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In an effort to stay relevant and interesting, Salient asked Finn to put his body on the aluminium line, and spend one weekend only eating food that could be found in a can. The experience was hard for Finn, the editors received messages of anguish as he faced the meals and endeavoured to keep them down. The whole experience; the harrowing sludge, the slimy salty shapes, the textures and forms, are documented in video format as well. So not only can you read about this experience, but you can watch it. Go to salient.org.nz/salient_tv/ and let it unfold infront of your eyeballs.
According to the EQC, there are about 150 feelable earthquakes in New Zealand every year. Most of them are too deep and far away to give a shit about, but there’s no telling which one of them will be destructive enough to own that capitalised definite article, and become The Earthquake. There’s no good reason it can’t be tomorrow. Or on your birthday, or Christmas. So Civil Defence recommends always having three days’ worth of water and non-perishable food on hand to keep you going after the city is flattened, while you wait for the army to arrive. Civil Defence’s (possibly Nesian Mystik-inspired?) campaign Get Ready Get Thru (ft. Peter Elliott) is comprehensive in its various guides to pre-quake preparedness, and post-quake survival. They cover almost every contingency, from making sure people with disabilities are looked after, to the heartbreaking revelation that your local evacuation centre probably won’t let your dog come in with you.
What Civil Defence is eerily silent on though is any information on the psychological effects of a big earthquake. Because not only might your house have crumbled and burned, with everything you’ve ever treasured smouldering deep inside, but you might’ve died, or your friends and family might’ve got munted. You’re standing outside the crowded evacuation centre in the pouring rain, with little Spot whimpering in your arms, and a Civil Defence official is screaming into your face “throw the fucking dog away or we’ll put it down!” On top of all that, piling indignity on brutality, you’ve got nothing to eat but canned food. You might survive the earthquake, but will you survive the roving gangs of murderers who’ve turned to cannibalism after one too many tins of baked beans?
Putting my body and mind on the line, I decided to pick up Civil Defence’s slack. If they weren’t prepared to investigate the important questions, then they were abandoning their duty to inform, and the pre-quake public they are paid to serve were going to be left wondering—what’s it like to only eat from cans? After an uncomfortable weekend, I found out.
* * *
One Saturday morning I went to New World in search of canned supplies for an earthquake simulation diet. I picked up a basket and walked straight past the fruit and vegetable aisles. They held nothing for me, only food for ghosts. In the hardened extremes of post-quake Wellington, Civil Defence says only the cans will remain. Where is the apple when you really need it? It is gone, melted into the air, unpreserved. I picked out a range of cans from the survival aisles. Some meat (Spam, corned beef), vegetables (asparagus, creamed corn), fruit (peaches, pears), etc. I gave special priority to cans with rip-top lids, imagining a dusty post-quake future where the last can-openers are in the hands of the privileged few, and available to borrow only in exchange for sex or drugs. I noticed, from the corner of my eye, condescending looks from fellow shoppers with more wholesome baskets, but they were easy to ignore. They won’t be so smug when the earthquake lays waste to their precious truss tomatoes.
At the checkout I explained myself. I told the operator, “I’m preparing for the earthquake.” She stopped her scanning and looked up, covering her mouth, in shock. “When is the earthquake?” she asked, worried (as she should be).
“Soon.” I said. She got back to scanning again. “There’ll be none of this after the earthquake,” I tell her. “Checkouts. Supermarkets. Commerce.”
She gives me the total, around thirty dollars.
“There’ll be no money, either,” I say. “The only currency will be can-openers. The new élite will be those with the can-openers. You should buy some rip-tops while you still can.”
She asks if I have FlyBuys. I tell her I don’t. I don’t think I do enough shopping for it to be worth it.
On the way home I pass a Greek food festival at the bottom of my street. It is swarming with desperate people. It is like a post-quake evacuation centre. There is a line for calamari that is as long as a line for post-quake drinking water. Everybody there is restless, anxious. There is a seven-piece Greek folk band, playing what I imagine to be Greek folk music. Two of the band members play bouzoukis. An old man sings. After fifteen minutes I find myself at the front of the line for calamari. A Greek woman takes my order.
“There’ll be none of this after the earthquake,” I tell her. “The calamari will all be gone. So will the bouzoukis. The powerful people will be the ones with can-openers.”
She says, “calamari is seven dollars.”
“I don’t want any calamari.”
I leave, worried for the state of the city. After the earthquake, it’ll be people like those festival-goers who clog up the disaster-relief infrastructure, dependent on the teat of the state for food after finding that all of their beloved calamari has gone off. I’m determined not to be part of the swarm. Heading home I look down at my shopping bag of supplies, and I smile.
* * *
Meal #1: creamed corn
Breakfast. Not a rip-top. Luckily for me I had access to a can-opener. Unluckily for me, creamed corn hasn’t changed since I last ate it as a nine-year-old. “Uh oh,” I thought, face-to-face with the open can of grainy, off-yellow sludge. A bad tone was set for the weekend. I eat straight from the can, with a spoon. My mental state takes an early blow. But I am hungry, and I only have so many cans. So it will be after the earthquake, so it is for me.
Cold creamed corn is as bad as you think it is. The kernels explode grossly between your teeth, and the gluey shit that the corn is suspended in is the kind of stuff you can only eat if you close your eyes and imagine someone holding a gun to your head going “eat it or I’ll blow your bloody head off you bastard!!!” But we won’t have the luxury of picking and choosing after the earthquake, so why should I now? I eat the stuff. It’s energy, I keep telling myself. Energy to run when a ute full of cannibals is bearing down on you intent on munching on your sweet brains.
I wash the can out when I’m done, and put it in the recycling. I know there won’t be recycling after the earthquake, but it just feels pointless not to recycle it now. I drink a big glass of water to try and get rid of the cornskins in my teeth. (Note: what does the ‘creamed’ bit mean anyway?)
Meal #2: refried beans & asparagus
Lunch. A few hours later. Interestingly the refried beans manufacturer chose to print the PC name on the label, rather than the name most of us know it as, which is “Mexican mashed potatoes.” The can is a rip-top though, which already bumps it up the ranking above creamed corn. Also, on opening it up, it doesn’t look like old sick, so it jumps even further up the ranking. Again, a spoon and a strong will is all I need to tuck in. Once I start though, it’s hard to stop. It turns out refried beans are delicious. I’m overcome with jealousy for Mexico after an earthquake. Here’s a tip: when the quake hits, hit up your local Mexican joint as soon as you can. They’ve got the good stuff.
In the interests of staving off scurvy, I put down the MMP and crack into the can of asparagus. This can is smaller than usual, thinner. Probably because asparagus is expensive, and disgusting, and no one wants to eat that much of it in one go. Also, it turns out that asparagus is canned in super salty water. If it wasn’t gross enough that the little green stalks are soaked to a greenish-grey stalk-shaped mush, they also taste like lumpy seawater.
A picture on the label suggests rolling the asparagi in white bread for a tasty, nutritious snack. I suspect some photoshopped sneakery on the part of the photographer though, because the image of the asparagus roll they’ve printed on the can has a noticeable lack of anyone in the background vomiting or pouring bleach down their throat, or immolating themselves in an attempt to forget the experience of being near that fucking thing.
I eat another spoonful of refried beans. I throw out the asparagus into the rubbish, can and all. Some things aren’t good enough for the recycling. No one deserves to eat canned asparagus. I’d rather fast that day. Supposedly fasting is good for meditation anyway.
Meal #3: satay corned beef
Dinner has always been my most anticipated meal of the day. I like it fresh out of the oven or off the stove, and I like to keep eating it until it hurts. Sometimes I spend the whole night just eating dinner, nibbling at passing dishes like a Roman orgy. I knew this night would be different though. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I was dreading what I’d see when I opened that can of corned beef.
It was as bad as I’d feared. Chunks of purple meat and chunks of fat and sinew, caked together with solidified gelatine. Jelly meat. When I stuck a fork into it to lever some out, it made a sound I think I heard somewhere in The Silence of the Lambs. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to be able to eat it cold. Not if I wanted to actually keep it down. So I dug the meat out and mixed it in a frypan with half a can of Watties Creamy Satay sauce. (I figured there’ll still be heat after the earthquake, with the exploding gas pipes and overstretched fire service, etc. etc.)
The satay beef went onto a plate with some more of the refried beans. It was very salty and the sauce was gross. I ate the hot mess until I felt like throwing up, then I’d rescue myself with a spoon of refried beans. I ended up finishing it all, but it sat in my belly for a long time, refusing to digest. I moved as little as possible, to avoid upsetting the fragile treaty that was keeping the lumpy salt slop from climbing up and back out of my body. I took deep, slow breaths. I watched television, Masterchef was on. All the amateur cooks seemed so proud of their meals, but they have no awareness of the folly of their struggles. What does it matter if you can cook with the luxury of a fully stocked pantry and an endless supply of fresh ingredients? That’s not going to help you when you really need to survive. There won’t be any squid tagliatelle after the earthquake, that’s for sure. (Seriously, they need to stop making squid tagliatelle. Someone does it every week.)
Dessert was a can of peaches. Canned peaches will be the salvation of mankind. I sleep happily.
Meal #4: Watties Big Eat All Day Breakfast (BEADB)
Breakfast. Day two. Wary of the task ahead, I’m grateful for the plan I sussed out earlier—to get the grossest cans out of the way on day one, while I still had some naive enthusiasm for the project. I could even go so far as to say that I was looking forward to the can of Watties BEADB (also known as, “baked beans with everything”) that I had pegged for this morning. Eating out of the can, I felt at home among the sweet tomatoey beans, among the sausages with the DNA of probably twenty different kinds of animal. There was even bacon, mushrooms, bits of potato. (To be honest, I’m going off the photo on the label more than taste. If they primed you to expect duck à l’orange in the mix you’d probably taste it somewhere.) But beneath the warm familiarity of the BEADB, the reality of the can-only diet was starting to sink in. There was something about the certainty of my meals. Physically I felt all right, but psychologically I felt increasingly trapped. Like a prisoner maybe, or someone on a long-haul interstellar space cargo flight. The day is measured in cans as I plan ahead. This one for lunch, these for dinner. I start to miss those wistful moments in front of the open fridge, scanning the shelves, open to inspiration. Instead my meals stare out at me unblinking, like little metal panopticons. “What choice do you have?” They say. “We are the alpha and the omega.” I can live my life around them, but never independent of them. I’m a slave.
Meal #5: Stagg’s Classic Chili (with Beef)
Lunch. I realise how much I love snacks. I really want a cracker. I’m not hungry, I just want to crunch into something, but there won’t be any crackers after the earthquake. What there will be though is cans of Stagg’s beef chili, which touts “a taste of the Old West.” This is probably the most meal-like can of the lot. It looks like chili. It’s got chili beans and onions and mince and tomato sauce. I try not to think about how long ago it was made and canned. For some reason I feel weird about the idea of mince sitting around in a can for a year (that’s how long ago this can was made). Supposedly things in cans never actually go off, they just slowly turn to paste as the food molecules dissociate.
I eat cowboy style (out of the can). I say “howdy partner,” and they say “you’re handy with a gun.” Post-quake Wellington will be like the Old West in a lot of ways. Dusty, quiet. Lawless. The occasional gun fight breaking out over the right to use the town’s only can-opener. The chili is pretty darned good though. I feel OK for a moment. But to be honest, my mind isn’t really in it. It’s hard to get really excited about anything. Even though I’ve nearly made it through the weekend, there’s still one squishy pink obstacle that stands between me and crackery freedom. Dinner. The final boss. I finish my chili slowly, not wanting to think about what’s next. Jesus Christ.
Meal #6: Spam
I didn’t want for this to happen. That’s probably obvious. Spam is the kind of thing nobody wants to eat. Probably a big chunk of Spam Ltd.’s revenue comes from idiots writing articles for student magazines about eating Spam.
The first thing you notice about a can of Spam is that the can is oblong, like a little metal brick. I can’t think why. The next thing you notice about Spam, once you rip off the lid, is that at one point in its journey from hog farm to supermarket, it was liquid. I picture scenes from the Spam factory. A thick pink paste is poured off into rectangular cans on a conveyor belt, the occasional whole eyeball passing through unnoticed under the watch of the bored quality control inspector as he smokes a lazy afternoon cigarette. When you turn the can upside down, the stuff plops out as a perfect sculpture of the mould it was in. It lends itself to being chopped in slices, like a little pink loaf. A closer look reveals discrete grains of different colours, variations on pink. Who knows what part of the animal they’ve come from—is that bone marrow? A bit of brain? A bumhole?
I cut it up and mix in the leftover satay sauce. I definitely need refried beans too. It all goes on a plate and I take it to the lounge, where I can eat in shame and alone. I eat it hot. My gag reflex is on a hair trigger. The Spam melts in your mouth, which in this case is not in a “melt-in-your-mouth goodness” kind of way, more in a “this-should-never-have-existed-in-the-first-place-and-now-it’s-returning-to-the-oblivion-whence-it-sprung” kind of way. It hits me what the one thing tying together all these cans is: they all exist on a scale of mush. Some are more mushy, some are less mushy, but they’re all just different kinds of mush. Salt mush. Sugar mush. Meat, vegetable, grain, united at last in a holy trinity of mush.
When I finish the Spam, I actually get an endorphin rush. Like my brain is rewarding me for pushing my body to new, bizarre tolerances. Or it’s relief, maybe, for the end of a 48-hour trauma. Whatever it was, I got the message. When that earthquake finally comes, my brain tells me, we’ll be all right. But don’t let anyone tell you any different: the earthquake is definitely going to suck.
* * *
Civil Defence has good reason, I think, not to talk about this on their website. Going into any detail about the horrors of eating out of cans would amount to fear-mongering. They’d spark mass panic. Mobs would gather to loot supermarkets for canned meals that don’t make you want to throw up, and screaming crowds would kill each other to snatch at can-openers, wherever it is that you buy can-openers. Wellington would plunge into lawlessness as an artificial shortage encouraged a whole city of people to forget their normal lives and just look out for themselves. In trying to protect the country from disaster, Civil Defence would be creating one themselves.
But as a society, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that not being at least a little worried about this imminent future is anything other than denial. The information has to be out there somewhere. And now you have the information. Just, please, be careful what you do with it.