survival Biscuits, 47 Years Later." Greengopost.com. August 12, 2011. Accessed July 11, 2018.
Reilly, Lucas. "Survival Crackers." Quartz. February 1, 2018. Accessed July 15, 2018.
3. Graff, Garrett M. Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die. Simon & Schuster. May 2, 2017. Accessed July 15, 2018.
4. "History of Bulgur Wheat." Sunnyland Mills. Accessed July 15, 2018. http://sunnylandmills.com/2016/05/history-of-bulgur-wheat/.