Weird Food Through the Ages of Antarctic Exploration

Posted on: January 28th, 2010 Posted by

From the end of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th was the time of the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’. This is shorthand for describing a bunch of utterly mental stiff-upper lip types from the four corners of the world who were adept at funding, getting in scrapes and, but not always, getting out of scrapes, in the white wilderness of the Antarctic.

The Nimrod Expedition. As they were taking pictures, this must have been what passed for a good day.

Some of these names have been added to the canon of great explorers: Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton. There were, however, many others not so famous who gave their lives in pursuit of the South Pole and other noble endeavours. Seventeen men are recorded as losing their lives during the Heroic Age, a not insubstantial figure when the average expedition party numbered less than a dozen. Let’s see what some of them died of:

  • Edgar Evans: starvation and cold;
  • Lawrence Oates: starvation and cold;
  • Robert Falcon Scott: starvation and cold;
  • Edward Wilson: starvation and cold;
  • Henry Bowers: starvation and cold;
  • Xavier Mertz: food poisoning;
  • Arnold Spencer-Smith: scurvy and cold.

Of the seventeen who perished, nearly half of the men died as a result of malnutrition or contaminated food. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest place on the entire planet. It is depicted by many wildlife shows and popular culture in general as being a place abundant in animal life. The truth is very different. There are no land-based animals on the continent (Penguins and Seals are classed as water-dwelling) bigger than an insect, the biggest of these being a flightless midge a massive 12 mm in size. Despite, or because of this, the killing of any animals on Antarctica, or the introduction of new species to the continent, is illegal.

In short, this means the only food to be found on an Antarctic expedition is whatever you have with you. At the beginning of the last century, the rules were a little bit different. They had to be ruthless, sometimes for the sake of convenience, mostly through necessity.
Provisions were taken with Antarctic parties to stave off starvation on board ship. Two of the most famous were Pemmican and Sledging Biscuits. Pemmican was invented by the Hudson Bay Company and based on traditional Native American Indian recipes. Its basic ingredients are pounded, dry beef compacted with beef fat, providing half of the daily dose of calories required by the average Antarctic explorer. The main advantage of Pemmican was its ability to stay unspoilt for many years in poor conditions, and with the introduction of some melted snow it became a tasty broth. Sledging Biscuits are perhaps the most boring foodstuff known to man. These thick, chunky biscuits are most notable for their ability to last so long some are actually being auctioned off for thousands of pounds as artifacts from expeditions that took place, in some cases, over a century ago.

It seems that the intrepid details had enough to get by on, yet provisions were an illusion of security in expeditions which were often planned with a view to returning home by the skin of one’s teeth. On one of Robert Falcon Scott’s expeditions, dogs and ponies were taken along to drag sledges, with the plan being the ponies would be shot for food when rations ran short. This type of exploration is far removed from today’s sanitised trips where, though ever-present danger remains, food is no longer a concern.

So, what happened when the food ran out? Below are two tales of culinary woe featuring Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous explorers who ever lived. Perhaps the reason why the Antarctic explorers hold such fascination for many even a hundred years on is the sense that they skirted the edge of sanity in their quest for discovery.

Shackleton, a.k.a. Shack, a.k.a. Badass Explorer.

The Nimrod Expedition 1907 – 1909

The first of Ernest Shackleton’s infamous trips, the Nimrod Expedition, resulted in near-starvation for one of the parties attempting to reach the South Pole. At one point, the three men heading for the magnetic pole (Shackleton was heading for the true pole) ran so low on food that they resorted to a single biscuit each for breakfast and dinner. Even the crumbs were consumed feverishly, and to ensure no argument broke out over who got the biggest share, the cook would point to each in turn while the others had their backs turned, shouting ‘Whose?’ By this method the peace was kept. Edgeworth David, the oldest and leader of the group, wrote, ‘We could discuss nothing but the different dishes with which we had been regaled in our former lifetime at various famous restaurants and hotels.’ Shackleton himself, having been afflicted with illness after eating tainted pony meat, wrote, ‘We are so thin that our bones ache as we lie on the hard snow.’ Nevertheless, the men returned from their journey, albeit without reaching the South Pole.

There may be trouble ahead…

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (The ‘Endurance Expedition’) 1914 – 1917

Clearly up for more hardship, Shackleton mounted what became the Apollo 13 of Antarctic expeditions. Initially mounted as an attempt to become the first to cross the entire continent of Antarctica, the expedition suffered a severe disaster when its ship was crushed by the Antarctic ice, sinking it. After a series of abortive attempts to march to safety, Shackleton ordered the setting of camp, a place which came to be known as ‘Patience Camp’, which would be home to the expedition for three freezing months. During this time, as rations ran low, the team subsisted on seal meat before shooting their own dogs – the pooches were consuming too much seal meat and brought welcome variety to the crew’s diet. After an astonishing 800-mile journey in an open boat to get help, Shackleton’s crew returned, three years after setting out, and undoubtedly in dire need of a steak. It took another four decades before a successful crossing of the Antarctic continent was achieved by the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – testament to Shackleton’s ambition and how totally bonkers he was.

The Best Foods For Fighting the Cold

Posted on: January 21st, 2010 Posted by

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the last week or more trying to keep dry and warm in my house. It’s been so wet and windy that draughts are finding their way in through every nook and cranny and the damp atmosphere just pervades the place.

Apart from the obvious of turning up the heating or lighting a log fire, what else can you do to keep warm and fight off the inevitable colds and coughs at this time of year? The answer is in the food you eat.

Having hot meals and drinks is obviously going to warm you from the inside, but it goes further than that. Some foods can actually help you increase your immune system and ward off those nasty bugs before they take a hold.

Warning: must be in juice form before consumption.

First of all, to keep colds themselves at bay, make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamin C – an orange juice or half a grapefruit in the morning, for example. It’s not just citrus fruits that contain the vitamin either – potatoes, green peppers, and pineapples are also good sources. If you smoke it increases your risk of catching colds so increasing your vitamin C intake will help counteract this. Better still – quit smoking altogether!

They say feed a cold, starve a fever, and one of the best ways of feeding a cold is with chicken soup. This is the ultimate comfort food and is packed with goodness. Make one up laced with plenty of vegetables such as onions, parsnips and carrots. Add a clove of garlic as well. This not only helps keep colds at bay but acts as a decongestant. If you’re vegetarian, make a good vegetable soup with as many different types as you like.

Warning: must be in soup form before consumption.

Hot and spicy food is good, not just for warming you inside but for fighting off infections. Garlic, horseradish and chilli all help ease congestion if you’re under the weather, so make yourself a potent curry or chilli. Pasta with tomato sauce and plenty of garlic is an easy dish to prepare if you’re short of time or just don’t feel like doing much cooking.

Drink lots of fluids, particularly water and pure fruit juices. Chamomile tea, ginger tea and other herbal teas are beneficial. Even just hot water with a slice of lemon is good, though I confess that in the evening I find a glass of sloe gin or ginger wine is very warming and feels right at this time of year. Keep warm!

Most of us have spent a night, or a week, or if you’re a student, several years in a house with no heating. These structures are remarkable, turning the freezing cold weather outside into an almost unbearable tormenting ice prison inside. I have spent many a day in the house with no heating (in fact, I’m typing this with fingers that feel like 10 sticks of Captain Birdseye’s best breaded fish) and am now, after several hundred failed attempts, fully qualified in providing eight solid gold tips on how to keep your knackers freezing off during the yuletide months and beyond.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Most Inappropriate Food for a Self-Catering Holiday

Posted on: January 7th, 2010 Posted by

With the recession biting, many more of us are likely to be considering a self-catering holiday. If finances are particularly tight you may be considering a camping holiday or a caravan holiday, either aboard or in the UK. If your budget is a bit larger you may be considering renting a self-catering cottage or apartment, again either aboard or in the UK. When packing for a self-catering holiday you have to decide which items of food you want to take with you and what you will be able to buy when you arrive at your destination. This of course will depend on what type of holiday you are taking, where your destination is and what time you will be arriving. Even if you are staying in the UK, if you are a little bit off the beaten track and you arrive after the local shops have closed you will need to have some essential food items with you. These may include tea bags for making tea, ingredients for making a quick evening meal and cereals and bread for breakfast.

Read the rest of this entry »