Jell-O, nostalgia and Nuka-Cola: The subtle genius of the food of "Fallout"

There are no promises in the wasteland, so you better pick up supplies while you can

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 21, 2024 1:22PM (EDT)

Ella Purnell, Michael Emerson and Dale Dickey in "Fallout" (JoJo Whilden/Prime Video)
Ella Purnell, Michael Emerson and Dale Dickey in "Fallout" (JoJo Whilden/Prime Video)

What should the ideal nuclear fallout shelter welcome basket contain? It’s a question that the residents of Vault 4 — a subterranean bunker safe beneath the surface of California, still teeming with nuclear radiation 219 years after the Great War of 2077 — had obviously considered. 

In the sixth episode of the Amazon Prime series “Fallout,” based on the video game franchise of the same name, travelers Lucy Maclean (Ella Purnell) and Maximus (Aaron Moten) are briefly taken in by the Vaulters. Lucy was raised in Vault 33, another shelter created by the Vault-Tec Corporation, so was familiar with the little luxuries of underground living, but for Maximus, a member of the military order The Brotherhood of Steel, it’s all new.

After being led to his room, Maximus is given a basket that contains, among other things: Sugar Bombs cereal, Salty Shack mixed nuts, BlamCo mac and cheese, Yum Yum Brand deviled eggs, CRAM canned meat, caviar and a tin of oysters. All that’s missing are a few icy bottles of Nuka-Cola. 

Attached to the bounty is a note from Birdie (Charien Dabis), a resident of Vault 4, with a tentative greeting: “Welcome home?” 

Sure, there’s something a little … off about the Vault and its citizens, many of whom possess curious physical malformations, like electric blue pupils, chin-tentacles and forehead-noses. And yes, it’s definitely alarming just how insistent overseer Benjamin (Chris Parnell) is about the new visitors avoiding Level 12 of the vault. But if you’d grown up in an irradiated wasteland where food and water are hard to come by and then suddenly you’re presented with popcorn kernels — and a seemingly safe place to pop them — wouldn’t you think about it, too? 

That’s part of the beauty of this first season of “Fallout,” which, based on both the tremendous finale cliffhanger and prompt news of a second season renewal, was obviously meant to set up a longer story arc. As our main characters are now set to head further and further into the wasteland, we’ve been thoroughly introduced to the world’s factions and their motivations — some of which are complicated, but many of which are as simple as figuring out what they are going to eat for the day without having to rely on finding some RadAway. 

Paying attention to the food of “Fallout” only helps further establish the haves and have nots of this dystopia, while making us question who we’d be (and what we’d eat) if we were thrust into the wasteland. 

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For instance, in times of crisis, having the ability to feign normalcy is an immense privilege, and feigning normalcy just happens to be the specialty of the residents of Vault 33, Lucy’s home vault. They know that the world above them is absolute shambles, but they also think they are called towards something greater; the vault dwellers believe they are preparing for “Reclamation Day,” the moment when the residents of all 112 known vaults will return to the surface and rebuild America from its ashes, all while maintaining law and order. Or at least their version of it. 

The vault’s group values seem to fall somewhere on the spectrum between the scrappy patriotism of the World Wars and contemporary idealization of midcentury America, which is further reinforced by the food the vault dwellers produce and serve. For example, Vault 33 harvests corn and potatoes in a cavern designed to look like a family farm in Idaho or Illinois with set-decorations, fairy lights and video projections of crops swaying in the breeze (it’s endearing until the power is cut during a raid and the full Potemkin nature of the farm is revealed to viewers).

When they have something to celebrate, like Lucy’s ill-fated first episode wedding, it’s time for Jell-O cake, made with jiggly red, white and blue layers, topped with a plop of decadent whipped cream. And when Lucy’s brother asks a suspicious transplant from Vault 31 how the two bunkers differ, she provides the purposely bland and irritatingly evasive answer: “I guess the mashed potatoes were a little different.” 

The Vault dwellers’ diets, packed with sturdy Midwestern food and punctuated with the occasional pre-War treats, serve as a tremendous metaphor for how they view their reality, largely through the lens of nostalgia to avoid the harsh realities above. 

In the wasteland, however, there’s no time for nostalgia. Supermarkets are largely a thing of the past; the one grocery store Lucy comes across, the Super-Duper Mart near Santa Monica Boulevard, has been transformed into an organ-harvesting plant staffed by Snip Snip, a genteel robot voiced by Matthew Berry

Much like in the games, there’s a chance that much of what you forage and hunt has some level of radiation, and you can only consume so much before radiation poisoning completely takes over. Unless it’s in a can or a bottle, pretty much everything players eat is a calculated risk, something that was reflected in the series when Lucy finally has to drink irradiated water or risk severe dehydration. 

The second season of “Fallout” is rumored to come out in late 2025, which will further expand the world — and perhaps its culinary options? Regardless, there are no promises in the wasteland, so it’s best to pick up supplies when you can. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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