As you nurse your post-Thanksgiving food coma back to normality, spare a thought for the men and women in Antarctica this holiday season. They're warm, well-fed, and happy (if really far from family) — but it wasn't always this way.
STAYING WARM AND WELL FED Jason C. Anthony, on the Ice.
Maine author Jason Anthony explains in Hoosh (named for a half-fat, half-meat staple of Heroic Age expeditions) that "Antarctic culinary history is a mere century of stories of isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sealife." He describes "Antarctica's sad state of culinary affairs" as a set of circumstances where "Cold, isolation, and a lack of worldly alternatives have conspired to make Antarctica's captive inhabitants desperate for generally lousy food."
That wry sense of humor pervades the book, based in part on his eight summers in Antarctica. It begins with the mystical appearance of several loaves of fresh sourdough bread (a delicacy, I can attest from my own time on the Ice, that is of incalculable value) as Anthony prepares for a deep field expedition, with him and one other person (as it happened, a direct descendant of an early Antarctic expeditioner) slated to spend 90 to 100 days alone on a glacier, clearing and maintaining an emergency landing strip in case of bad weather at the main US base, McMurdo Station.
Beyond his own experience, Anthony's knowledge and research is deep, detailing the role of food in historic expeditions both well known (see sidebar) and not, including Japanese and Scottish efforts that have rarely been noticed. He also reviews the mid-20th-century adventures of Byrd, Ellsworth, Ronne, and others. Viewing each expedition through the lens of food offers great insight into the people who were really the most important members of those groups: not the leaders whose names we know well, but the cooks, about whom the public knows next to nothing.
Important for its food writing, Anthony's book is mainly significant because it is just the third volume detailing the modern, corporate, dystopic American Antarctic experience — after Jim Mastro's 2002 Antarctica and Nicholas Johnson's 2005 Big Dead Place. (Disclosure: I was on the Ice at the same time as both Anthony and Johnson, though I didn't know them well.)And indeed where Anthony's voice truly comes into its own is in writing about modernity, with the spirited air of one who has eaten well in these hard places. He clearly appreciates the effort and expense required — while also marveling at the obscenity and ridiculousness of choosing to serve scallops in a tent.
He adds anecdotal flavors from others: chef-bloggers Sally Ayotte and Michèle Gentille as well as modern Ice legends like Mastro, Karen Joyce, and Jules Uberuaga. They tell of a midwinter air-drop pizza delivery from New Zealand, the fate of fuel-contaminated hot-chocolate mix accidentally diverted from its path to the trash, and the Food Room in McMurdo — where the bland, mass-produced base food stands aside for the wonder of field-camp rations (not just scallops, but halibut steaks, and chile rellenos, and much more).
It's a comprehensive account; Anthony reports a great deal of information the US government prefers remain not widely published — including what happens to the food after it is consumed, highlighting the decades-long trash-disposal methods and non-treatment of sewage at McMurdo. He rightly observes that many of these practices have been rectified, but when you learn about how blasting for a new building spawned a major remediation project (at a location promptly named Sausage Point), the full picture of human impact on an allegedly pristine continent becomes apparent.
And yes, you'll also find out what roast penguin tastes like. But that's in the history books. In Hoosh the best things are the tastes (and fuel-tinged smells) you'll find of life in Antarctica today. Touching a particular nerve for me is an accurate description of the otherworldly texture and flavor of Antarctic toothfish, Dissostichus mawsoni, served by the McMurdo chefs on special occasions. The men and women on the Ice enjoyed it at Thanksgiving, and are already looking forward to it for Christmas.
HOOSH: ROAST PENGUIN, SCURVY DAY, AND OTHER STORIES OF ANTARCTIC CUISINE | by Jason C. Anthony | University of Nebraska Press | 186 pages | $26.95 | Anthony reads from HOOSH and speaks November 29 @ 7 pm | Longfellow Books, One Monument Way, Portland | Free | 207.772.4045