The Supermarket at the End of the World

In post-apocalyptic fiction and film, the hope for the future is canned food

This summer the television network Spike launched a series loosely based on Stephen King’s novella The Mist. I was a huge King fan as a kid; I devoured The Mist. I’ve seen the 2007 film version — taut, rollicking, B-movie perfection — multiple times. But I won’t be watching the TV version. From what I’ve read, a core aspect that I found so compelling in the original is missing from this adaptation: no longer is the local supermarket the setting where nearly all the action plays out.

King has said that he was inspired to write The Mist after dropping in on his own local grocery store with his son the day after a heavy thunderstorm. If you had to barricade yourself against a mysterious fog hiding flesh-eating, tentacled monsters, where better than a place that is literally stocked with food?

Whenever I find myself in the aisles of a Key Food or Stop & Shop, I have a similar, fleeting thought: in the event of a cataclysmic disaster, is this where I’d want to bunker down? A number of zombie apocalypse bloggers advise against this strategy: too many people will have the same bright idea. And those glass façades that supermarkets seem so fond of? They’re vulnerable to attack — a truism which plays out to gruesome effect in the movie version of The Mist. I rarely ever get that far in my doomsday daydreams. I become too preoccupied with figuring out whether I should eat my way through the produce aisle first — or perhaps those frozen Sara Lee cheesecakes, or the Klondike bars — before focusing my attentions exclusively on the nonperishables.

The crisis of food shortage is a common trope, not to mention a primary plot engine, in a number of post-apocalyptic narratives. In some cases, all it takes is a single can to illustrate how dire things have gotten. In The Road Warrior (still the best of the Mad Max films, including George Miller’s 2015 reboot, Furiosa notwithstanding), Mel Gibson reaches for a can of Dinki-Di dog food. Instead of giving it to his canine companion he chows down on it himself, tipping his head back and chewing with the relish of a lapsed vegetarian eating a steak on his birthday. Dinki-Di even made a small cameo in the recent Mad Max video game.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, the entire life of the protagonists — an unnamed man and his son — consists of scavenging for food, plowing forward with a shopping cart that holds their dwindling provisions. Their world is unrelenting shit: dust, ash, ruin, and scabland. But early in the book there is one small bubble of joy. On the outskirts of a city the heroes come across a picked-over supermarket — nothing left but a few shriveled apricots. But what’s this? From the guts of an overturned soda machine, the man’s hand connects with a cold metal cylinder: a solitary can of Coke.

What is it, Papa?

It’s a treat. For you.

Treat is right, kid. Never has a carbonated beverage been described with such anticipatory brio. Every soul-restoring gulp of Coca Cola we have taken in our lives is summoned in this moment. The man puts his thumbnail under the aluminum clip. He leans his nose to the “slight fizz” rising from the can before he hands it to the boy. McCarthy doesn’t need to describe the taste — we all know how it tastes. But the boy — encountering Coke for the first, and possibly last, time — thinks on it before proclaiming, in all seriousness: It’s really good. In the 2009 movie the boy burps after his first sip. He insists that dad (Viggo Mortensen) also take a swig. This is satisfying. In the novel the man refuses, selfishly, like a martyr. The movie knows the best treats are shared.

Having a Coke with you. Still from “The Road” (2009)

But drink up, because what follows is more misery piled on misery, including a harrowing set piece in a house basement occupied by a band of cannibals. (The novelist Benjamin Percy has described this sequence as the scariest in all of literature.) By the time the man discovers a bomb shelter midway through the book, the boy calling out nervously from the trap door entrance, “What did you find?”, you are inclined to take Papa’s answer literally: “I found everything. Everything.”

Stored inside the bunker is the glorious mother of all mother lodes: “crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon jerry jugs.”

As with the Coke, McCarthy activates the frontal lobe of desire by describing the ritual of extraction:

He opened the carton of pears and took out a can and set it on the table and clamped the lid with the can opener and began to turn the wheel … they sat side by side and ate the can of pears. Then they ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup.

One more, the boy says, like a recovering drunk hungrily reacquainting himself with the taste of alcohol.

Unfortunately they can’t stay. The man surveys the underground stash and calculates how long before they’re discovered by marauders. There is a last supper of coffee, browned ham, scrambled eggs, baked beans, biscuits with condensed milk. Then they pack up what they can and set out across the gullied, eroded land, and pretty much nothing else good happens for the rest of the book.

In the post-apocalyptic imaginary there is not only the foraging of food but also the stockpiling of reserves. Early in her sci-fi novel Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel delivers a tour de force of the latter. A central character, Jeevan, is tipped off by a doctor friend about a deadly flu pandemic that appears to be spreading fast. What follows is a fraught, exquisitely paced episode of panic buying, as Jeevan races to fill seven shopping carts in the forty minutes before his local supermarket closes.

First cart: all water. He is on the phone with his doctor friend again. No, he can’t leave town, he explains; he can’t abandon his paraplegic brother. The second cart is soon loaded with “cans and cans of food, all the tuna and beans and soup on the shelf, pasta, anything that looked like it might last a while.” The doctor starts coughing and hangs up. Jeevan continues. His next cart is one hundred percent toilet paper; the one after that brims with more canned goods. Also frozen meat, aspirin, garbage bags, bleach, duct tape. Finally he gets through to his girlfriend’s phone, just as he enters the checkout line for the last time, laden with a hodgepodge of “grace items” (vegetables, fruit, bags of oranges and lemons, tea, coffee, crackers, salt, preserved cakes. Preserved cakes? Must be a Canadian thing). Laura isn’t listening; she keeps asking if he’s having some kind of panic attack. He pleads with her to get out of the city, now, at the same time as he tosses a bouquet of daffodils onto his hill of purchases.

The daffodils signal that Jeevan hasn’t quite accepted the new normal. Despite the doomsday events unraveling around him, he can’t resist this last nodding gesture to beauty in all its ephemerality. Fuck the flowers, Jeevan! I want to shout. Throw in more cans of garbanzo beans and cling peaches!

Fuck the flowers! I want to shout. Throw in more cans of garbanzo beans and cling peaches!

In Northern California where I grew up, and where earthquakes are a feature of the landscape, local TV news gauges the damage by surveying the supermarket aisles. Shelves with cans and bottles strewn about or knocked to the ground means that the jolt was serious. More ominous are empty shelves: those signal a loss of services. Earlier this summer my internet feed flooded with images of people emptying supermarket shelves in Doha, after Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab-nation powerhouses announced that they were breaking diplomatic ties with Qatar, where the majority of food in the country is imported. Prior to that it was the empty shelves during Venezuela’s economic implosion. Before that, post-tsunami Japan.

Andreas Gursky, ’99 Cent’ (1999)

The purpose of supermarkets is to be stocked to the gills, like a dizzying Andreas Gursky-ian fantasia, with a half-dozen brand choices for every product. That makes supermarkets quintessentially American. Indeed, the first such market, which combined a butcher, produce stall, bakery, and pharmacy under one roof, opened in 1930 in a 6,000 square foot former garage in Jamaica, Queens, with the promise to “Pile it high. Sell it low.” Supermarkets represent a way of life, of the security that only a massive amount of food can give you. So when they instead become a locus for anxiety and depletion, that way of life comes tumbling down.

And yet, my mental obsession with the stockpiling of canned goods has not translated to actual disaster preparedness in any way. As I write this I don’t even own a flashlight — my last two broke. For research I recently watched a few episodes of National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers, a reality series about the obsessive ends that survivalists pursue to prepare for the end of the world. One man’s bunker, stocked with gleaming rows of vegetable and fruit preserves, gave me a shiver of pleasure. But I quickly lost interest in the other survival tactics that are a focus for the bulk of the show — weaponry, booby traps, defense training. I was only in it for the food.

Supermarkets represent a way of life, of the security that only a massive amount of food can give you. So when they instead become a locus for anxiety and depletion, that way of life comes tumbling down.

According to a National Geographic survey (no doubt commissioned as a marketing gambit for Preppers), forty percent of Americans believe that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter makes for a wiser investment than a 401(k). You could tsk-tsk the folly of this mindset. But who doesn’t, on some level, get satisfaction from envisioning a future where paper currency and plastic cards have become worthless, but not freezers of vacuum-packed venison and crates of Goya kidney beans and split-pea soup?

When my sister and I were kids growing up in Berkeley and money was tight, we ate a lot of Campbell’s soup. We favored cream of chicken, with its yellow, salty polyps, and New England-style clam chowder, because they could be thickened on the stove with milk instead of water. I haven’t eaten a can of Campbell’s soup in at least a decade; I can’t say I miss it. But I respect the can. In the long game of the post-apocalypse, canned goods are the daffodils.

401(k)s may be practical, but they would have meant nothing to our hirsute hunting/gathering ancestors, let alone those struggling to survive in modern-day disaster zones. Nor will they help us in the not-so-distant future, when the icebergs have melted, the pandemic has decimated millions, and midday temperatures are enough to boil our kidneys. If we’re headed for apocalypse, it is the hardy aluminum-clad cylinders — time capsules from a vanishing present, units of mushy brown produce or quivering ridged tubes of sweet dessert — that will sustain us. “Turn the wheel” and out comes a fruit cocktail, tasting just like it did before the world became ash. All those canned goods stacked in cupboards and on supermarket shelves are reminders of the kind of life we might one day lose, even as they assure us how good we have it now. They are, as Viggo would say, everything.

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