Portland’s Atomic Age Food Carts and World War Three!

Food Carts Portland

(Note: Today Food Carts Portland has a special guest post by our friend Doug Kenck-Crispin from the always fun, smart, and educational, Kick Ass Oregon History. If you are interested in some lesser known, offbeat, and sometimes just plain weird Oregon history, Doug is your go-to guy…)

A Red Cross Portland "Food Cart" during WWII.

A Red Cross Portland “Food Cart” during WWII.

Portlanders have always loved their food cart culture, and it seems as if no insurmountable obstacles could keep their stomachs from being filled with this mobile haute cuisine created on a portable cooking apparatus – not even a global thermonuclear war…

It was the 1950s. The Cold War was very much a thing. And an “all in” nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed inevitable and catastrophic, but in a very real sense, also winnable. WORP and Matthew Broderick hadn’t yet discovered that in the game of Global Thermonuclear War, the only winning move is not to play. And Portland bought into this The Day After scenario 100% (sorry for the multitude of Gen X references).

The City of Roses didn’t possess massive underground bunkers for Portlanders to flee the apocalypse, to just sit in a troglodytic environment and craft by candle light. No, the Civil Defense plan for Portland was pretty simple and very straight forward. Get .The Fuck. Out. Fast! Have as many people as possibly leave Portland in a prompt and prescribed fashion, and save a bunch of lives in the process. Remember The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog? That’s right – Run Away! Jack Lowe, Portland’s Director of Disaster Relief and Civil Defense, broke the carnage down into monstrous numbers that illustrated efficiency and cold-hearted calculations

“If we have time to reduce the daytime population pattern of the downtown area to the same as normal nighttime, we will save 100,000 lives.”

So where would all the Bridgetowners go? To the burbs, Baby! As Civil Defense Guru Jack Lowe stated,

“All we have to do is get out. But the cities and counties surrounding us would have the burden of taking care of the whole population for an indefinite period.”

Sounds enticing to those who live outside of Portland, no?

And the magnitude of refugees from a successful evacuation of our fair city would have been staggering too. “Reception areas,” as they were termed, but “refugee camps” seems more appropriate of a term. Suburban communities around Portland were designated to host tens of thousands of refugees. 46,000 would relocate to Canby, 64,000 each at Estacada and Molalla and 54,000 to Forest Grove, and so on, and so on. These city slicker, high falootin’ refuges would then eventually be fanned out over the rural areas of Oregon in what a reporter termed,

“in effect, a statewide return to the land movement.”

Refugees have to be fed, or at least the refugees hope so. And something akin to an Atomic Age Food Cart came to 1957 Portland’s rescue! In preparation of the fire and brimstone event, a dozen charming P-Town women attended a Red Cross and Civil Defense course on emergency mass feeding, and tried their skills one June day. Helpful Boy Scouts built them an outdoor stove from rubble brick, clay and straw. A galvanized garbage can was built into it for an oven, and the lid served as the oven door. 40 people from the CD training center were fed what was called an “austerity meal,” and allowed their choice of pickled beets, tossed salad, bread and butter, scalloped potatoes with ham, a casserole of baked beans and wieners, chocolate pudding, milk, coffee and lemonade. (Certainly appalling to you Portland foodies; but don’t worry – our civil defense plan for the Teens surely contains bahn mi and truffled fries.)

And how about a hoppy, crisp IPA to wash away your refugee sorrows, as you huddle in the rubble with your hair falling out and puking up your teeth? Pacific Northwest Breweries were to help out during a 1950s post-nuclear world, too. In an apparently resounding humanitarian move, these macrobreweries were to stop structuring the suds, and can water instead! Seven breweries in the area agreed to can water from their own water supplies and rush it to the mass care centers on brewery and other distributors trucks. The industry offered that its local breweries could can or bottle a staggering 35,000 gallons of water an hour. In addition, the brewers agreed that soup or stew could be made in the giant mash kettles – 106,000 gallons of it! The scene is almost romantic – clutching a lukewarm, 12 oz. bottle of Henry Weinhard’s Mystery Meat Stew, as you huddle around some burning pallets in the Molalla refugee center, the fiery silhouette of Former Portland glowing in the background…

Cause in the end, even in Armageddon, maybe even especially in Armageddon, Portlanders gotta eat…



Doug Kenck-Crispin is the Ribald Resident Historian from www.orhistory.com. He researches, writes and co-produces the bi-weekly podcast series Kick Ass Oregon History, recently featured in The Oregonian, Portland Mercury and Portland Monthly. He has a BA in History, and is nearing completion of his MA in Public History, with an emphasis on the History of the Pacific Northwest (Portland State University). A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Doug enjoys a good yarn — the more outlandish and unseemly the better — especially when they are true! For more information on Civil Defense in Portland, check out the Kick Ass Oregon History podcasts on the subject, part one and part two.


  • “Civil Defense Director Bares Plans For Evacuation in Event of Attack,” The Oregonian, 5/12/1954, pg. 12.
  • “Order for Evacuation Stirs Activity at OCD Station,” The Oregonian, 6/16/1955, pg. 10.
  • “C.D. Cooks Try Meal,” The Oregonian, 6/9/1957, pg. 52.

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