How do you begin to explain Chef Boyardee—his cultural significance, his canned pasta achievements—to a teenage girl born into a post-apocalyptic world? If The Last of Us is any indication, you can just let the ravioli speak for itself. Said teenage girl, Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey), is an orphan making her way across the country with a middle-aged smuggler named Joel (Pedro Pascal), and in the show’s most recent episode, the two stop to share, and bond over, some camping stove–cooked Chef Boyardee. Ellie offers an instant assessment: “That guy was good,” she says, definitively and without pausing from shoveling it into her mouth.
Joel, who was around to see both the great chef’s glory days and the collapse of civilization, had told Ellie a moment earlier that their meal came from a 20-year-old can. They had just foraged it from a secret supply station, and it was likely left over from the time before a fungus caused a catastrophic pandemic that would have seriously impacted the global food supply. The episode moved on from there, but viewers would be forgiven for letting that number nag at them: 20 years? Yeah, it’s the apocalypse, but surely that can’t be safe? And yet Ellie and Joel don’t appear to get sick or suffer any consequences from consuming the pasta. What gives?
There aren’t a whole lot of people in this world who can speak to the experience of eating canned food far past its “best by” date, but Kinton Connelly is one of them. He’s the founder of MREInfo.com, a website for enthusiasts of vintage military rations. MRE stands for “meals ready to eat,” and they’re the packaged meals given out to service members. For whatever reason, there are people who are really into eating very old versions of them, and they know a thing or two about how well they keep. (Check out the How to With John Wilson episode featuring MREs if you want to know more—it’s a trip.)
When I asked Connelly what he thought of that The Last of Us scene, he had a lot to say. MREs come in pouches now, but for most of the 20th century, they came in cans. “Canned food will last a long time,” Connelly told me. He didn’t think it was at all out of the question that canned pasta could last 20 years, if the can was undamaged.
“How it holds up, it kind of depends on the food,” Connelly said. “Things like canned fruit, you know, wet stuff like peaches and things like that, that doesn’t hold up so well. That stuff turns brown, and it’s not very appetizing. Things like the ravioli or the canned spaghetti, I think they’re still pretty good.”
Connelly cautioned that he’s not a food scientist or safety expert. But even the U.S. Department of Agriculture more or less agrees with him: As its website recently advised, “Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling).” Indefinitely as in forever? The website doesn’t say.
Unconvinced, I reached out to Conagra Brands, the company that owns Chef Boyardee, for any comment on whether you should be eating its 20-year-old ravioli, but it had not responded as of publication time.
Just as the USDA does, Connelly advised that before eating canned pasta, you should check that the can is not dented, bulging, leaking, or otherwise compromised. Then it’s on to the smell test. If it smells OK and looks OK, you might taste-test it. It’s a bad sign if your mouth starts to go numb, Connelly said—this is a sign of botulism, and it’s happened to members of the MRE community. (Go to the emergency room if you think you might have it.)
Connelly himself has eaten old ravioli and lived to tell the tale. “Back in year 2000, it was the whole Y2K thing,” he explained. “I went to the store and I bought a lot of canned food, canned spaghetti, ravioli, stuff like that. And I kept that for a long time, to the point where my wife would start getting mad at me, like, ‘What are you doing with all these old cans?’ So eventually, after probably 10 or 12 years, I did get rid of them. But before that, I gave them a try.”
The food in them was fine, he said, if a little metallic tasting. “It’s not going to be the most appetizing thing,” he said, but “I don’t think it’s going to kill you.” He told me he currently has some canned pasta in his garage that he bought about five years ago. Every few months, he tries one to make sure they’re still good, and so far, they are. (Partly, this is a practical matter: As a Florida resident, he said, he tries to stay prepared for hurricanes.)
In the world of The Last of Us, “they probably went through all the canned goods they could easily find in the first five years,” Connelly said. This would explain why Ellie had never encountered it before. But he even noticed an additional scene featuring canned food in Sunday’s episode, when the camera captured some cans of beef stew, peas, and corn in an attic where people had been hiding out. “Based on that scene, I’d say the producers of the show are establishing that 20-year-old canned food is a normal thing for people in that world,” he said—for some people, anyway.
Connelly said he could imagine a circumstance where food redolent of metal wouldn’t be an immediate red flag, though. “It doesn’t taste bad, it doesn’t taste spoiled, but there’s kind of a funny metallic taste,” he said. “At that point in my normal civilian life, I’m done eating it. But if that’s all I had, and I was starving, then I’m probably going to make that decision: ‘Well, I’d rather take a chance.’ It just comes down to ‘Hey, it might be good and I need to eat.’ If I eat it and I get sick, hopefully I’m not that sick. Eating it’s probably worth the chance.”
But he’s strictly speaking about the show here, in case you’re getting any ideas. “It’s definitely not worth the chance if you’re sitting around looking at your 20-year-old can thinking, ‘I wonder if I should eat this for lunch.’ ”