Let’s face it: None of us are prepared for the end of the world. Not just because we’re all computer monkeys with soft hands and feeble blacksmithing skills, but also because the vast majority of us just haven’t stockpiled enough food, fuel, water, and emergency blankets in our nuclear bunkers. Some intrepid souls are doing that, though—filling their garages with food and their survivalist websites with chatter about how to cook with the sun, poop in a hole, and learn to tell time by the stars. For The A.V. Club’s latest Taste Test challenge, we assigned adventurous eater Dennis Lee to live as if the world was ending—in his dining room, at least. Having purchased a number of MREs—or “meals ready to eat”—off the internet, we shoved them off on Lee, who was then tasked with living solely on these brown-packaged nightmares—plus a little water—for four full days. We figured he’d survive, but would he become a survivalist? Let’s investigate.
Dennis Lee: For some reason I am absolutely fascinated with survivalist and doomsday prepper food. So fascinated, in fact, I’ve written about it previously, when I once had a wine writer help me pair bum wines with MREs and camping food. To my delight, I regretted almost every bite and every sip, but hey, there’s no joy in life without a little bit of pain.
Considering I’ve never gone backpacking through rolling hills and mountain trails, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to survive on just freeze-dried and eat-out-of-the-bag food, minus the pooping into dirt holes part. I’m not sure my landlady would like it if I dug holes into my floor to take a dump into them while pulling a harebrained food stunt.
So, armed with a 72-hour survival kit, along with some extra goodies, I decided to grit my teeth and dig right into a box of culinary self-discovery.
The Mountain House Just in Case 72 Hour Kit comes packaged in a box with a picture on the side that looks like it came straight from the ’70s. Thankfully, the food on the inside isn’t nearly as old, though it does have a very long shelf life. The food in my survival kit was slated to expire in 2027.
Since I’m basically an overgrown child, I started my first day with a little bit of nervousness and excitement. Turns out I shouldn’t have been so excited about the scrambled eggs with bacon for my late breakfast. Rehydrated scrambled eggs have the texture of an old kitchen sponge. It’s like someone had an egg described to them and was tasked with recreating it from scratch.
The bacon taste is overwhelming, and the smoke flavor gets stronger the more you eat it—it has the texture of jerky combined with Pop Rocks since the center of the meat bits don’t soak up much water and perpetually remain crunchy. I’ve had plenty of reconstituted powdered eggs at hotels and cafeterias, but this is on a whole new level of holy crap.
I was hungry immediately after I had the eggs. It was going to be a long few days.
I don’t eat much in general; I usually have two moderate meals a day (I know, I know) and I mostly stuck to my usual routine for this. But at this point, I was starving, so I rummaged around the box and chose my dinner, the beef stroganoff. My secret name for beef stroganoff is “beef strokinoff,” which might explain why I’m extremely single. I’m clearly an amazing person.
I munched on a piece of freeze-dried beef before I put the boiling water into the packet, which is something a normal person would do. It wasn’t half bad, which is not something I expected. I found myself thinking that I could happily eat a whole bag of freeze-dried meat on a regular basis. This was turning out into a journey of true self-discovery.
The beef stroganoff kit actually tastes pretty good, if a little too salty. Turns out beef rehydrates really well, and so does pasta. It’s pretty much Hamburger Helper, all in one bag. There aren’t many mushrooms, but the ones that are included are delicious. Imagine a can of cream of mushroom soup dumped into some egg noodles with beef, and there you have it.
If I was out of food at home and all I had was camping food, I would immediately reach for this first. It does have a lot of dry sour cream in it, which explains why my lactose intolerant body started sounding like a Wynton Marsalis concert later.
Right before bed around 11:30 p.m., I was already complaining to my cat that I was hungry again. I assured her I would not eat her, and tore into a curious package of S.O.S. Emergency Food Rations. The package of emergency calorie bars is absurdly heavy, almost like an actual brick, and the outside of the package is covered in a thin sheen of slick oil.
Each bar is packed with a whopping 410 calories, and considering its main ingredients are sugar, flour, and partially hydrogenated shortening, these are very valuable survival assets for a mainly sedentary food writer.
I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. S.O.S. Emergency Food rations taste like shortbread mixed with coconut bits, kind of like a crumbly macaroon. These are basically survival cookies, which probably aren’t a good idea if you’re diabetic. But between survival cookies and diabetes during a zombie attack, I’d choose the cookies.
I don’t often wake up hungry, but on my second day, I woke up with a growl in my stomach. But, as I’m the perpetual optimist, I hoped for the best when I dug into the granola with milk and blueberries. Granola’s a hard thing to fuck up, and I’d be happy eating this on a regular basis, since there’s also freeze-dried blueberries in it. Instead of using hot water, you rehydrate this with cold water to eat right away. The oat-filled mix has crunch, and the freeze-dried blueberries have a crispness to them that’s fun to eat. It’s not particularly filling, but I persevered like a true champion.
By evening, I had a raging headache. I glumly reached for the chicken teriyaki, which in theory sounds pretty good, but, well, no. Don’t.
The prepared chicken teriyaki has a crab-like smell to it, which is precisely what you want in a chicken dinner that has no crab in it. It has a really sweet flavor, along with the persistent aforementioned crabbiness, and its slightly gloppy texture is a lot like a Lean Cuisine straight from the microwave tray, along with the stringy tacky chicken.
There’s a heavy dose of ginger, and the vegetables add a good amount of texture and flavor, which made me appreciate the actual crisp bite of a fresh vegetable even more. I wrote the words “crabby flavor” three more times in my notepad after I finished the bag of food. Perhaps in the twist of fate, it was I that was the true crab.
I wrote down a list of food I was craving: Burgers, chicken wings, pizza, fresh vegetables, eggs, and fruit.
As a bonus, if you could call it that, I was also sent home with an extra breakfast packet of biscuits and gravy. In theory, they sounded horrible, but I was pleasantly surprised after they spent 10 minutes steeping in piping hot water. Even though it looks like a mess, the biscuits and gravy taste better than a few versions I’ve had from diners. The pork sausage has plenty of seasoning in it for that ol’ Jimmy Dean flavor. Texture-wise, the biscuits are wet on the outside, but dry and crumbly on the inside, which might seem like a bad thing, but is a reasonable contrast so your meal isn’t totally a bag full of mush.
I was at the apex of my desire for real food at this point, but I told myself, “This too shall pass,” as I wistfully stared at the door of the refrigerator. But my resolve was strong and I didn’t even touch the handle.
Because I was craving some serious protein, the thought of digging into a bag of pasta primavera wasn’t all that appealing. But after my first bite I was pleasantly surprised. While the pasta isn’t exactly loaded with vegetables, the zucchini, cauliflower, peas, carrots, and corn are a welcome departure from the previous packages. After a few more bites I decided I was happy without the meat. The Parmesan cheese sauce tastes more like a general cheese sauce rather than actual Parmesan, but it’s not a big deal.
At this point, I’d reached a patient, Zen-like state in regards to my cravings for food. While they didn’t quite go away, the most difficult part had passed. I was suddenly a calorie-restricted buddha riding on a magical unicorn off into the peaks of Chicago.
Before I started this experiment, I asked my friend Pete, an avid hiker and backpacker, for any insight into his experience with this type of food. After some careful thinking, he said, “Your poo is going to be really weird.”
I looked at him suspiciously and said, “How do you mean?”
He said, “You’re not gonna go for a while, and when you do, it will be hard and small.” And without going into too much detail (I probably already have), I’d like to confirm his statement.
For my late-night snack, I opened up the MRE meal kit and pulled out the crackers and jelly. These bundles come with a variety of food including snacks, entrees, sides, a small dessert (in this case, peppermints), and drink packets. I imagined myself as a sniper deep in the Sahara, on a covert mission to save the world. I’m a pretty small person and generally good at hiding, so it’s not a huge stretch, except for the part where I’m not actually a badass.
While these crackers look like saltines, they’re heartier; they’re enriched with extra fat. Since there’s no salt in these, the jelly is a good partner, but the crackers by themselves have an comforting flavor to them.
People eat leftover Chinese food for breakfast the next morning, right? So I thought I’d try to combine two of the kits together, the chicken and rice, along with the scrambled eggs and bacon, for a new and breathtaking experience. I was really mainly trying to hide the flavor of the eggs.
The chicken and rice by itself is a lot like an instant chicken soup mix blended with white rice, no more, no less. I cut up small bites of the egg to mix in, and the rice provided relief from the funny acrid bacon flavor. It only helped a little bit, but I was still satisfied with the end result. My body was now used to being hungry all day, so I powered all the way through dinner without any real complaints.
My marinara sauce with meatballs came with some unexpected entertainment in the form of a heating packet. The heating packet is activated by a small amount of water, after which you insert your food packet. Then you are instructed to angle your food on a “rock or something” (my favorite instruction ever) to prevent any water from escaping.
The heater gets very hot in a matter of minutes, so it’s best not to touch it for about 10 minutes. After your food packet is heated, it’s important to squish your food around a bit to distribute the heat since most of the heat comes from the bottom of the heater.
There wasn’t enough room in the heater for the garlic mashed potatoes so I ate them cold on the side. My previous experience with MREs was not very good; the vegetable manicotti and the jambalaya were really, really, difficult to choke down, so I was not feeling very optimistic.
However, I ended up being pleasantly surprised again. The meatballs are like those you get in a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti, but with a firmer texture and thicker, more flavorful sauce. There’s a slight tang from the preservatives in the food, but it’s not distracting when you’re hungry. The mashed potatoes are gummy, heavily garlicky from dried garlic powder, and a little sour from the preservatives, but they’re really not the worst thing in the world.
After dinner I sat, thinking about any cravings, but I really didn’t have any. Considering I had plenty of variety for four days, even though not all of it was great, I ended up just fine. Since the next day was Christmas Eve and I was heading out for lunch with my family, I had to stop my experiment after four days; my folks would have been really irritated if I whipped out a bag of beef stroganoff to eat in the corner by myself on a holiday, followed by the usual question of “Where did we go wrong with raising you?” My first regular meal was Korean food, and my first bite of real food felt like actual relief.
The Army is doing a study on the effects of eating nothing but MREs for 21 days right now, in which you have to give blood, urine, and fecal samples, but for the measly $200 they’re offering, you might want to give that a hard pass, no matter how curious you are.