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.)