Imagine if society came crashing to a halt, if everything we knew and relied on was torn away. As you stood among the rubble of the modern world, surely only one question would come to mind – “what’s for dinner?”
Thankfully you have a copy of Esther Dickey‘s Passport To Survival. This book contains over 100 recipes you can make using only four basic ingredients. You heard me, only four ingredients that will survive a year’s storage in your bunker/biodome/orbiting satellite/mountain cave. Those four ingredients are wheat, salt, honey and powdered milk. There’s even a jazzy illustration to help entertain you while the corpses of the dead pile up outside your air-tight doors.
Actually, for a book predicated on the downfall of the civilization, Passport To Survival is surprisingly perky. The dust-jacket claims that “filled with creative, cheerful thinking, it reflects the author’s faith in the power of the human heart and will”. That’s not the only thing the author has faith in, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
This book isn’t just a recipe book – there are also sections on storing food, finding water, surviving in the wild, how to make soap. But exactly what calamity are we surviving?
In Chapter One – Nightmare Day – Hickey invites you to share her dream, “a dream so vivid and real you cannot get it off your mind. In the dream you are in a market with your basket and grocery list. A sick feeling comes over you as you look down the aisles and see row after row of grocery shelves almost empty… there is not even a loaf of bread in the store, nor any milk. Having five children to feed, you are overcome with panic. You rush home and sit in the chair by the window – frustrated, bewildered, worn out. Looking across the street you see a whole family arriving at the Taylors’. They are walking…“
“Goods are being stolen from the stores, markets and schools are closed, many people are out of work. The car is out of gas and your husband rides your son’s bicycle looking for work. You are told there are carrots and potatoes available further out in the country, and since there is almost no food in the house you decide to walk there. You search among all your shoes for sturdy oxfords to walk in but can’t find any. You feel trapped…”
She goes on to say that while all this is happening, you keep thinking about how disappointing it will be to not have the relatives over for Christmas. Perhaps I’m callous, but when I’m going head-to-head with the biker mutants in a post-Mad-Max world, the last thing I’ll be pondering is where Aunt Mavis will be singing “O Tannenbaum” this year. The whole chapter creates an odd depiction of a 1950s American housewife – who apparently doesn’t even own shoes she can walk in – finding herself in the middle a global crisis and her biggest concern is how her husband looks on environmentally-conscious transport (“a grown man? on a bicycle?”). It’s like Eva Gabor starring in The Day After.
But what exactly is this crisis? Dickey is a bit vague on that – “one or a combination of the several possible emergencies – unemployment, sickness, strikes, famine, civil disorder, war, and so on.” Whatever it is, she knows it’s coming and she won’t let it interrupt family time. The book even presents complete weekly menus, assuming the nuclear family dynamic will survive a nuclear meltdown. Its like June Lockhart starring in Threads.
It’s easy to mock Passport To Survival – and I just have – but the information in the book is actually pretty strong. Sections on health, home medicine, and food safety are just as relevant now as they were when it was first published in 1969. My copy is the 20th printing from 1977, and the book is still available to buy on Amazon today – the current edition is called The New Passport To Survival and is co-written with Dickey‘s daughter, Rita Bingham. Bingham has written many books about cooking with beans and pulses, and though she sells them as macrobiotic health books rather than survivalist ones, both writers have been embraced by the American “preparedness movement”.
Reading Passport To Survival is a little like reading Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale – you are transported to an alternate world where life is harder and darker than the one we live in, and you find yourself thinking within that world. Where will I store a hundred kilos of honey in a flat in Collingwood? Where are my sturdy oxfords?
But surely a book like Passport To Survival isn’t supposed to be celebrating it’s 40th birthday? Whatever Dickey‘s catastrophe, hasn’t its time has passed?
The elephant in this room is God. Perhaps the five children were a clue, as is the fact that the book’s publisher is in Salt Lake City. I could find very little information about Esther Dickey, but in 1999 she talked about being from a a member of the Church Of Latter Day Saints on her daughter’s website.
Traditionally the Church Of Latter Day Saints encourages it’s members to have a year’s supply of food stored in their homes for possible emergencies, financial hard times, and disasters. (In recent years this seems to have been reduced to three months, according to a 2007 leaflet entitled All Is Safely Gathered In: Family Home Storage). Posts on sites like Yahoo Answers tend to be defensive when questioned on this – a lot of respondents claim it’s being prepared, just like boy scouts. But prepared for what?
It’s only toward the end of Passport To Survival, in the penultimate chapter, that Dickey really talks about her faith, in an alarmingly George Bush-like manner.
“I believe that America is a nation with a prophetic mission to fulfill. Its discovery, colonisation, revolution and constitutional structure were all under the influence of divine guidance. It was designed to be a great and free nation. It’s history has been a reflection of its role as a beacon light to the world, a refuge and a promised land, a Christian nation. It was intended never to be destroyed, so long as its people would obey God’s commandments.”
The Church Of Latter Day Saints does include elements similar to the apocalyptic “End Time” theology of the American fundamentalists. According to the Doctrine and Covenants, the second coming of Jesus is “near, even at the doors” (D&C 110:16), and that “the earth shall pass away so as by fire.” (D&C 43:32).
Every religion sounds crazy to those outside its faith, and I admire the Mormons in their ability to realise this. It makes more sense to say “it’s just common sense to have a year’s food supply as insurance” rather than “I think Jesus might be coming round and I don’t want to run out of biscuits”. Dickey‘s book works as a useful repository of home remedies and ideas, even if you’re not planning to spend a year locked in a cupboard helping the kids make dolls out of wheat gluten.
I always wonder if it’s a disappointment for the faithful to reach the end of their lives and realise the second coming is going to take place without them. Esther spent her whole life planning for the worst, and the worst never came. She wrote books on surviving a great crisis, and apparently gave demonstrations on the subject as well. Did she feel let-down at the end, having spent her life organising a party she didn’t get to attend?
I don’t know if Esther Dickey has left this world or not, but in 1999 she wrote this:
“After the second coming of Jesus Christ, Ruth [Dickey's sister] will perhaps be living among her posterity that are still living on the earth. There will be births and deaths that she will be aware of, but it will be a natural death. They will not be buried in a grave, but will be changed in the twinkling of an eye to an immortal body. Life during the 1000 years that Satan will be bound will be different from today. Righteousness and peace will be present everywhere because wicked people will be burned as stubble. Mortality continues: birth, aging, crops, industries, no premature deaths, no sorrow, no disease.”
“What a joy to look forward to such a world!”