Summer camp bug juice, school cafeteria pizza, and dorm room ramen all pale before Antarctic “cuisine.”
Jason Anthony worked eight summers at the South Pole, in McMurdo, a community of up to 1,200 residents, most of whom work as carpenters, plumbers, and drivers supporting scientists. Anthony’s “mundane experience” is a departure from the adventurous tales of expeditioners, but a fascinating departure. There are good stories in trying to do common things, like cook, in extraordinary circumstances, like the Antarctic.
If it never occurred to you, Anthony points out there is no Antarctic terroir. The ice is three miles deep and there is no arable soil on the continent larger than China. This leaves two dining options. You can eat what you bring—dried and stored groceries and in extremis, your dogs. Or you can eat what you catch—sea birds, seals, and penguins.
In these tales of “hungry triumph, hungrier incompetence, and starving tragedy,” Anthony tells the stories of what he calls the heroic era of South Pole exploration and the less dramatic current age of nachos, sno-cats, and vacuum packed foie gras.
The book is named for one of the bleakest meals of the heroic age. Hoosh comes from the Tlingit hoochinoo, a word for both the local tribe and their liquor, and is pemmican porridge thickened with crushed biscuit. But, depending on an expedition’s country and captain, there could be gourmet variety to Antarctic dining. Shackleton packed chartreuse, champagne, and 28 tons of Spratt’s dog biscuits. At the French-Italian camp, Concordia, Christmas dinner included avocado with crabmeat and chocolate-coconut pie.
For those of us challenged by a weekly grocery list, Anthony’s description of planning Antarctic meals past and present is humbling. Facing extremes of time—the current provisioner has to plan two years in advance, temperature—just boiling water can become an epic experience, and ingredients—no forgiving runs to the grocery when you’ve forgotten something, expeditions require canny and relentless planning.
And it’s not surprising how important food becomes. Early explorers craved carbohydrates and a ration of biscuits was a day’s high point. When there was no biscuit, explorers passed time imaging how and what they would eat on return to temperate climes. Shakelton’s men looked forward to six meals a day, of green peas, peaches a la Melba, melon, Queen’s pudding, and saddle of mutton.
Even in contemporary camps, provisioned by helicopter and mass quantities of familiar, shelf stable foods, meals are a high point. Fresh baked bread is a treat to be savored, and field camps face down culinary tedium by creating their own dishes, like chicken flavored with used toothpaste!
As a result, the cook is a revered and honored member of the team. Adolf Lindstrom, the cook on Amundsen’s Fram expedition was beloved for his buckwheat hotcakes. He had to defrost the batter each morning. A good cook could keep the team physically and mentally healthy.
As unusual as Antarctic cooking conditions are, any cook will appreciate the picture of Thomas Clissold’s kitchen on Scott’s 1910-12 Terra Nova expedition. Every inch of space is used—cans are neatly stacked, tools at hand hanging on the walls, and crates repurposed into worktops. Any cook knows, getting the kitchen just right comes first. It certainly did for Clissold, who could then serve up seal galantine and skua gull stew.