Eating The Bomb: Atomic Cakes and High Desert Cheeseburgers

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Photo courtesy Gizmodo.com

It's weird how much food news I find while cruising around Gizmodo.com. But when I stumbled across this beauty (pictured above) a few days ago, it reminded me of all the reasons why I love the intersection of food and technology--and in particular, the crossing paths of food and atom bombs.

The snap is from 1946, and the cake (which is actually supposed to be a mushroom cloud, but you can be forgiven for not realizing that if you were distracted by the lady's hat) was served to a military party in celebration of the success of the post-war Pacific nuclear tests. Something to consider, though: this party was held in November of 1946, just a little more than a year after the August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pictures from the event made the Washington Post's society pages under the headline "Salute to Bikini" (meaning the atoll) and sparked something of an international incident, all of which can be read about (briefly) on the Gizmodo site, or in much greater detail at a different blog called Conelrad Adjacent, which goes into total OCD mode over all the back-and-forth battles over this one terribly, terribly ugly cake.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about some of the other ways in which food, atom bombs and the arms race got all tangled up together in the public consciousness during the 40's and 50's and beyond. Some of my favorite examples...

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All over the Southwest (and beyond), small town mom-and-pop operations tried to capitalize on the joys of fallout and impending nuclear destruction by giving their restaurants, diners and roadside cafes fun names like the above Fallout Shelter. When was the last time global thermonuclear war was so much fun?

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So many things were promised to us as Americans at the dawn of the atomic age. We were all going to have flying cars, robot butlers, jetpacks and food pills. There was going to be no war, no starvation, no poverty because "technology" would fix it all.

So, how'd that work out exactly?

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Still, some pretty cool (food related) things did come out of that time period. Microwave ovens, for one (which no home of the future would be without), food irradiation, all sorts of innovations in industrial canning and processing. Christ, if it hadn't been for the bomb, we might all be reduced to eating fresh food from our gardens cooked over actual stovetop burners like a bunch of savages...

By the way, that book? It's available on Amazon if any of you are interested.

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Not exactly a historical recipe, but there are shots today called "atom bombs." Most of them involve Red Bull in some way or another (because, really, pretty much every kiddie shot today seems to involve Red Bull).

But then there is a more classic shot called the "Atom Bomb" which harkens back to the days before people tried to mix energy drinks into everything. The best recipe for it I could find runs something like this:

2 ozs gin

1 oz Benedictine

4 drops Curacao

The most powerful, on the other hand, replaces the Curacao with a lace of over-proof rum, lit on fire. Attempt at your own risk.

During the cold war, all sorts of hucksters started selling everything from junk geiger counters to completely bogus anti-radiation pills. One of the most popular items, though (and a must for any at-home fallout shelter) was a post-nuclear survival kit. These generally included some basic first aid supplies, iodine tablets, plastic silverware and, of course, food. Most of the grub was army surplus jungle chocolate, canned water, jerky and tinned meat and the like--which I know because I actually own one of these kits. I found it at a junk shop in Albuquerque, NM a few years ago, being sold for something like five bucks, and immediately snapped it up. Not only does mine have canned bread like the one above, but also includes...

Food pills! Well, not food pills, exactly, but some kind of vitamin supplement that's supposed to take the place of three day's worth of meals.

Bear in mind that, at the time that most of these things were produced, the civil defense manuals were claiming that all people had to do was survive the initial blast when those sneaky commies inevitably tried to nuke Wisconsin. After that, they were to wait three days and then everything would be hunky-dory. I've read manuals that actually said that fruit on the trees would be safe to eat so long as one brushed any accumulated fallout from the surface before eating.

Always trust the government, kids!

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This is a picture of the best cheeseburger in the world. It is the green chile cheeseburger, served at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, NM. There are two things that make it the greatest burger ever. The first is the burger itself, which is hand-ground daily, cooked fast, topped with fresh, roasted Hatch green chiles and just magically delicious. The second is its history.

During the heyday of the Manhattan Project, scientists and engineers from the labs up north in Los Alamos knew that they were soon going to be needing a place to test their first atom bomb. They needed somewhere that was pretty remote, far from the things of man, but still accessible. The place they chose? The Trinity site in southern New Mexico. And the closest town to it? The tiny little hamlet of San Antonio.

Now there are many fascinating things about San Antonio, New Mexico (not the least of which being it is the town where Conrad Hilton got his start in hotels), but the story I'm concerned with here is the one about the small roadhouse bar called the Owl and the cabins for rent behind it. Many American research scientists lived in those cabins while working at or around the Trinity site--mostly because the Owl had the only working phone for miles around, but also because there was a bar right there where they could get all liquored up at the end of a hard day planning for the end of civilization. Matter of fact, the drinking and carousing got so bad that the U.S.government began to worry about some of its greatest minds getting all loaded on mezcal and Budweiser, getting behind the wheel and plowing into a cactus or a mountain at sixty miles an hour during a midnight run up to Los Alamos.

And so, it was suggested that maybe the Owl start serving some food to said scientists and drunken geniuses. You know, just to give their stomachs a little padding. And so the Owl looked around at what was available and decided that the simplest solution was to top an all-American classic with some of the chiles that were growing all over the place. Thus, the green chile cheeseburger was born.

Oh, and the first aboveground nuclear test in history? Guess where it was watched from...

That's right, the front steps of the Owl Bar. And the only civilian who knew about it--the only civilian who stood there, shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most famous scientists in history--was Mr. Baca, the owner.

I'm pretty sure they celebrated with burgers and beers after all was said and done, making the green chile cheeseburger the food that ushered in the dawn of the atomic age.

 
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