Tastes of history: The role of food in legendary polar tales
Among the joys of Jason Anthony's work for those who have know a bit of Antarctic history is his seasoning of the book with tasty nuggets of detail about stories we've all heard and think we know well. Here are a few morsels to whet your appetite:
• WE KNOW The Winter Journey from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier (1911) was the "Worst Journey in the World," as described in the famous book of that title by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. WE LEARN It was also a food experiment, in which each of the three men had a diet primarily of protein, fat, or carbohydrates — which deepened their suffering, because what was needed was a balance of the three.
• WE KNOW Six men, attached to Robert Scott's expedition trying to win the race to the South Pole, were sent to explore the coast of Victoria Land; conditions prevented them from returning to the base and they were forced to winter (1912) in an cramped ice cave where they slept, ate, defecated, and breathed air contaminated by the smoke of their only fuel: seal blubber. WE LEARN All six men were so hungry that even in their sleep they dreamed of huge feasts spread before them. Five of the men always woke up before they were able to taste even a bit. They were extremely jealous of George Murray Levick, the only one of the group who was able to eat his fill — though only in his dreams.
• WE KNOW Douglas Mawson was the lone survivor of a three-man overland journey to map King George V Land (1912-13); after a crevasse took most of their supplies and team member Belgrave Ninnis, Mawson and Xavier Mertz continued, until Mertz died of poisoning from eating dog livers as part of their survival rations. WE LEARN After Mertz's death, Mawson fell in a crevasse and was preparing to die, when he decided that he had spent so much energy safeguarding what little food remained (barely enough to stave off starvation) that he could not die and thereby allow it to go uneaten. He pulled himself out of the crevasse and made it back to safety.
• WE KNOW After losing lost their ship Endurance to the ice, Ernest Shackleton and his men made an over-ice and open-boat journey (1915-16), finding solid ground at Elephant Island. WE LEARN One recipe book made it to Elephant Island, and "from it each night one — only one — recipe was read aloud, like a passage from the Bible."
• WE KNOW Shackleton and five men took an open lifeboat across the stormy South Atlantic Ocean, traveling 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia, navigating by sextant (1916). WE LEARN They cooked in the bottom of the boat; two men braced their backs against the hull, and held the cooker between their feet, with one man tasked with lifting the pot off the flame whenever the boat hit a big wave.
• WE KNOW Shackleton and two of those five men traversed unmapped mountain territory to cross South Georgia to find a whaling station and safety (1916). WE LEARN When they arrived, they were fed "cake, bread, scones, jam, and coffee."
• WE KNOW Commander Richard E. Byrd and three other men make the first flight to the South Pole, but barely clear a key mountain pass because their Ford TriMotor is too heavy (1929). They have to throw cargo out of the plane to gain altitude. WE LEARN Byrd, worried about the potential for a crash, had brought two 125-pound bags of emergency rations. That was the cargo pitched overboard.
• WE KNOW Byrd, alone at a weather station in the Antarctic interior for five months, got carbon monoxide poisoning from his heater and stove, and went quite mad (1934). WE LEARN He had trouble cooking pancakes and was able, by radio connection, to seek advice from the chef at New York City's Waldorf Hotel. (The advice was "butter the pan," which Byrd was already doing.)