Thursday, November 29, 2012

Eat before it gets cold: A new book about Antarctic cuisine satisfies foodies and historians alike

Published in the Portland Phoenix

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.
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 foodafter 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
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.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Getting Results: Who won? We did

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We did it. The progressive, thinking, socially minded, involved people — people like you, the readers of the Portland Phoenix — won the election. For years, we've been talking about marriage equality, about preventing religious ideologues from getting between women and their doctors (and pharmacists), about the fact that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, that we are all on this Earth together, that "I've got mine" is a terrible philosophy dividing and destroying us rather than freeing us to some self-powered higher achievement.
We knew, when we heard the speeches, that Obama was right — nobody who built a business in this country did so without the help of roads and schools and firefighters and police officers. (Not to mention the government-insured bank accounts that let all of us stash our earnings safely.)
We agreed with Massachusetts US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren when she declared during her campaign, "You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
We knew it was wrong for Governor Paul LePage and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature to cut off state-subsidized health-care coverage for thousands of young poor Mainers.
We knew Mitt Romney's claim that the government shouldn't pick "winners and losers" in the business world was misguided because he failed to mention the federal tax policies that picked him and his investor-class ilk to become incredible winners, at the expense of all us workaday losers out here.
We know climate change is happening — and we've already taken our own action to slow its progress. We know it is wrong to throw out immigrants who are trying to help us make this country better. We know handing senior citizens coupons toward private health insurance isn't a way to guarantee a human right.
So while conservative pundits, misogynists, homophobes, racists, and corporate raiders lick their wounds and re-evaluate how they got everything so wrong, we — the Portland Phoenix and our readers — can take heart. After years of being made to think we were the minority, the underclass, the un-privileged, those who lack support, we can now take comfort in the fact that the people of Maine, and the American public at large, have our backs.
On November 7, we woke up in our world. Even Bill O'Reilly admitted on Fox News on election night, "It's not a traditional America anymore." He was referring to demographic change, but his statement has a much wider truth: "Traditional America" isn't what a lot of people thought it was.
Joel Benenson, Obama's chief pollster in 2008 and 2012, wrote a post-election piece in the New York Times, describing the "set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in: A nation that makes the investments we need to strengthen and grow the middle class. A nation with a fair tax system, and affordable and excellent education for all its citizens. A nation that believes that we're most prosperous when we recognize that we are all in it together."
We knew it — and we've been saying it — all along.

Press Releases: False Equivalency

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Lots of ink has been spilled over Nate Silver and his uncannily accurate statistical predictions of how the presidential race turned out. We need not repeat the hagiography here.
We also need not delve deeply into the repetition of the mainstream media's reporting of the hand-wringing and finger-pointing now under way in conservative circles, including the media branch of the right wing, Fox News.
What's being overlooked in Silver's results — and the results of the election itself — is the power of the conservative media over the rest of the mainstream media (and the mainstream's utter abandonment of truth-seeking in favor of he-said-she-said coverage).
After all, national media outlets had access to all the data Silver did — the polling results and the history of how well those polls predicted past elections. Heck, the national media had access to Silver's actual analysis of it, which was posted publicly on the New York Times website.
And yet, while over the course of weeks and months every measure Silver used consistently showed Obama ahead of Romney, the mainstream media continued to paint the race as tight. It plain wasn't.
Since June, Silver's predictions showed Obama always winning more than 283 electoral votes, and Romney never winning more than 255. (Winning takes 270.)
The low point for Obama was on October 12, when he had 61.1 percent chance of winning, and Romney had 38.9 percent.
That same day was the only day Silver's model predicted that Obama would get less than half the popular vote — 49.8 percent, to Romney's 49.1 percent. On October 11 and on October 14, Obama was at 50 percent. (Silver didn't do a prediction on October 13.) And every other day, Obama was predicted to get more than 50 percent of the popular vote; Romney hadn't previously — and wouldn't again — registered over 49 percent.
What made the mainstream media portray this race as close, then? The principle of false equivalency.
This is the same problem that plagued climate-change reporting for years. One side said climate change was a looming emergency; another side questioned whether it was happening at all. And the reporters and editors doing the stories put their hands up and said things like, "We report. You decide."
Except they didn't report. Not really. They didn't seek truth about the topics they were discussing. They didn't, for example, until very late in the game, begin even talking about Nate Silver — and then, often only to ask him if he even knew what he was doing (and why his results were just so partisan).
This is false equivalency. Nate says one thing; Karl says another. "We report. You decide." So the race appears close because Thing 1 and Thing 2 say differing things, rather than because the facts support a claim that it's close.
This sort of thing is more of a problem when talking about climate change. (It is happening; I've personally seen it, and evidence is all around us.) For years, reporters sought out people who said things that might be interesting, and did not concern themselves with determining who, if anyone, was speaking actual objective truth.
It's common to blame this on lazy reporters; the truth is elsewhere. The reporters are not lazy but in fact, in a downsized, pay-cutting media landscape, running their asses off. They're so overworked they lack the time to research, question, examine, and think for themselves. That's why you thought Romney might still win; and that's why major action on climate change is not happening.
ALSO OF NOTE The Nieman Media Lab piece by Ken Doctor observing the striking similarities between the losing Republican Party and the dwindling American daily newspaper. (Think of the target audience: old, white, male.) Very well worth reading for anyone who is thinking about what else this election might mean for the vaunted American news industry.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Laurels: Honored for torture exposé, Tapley points out more work to be done

Published in the Portland Phoenix

At an October 26 event attended by five previous awardees and nearly 30 others, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine presented Portland Phoenix writer Lance Tapley with its 2012 Roger Baldwin Award, recognizing his nearly 100 stories over seven years exposing solitary confinement and other torture of inmates in Maine's prison system.
According to ACLU of Maine executive director Shenna Bellows, Tapley's reporting, which began in 2005, prompted the ACLU of Maine to decide to focus on prisoner treatment (specifically the elimination of solitary confinement), an issue on which the civil-rights organization has led pressure for reform both nationally and in the state. Bellows also told the assembled group that the ACLU's interest — and threat of impending legal action — was key in pressuring new Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to undertake sweeping reforms that have significantly reduced the use of solitary confinement, both in terms of prisoner numbers and duration of their stays.
Though solitary confinement has not yet been eradicated in Maine, the ACLU of Maine credits Tapley (and the Portland Phoenix) with having inspired the effort and kept media pressure on, while activists and lobbyists attacked the problem from other angles.
Both Bellows and ACLU of Maine board president John Paterson described Tapley's work as "exemplary journalism" and "rare" evidence of a commitment of a journalist and a media organization working over many years, despite many obstacles, to seek truth and right wrongs.
Tapley, for his part, thanked his wife, Peggy, and many supporters, but took most of his time to highlight another example of torture in the corrections system. He read from a disturbing letter he received from an inmate recently returned to Maine from out of state, describing abhorrent, cruel, traumatic, mentally damaging, and life-threatening treatment during the multi-week trip across the country in a privately owned prisoner-transport van.
As ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said during the event, if all ACLU offices and staffers nationwide could stop everything they're doing and focus solely on prison-related issues, they would have enough work to keep themselves busy for a very long time.
Tapley ended his remarks about the abuses encounters in prisoner transportation by saying, "It needs to stop. If you'd like to help, let me know."
Bellows responded, as she took the lectern, "Emphatically, yes."