What are People Eating After the Apocalypse?

Apocalyptic fiction is big, as are shows about recovering from the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic films. Really, one could probably successfully argue that the genre has never truly died, because people have always been morbidly fascinated with the idea of what would happen if the world ended, especially now, when it seems like the financial crisis is starting to bring about a little apocalypse all its very own.

There are so many things to explore in this genre, but one comes up again and again for me: what are people eating, and how are they getting it?

One of the few entries to even really explore this is The Hunger Games, where food actually forms a key component of the post-apocalyptic world, and we learn rather a lot about the food systems used. We learn about the agricultural district, the shortages, and the use of food as a form of social control. We also learn about how hunger and desperation can combine to force people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise, like enter their names multiple times in a lottery that is almost certain to end in death. Collins really explored the role that food would play in a world where the food system might have been severely disrupted, and thought considerably about how to integrate it into the larger story of her novel.

Other creators of post-apocalyptic worlds are not so careful, and readers are left having to fill in blanks. Either characters are mysteriously getting food from somewhere, or they’re magically finding it, or they’re growing it, but not very much attention is paid to the realities of how they’re obtaining, preserving, and preparing that food. Finding food, for example, can require hours of work tromping through the woods and other regions to identify edible food and collect it, and you need to know how to do that, or receive training from someone who does. If you’re hunting, you need the tools and skills for that.

You don’t just amble around in the woods and pick mushrooms. You walk through slowly and patiently with your mushroom eyes on, looking for the faint disturbances and hints of colour that betray something edible. You learn to identify which things you can eat and which things you cannot, and how to tell the difference between certain mushrooms that masquerade as their edible relatives but are not, in fact, things that you want to eat. It can take hours to bring in a haul, and the number of mushrooms collected depends on the weather, the time of year, your luck on any given day.

Wildcrafting is highly seasonal, dependent on what grows when and where, and it’s dependent on the health of the environment, as well. If the area has been heavily disturbed, things are not going to be growing; something that could create a great source of conflict and tension for characters in a text where food was taken seriously. They could, for example, return to a spot that’s usually reliable for berries, mushrooms, or some other food, only to find that it’s been disrupted in some way and the food source they were counting on is gone.

As for farming, this, too, requires a knowledge of seasons and weather and soil, what will grow somewhere and how it will behave. Sometimes it seems like crops are thrown together willy-nilly and people are eating things that wouldn’t come into season together, can’t grow where the story is allegedly set, wouldn’t produce in the yields suggested in the text, or just don’t make sense in terms of the most efficient and appropriate crops to choose for a given locale. You see high-water crops being proposed in a story where drought is an issue, for example, or people attempting to grow brassicas far outside their range.

The day-to-day realities of farming can be complex, fascinating, and frustrating, and could become as much as part of the story as the apocalypse and how people are dealing with it. What do you do when your cows are attacked by zombies, or your crops are churned up and destroyed by enemy troops invading your community? How do you prepare food when you can’t just go to a grocery store and buy components? What do you do for spices, oil, salt, other staples you probably don’t even think about but would sorely miss if they were suddenly gone from your kitchen?

And how are you cooking food? Have you ever baked bread and other goods in a wood-fired oven or stove? It’s likely a community would assemble and use a community bread oven to reduce the load on individual families, for example, which also sets up more fascinating possibilities for plotlines to follow, because the person most familiar with the bread oven can hold a lot of power. How are people preserving food? Drying, smoking, canning, salting? Are people getting accustomed to the lifestyle changes in the kitchen that apocalypse necessitates, like not having access to chocolate, for example, or not being able to make ice cream because ice is inaccessible?

My obsession with food is of course well-documented, but I do think about it a lot in this specific context because there’s a lot to talk about. Many people are unfamiliar with subsistence farming, wildcrafting, and eating within a very small region. They’d undoubtedly struggle in the wake of a major event that cut off access to food supplies and created a world where everything was topsy-turvy in the kitchen. I would love seeing that confronted rather than glossed over in texts that take us to a post-apocalyptic world, because there’s so much possibility, storywise, there.