Sunday, August 26, 2018

Seven Continents

Did you ever think about Antarctic cuisine? The other six continents each have quite a few cuisines, some well-known, some obscure. Lots of islands have their own cuisines as well. But how can Antarctica have a cuisine when there's no population that lives there for more than a brief tour of duty? No agriculture is possible there, as it's virtually 100% covered with snow. And there's hardly ever been a place where food, so essential for staying alive, was harder to get in adequate amounts. Or where the possibility of enjoying food was less likely.

It's not surprising that my collection of cookbooks and food books includes examples of cuisines from the other six continents but never before this week have I owned a book about food in Antarctica!

Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine (published in 2012) describes the food challenges of Antarctic life beginning with the explorers in the late 19th century, and continuing through the personal experiences of its author Jason C. Anthony from the 1990s until around 2002.

Early twentieth-century explorers attempting to reach the South Pole were very famous for their dangerous exploits -- heroes of their time. Anthony describes the extreme conditions under which these men traversed the continent. Note that when I say "men" that's because the first women to go on an expedition to Antarctica weren't included until 1947, and were highly unusual until American research stations of the late 20th century.

Throughout the history of Antarctic exploration and research, food rations were chosen for a high quantity of calories to the lowest possible carrying weight, as they or their sled dogs had to transport everything that was required. If you read Anthony's book, you'd better not be sentimental about animals, because they often ate these sled dogs when the dogs were no longer sufficiently useful. They also ate the cute, lovable penguins, the impressive large sea birds, the seals, the baby seals, and any other type of wild meat that came their way.

The early explorers carried pemmican (a compressed cake of meat, fat, and sometimes berries or vegetables), canned vegetables, biscuits -- fresh if they were lucky but usually in various frozen or stale states. Chocolate was available but never enough! The most common method of preparation of their rations, especially pemmican, was to thaw and then boil it into a kind of stew using a small portable stove that was often very inefficient. The result was known as hoosh. A wooden spoon was the best implement to eat with -- metal might become dangerously cold before you put it in your mouth. A scary place, Antarctica!

Extreme cases of scurvy, various types of severe malnutrition, and even death from starvation were frequent among early explorers. The air temperature and humidity are both incredibly low in the frigid climate and at the high altitude of the South Pole and much of the continent. Thus every exertion there requires a huge amount of energy. Moreover, cooking at the lowered boiling point (due to the altitude) is very slow and fuel-intensive. A century ago, it was extremely challenging to carry and then thaw and heat enough food to eat: and in that climate, it was always frozen! The usefully portable foods of the early explorers often lacked vitamin C, which prevents scurvy. (Vitamins are now available in powder form, so that's a solved problem).

Melting enough snow to cook with and to drink, and thus prevent dehydration, was also a serious challenge. Just breathing -- warming the air that comes into one's lungs -- requires a huge amount of energy and thus an even higher caloric intake.  The calorie needs of a man trekking across Antarctica and carrying the bare minimum of food and fuel for his needs requires "more energy per day than competing in the Tour de France." (p. 79)

Many of the early expeditions had a cook or even a chef, whose responsibility was to plan meals, cook under extremely difficult circumstances, and in some cases to distribute very scarce resources to desperate men. Sometimes this responsibility was rotated among the participants rather than being assigned to one person. Some of the chefs managed to produce memorably good food, others to create memorably terrible meals.

In the late 1950s, many countries cooperated in building elaborate and carefully supplied research stations in Antarctica. The author did a number of tours of duty as a support person during the summer season, and thus worked at several outposts both large and small. His descriptions of the kitchens, the cooks, the government contracts for food, and the supply methods are very interesting, as are the meals he remembered.

Anthony also discusses a new challenge to expedition planners: garbage disposal. Up until the 1990s the expeditions just left trash -- including disabled vehicles -- and food garbage on the edge of the ice shelf, so that it could fall in the ocean when the ice broke off. This was creating an intolerable mess, so very elaborate means of containerizing and shipping out the refuse were devised. One of the most amusing passages of the book describes the semi-accidental dumping on the snow of a huge quantity of spoiled chickens, which were set upon by huge flocks of carrion-eating skuas. These large sea birds grabbed what they could and fought over it, thus dropping rotten chicken over much of the settlement, to everyone's disgust.

In the appendix to Hoosh are recipes -- "Savory Seal Brains on Toast," "Jugged Shag," (shag is the British term, Americans call them cormorants), "Escallops of Penguin Breasts," expedition biscuits from the 1922 Amundsen-Scott expedition, and several others (p. 253 ff). Except for the biscuits, these are only imaginary recipes as it's no longer legal to hunt or eat the wild animals of the Antarctic. For the modern reader, these dishes are as much a fantasy as the imaginings of the starving men who dreamed about favorite and unavailable foods (as do many victims in starvation situations).

Admiral Richard Byrd (1888-1957) for example was forced by circumstances to spend months in a solitary hut with only canned and packaged food: "Having dined at 'a thousand banquets,' he imagined lobster thermidor and 'squabs perched on triangles of toast,' but ate burnt flapjacks instead." After months of isolation, Byrd was rescued from his sordid circumstances, but was "emaciated, hollow-cheeked, weak and haggard." (p. 104-105)

Even in the modern, very-well-supplied research stations, workers could grow tired of the food, especially the lack of what they called "freshies." For example, a worker named Jim in 1982:
"Jim and his friends continued the Antarctic tradition of fantasizing about better food: 'With the remains of a leathery steak and powdered mashed potatoes on our trays, we'd talk about what fresh food we missed the most.' Jim imagined sitting down with a whole watermelon for himself, 'scooping out spoonful after spoonful of the sweet, juicy meat. Or I'd describe the sensation of biting into a plump ripe peach and having the juice run down my chin.'" (p. 150)

Here: a few of my food books about the cuisines of Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, South America, and Australia.
Maybe a martian foodie would view Europe as having just one cuisine, but I don't really have any books that do so.
I picked Six Thousand Years of Bread as the closest choice for one European cuisine. I have very few African food books.
And I selected books on the native cuisines of North America and Australia to indicate my issues in classifying cuisines.
Author Rachel Lauden, on her fascinating blog "A Historian's Take on Food and Food Politics" recently offered a working definition of a cuisine. Requirements for what is a cuisine, which are expanded in her post, include "a unifying culinary philosophy," "a preferred set of dishes, meals, and ways of eating," and "a supporting system of preparing and processing raw materials, agriculture, and distribution." The food consumed in the tents, in the huts, or under the overturned lifeboats providing makeshift shelters to early explorers, or the air-dropped food in the modern military-style outposts of more modern scientific expeditions satisfies none of these criteria.

To quote the review of Hoosh published in 2012 in the New York Times, which illustrates how many different cuisines have contributed to the food consumed in Antarctica:
"Anthony, who spent eight recent seasons with the United States Antarctic Program, also furnishes us with some delicious stereotypes — the pragmatic, rightfully smug Norwegians, who usually got everywhere first, and in better shape, with enough surplus food to throw a feast; the pigheaded, tragically patriotic Brits, especially Scott, who arrived at the pole only to find that Amundsen had beaten him, and whose entire party starved to death on the return trip; the larky Yanks, who, at Prohibition-era Little America, concocted a brew of medicinal alcohol with anti-scurvy meds, which they christened 'Blowtorch.' And of course the French, whose chef on a 1903 expedition managed to bake 'bread three times a week and perfect croissants on Friday and Sunday' — and whip up a mean crème brûlée out of cormorant eggs. Predictably, the French refused to die hungry." (source)


bermudaonion said...

I'm glad those recipes are imaginary because I wouldn't want to eat any of them. I bet that book is fascinating.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

How interesting. I had never even thought of the challenges of those people exploring the north pole....perhaps I thought Santa would share his cookies and candy canes LOL....It was completely off my radar until you wrote this review.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I love it that you now have cookbooks from all seven continents. Now...the moon?

Mae Travels said...

@Wendy -- Actually, Antarctica is the southern continent, at the South Pole. Santa lives at the North Pole, which is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. I'm sure his life is just as hard as the explorers' life at the South Pole, as it's also dark and very cold for half the year, but luckily Santa also has magic to help him, as well as reindeer and maybe polar bears. The poor South Pole adventurers never found anyone to give them cookies -- unless they brought along all the ingredients, the oven, and the fuel too.

Jeanie said...

I like seeing that part of your cookbook collection. Fascinating post and the book sounds wonderful -- but what really got me was the whole concept of disposal at the South Pole stations. That's a dilemma. Loads of richness in this post...

Pam said...

And yet another reason why I hate winter!!! No I have never thought about Antarctic cuisine and plan to quickly forget what I just read (☺) because I'm sentimental about animals, except for beef cattle, chickens and hogs. Those poor penguins and seals, the baby seals have so many problems, but that's life and survival of the fittest. In order to survive, I'm sure I would eat anything I could get ahold of. Guess they didn't have any coffee, that would be horrible!!!
I love that you have such a wide variety of cookbooks, I thought I did until I saw this post. And you write so well, surely you must be a published author!!! I have read many of the books you mention from time to time, but I think I'll pass on this one...
Thanks for the informative, interesting post, Mae!
As for the garbage disposal, I recently viewed a documentary about it on the history channel. What a mess with the huge pile of floating trash between CA and Hawaii, with most of it coming supposedly from South America and around the Pacific rim.
In my way of thinking, the French get it and know what's important!!!
Great post, Mae!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

What an interesting post Mae, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As others have mentioned, I've never thought about what the explorers were faced with when it came to food.

Beth F said...

Fun to have books from around the world.

Deb in Hawaii said...

What an interesting book! I remember being both fascinated and scared by scurvy as a child after reading about it in history books. It definitely made me eat my citrus fruit. ;-)

Claudia said...

Very interesting review Mae, but to answer your leading question - no, I've never wondered at all about the "cuisine" of Antarctica. My question is, also for those who climb the Matterhorn, Why? Only a masochist perhaps. What was the title's origin?