If the icy blast of polar air that’s descended upon much of the U.S. over the last couple of days has you reaching for the cookie jar for comfort — and ready to give up on those New Year’s resolutions — then seriously? It’s time to toughen up. Just think: At least you’re not in the Antarctic.
That polar vortex putting the deep freeze on America comes from the Arctic, but the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth — minus 117 Fahrenheit — was actually at the other end of the world. Even so, Antarctica’s vast, frozen, barren landscape has beckoned scholars and adventurers alike for more than a century. And one thing we’ve learned from them is: When life is stripped down to man versus the most brutal elements, bring plenty of snacks.
Indeed, the history of exploration on the continent is as much about hunger as heroism, as Jason Anthony explores in his book Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine.
“Hunger,” Anthony writes, “was the one spice every expedition carried.”
Think those aboard that Russian research vessel and Chinese icebreaker that just spent several days stuck in the Antarctic ice had it rough? The ordeal pales compared to the legend of what British explorer Ernest Shackleton went through.
In 1914, on his way to try to cross the continent (he never made it), Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, got trapped by ice — then crushed — in the Weddell Sea. So there he was, 1,000 miles from the nearest humans, with no way to call for help, stranded on the ice with his 28-man crew for about a year. It was nearly another year before all were rescued.
Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer, wrote of men “crazed by their privations.” Their waking and sleeping hours filled with dreams of food — especially dumplings and other carbohydrates.
In the meantime, they survived on tinned goods they’d brought with them and plenty of hoosh — “the bleak Antarctic soup,” as Anthony calls it, “of meat and snow.”
The meat in question was often seal or penguin — thousands of the animals gave their lives to feed the ambitions of those early continental explorers. And not all were gorged and slaughtered without qualms. Carl Skottsberg, a botanist on an early 1900s Swedish expedition that hungrily ransacked the newly laid eggs of Adelie penguins, seemed to be warding off critics when he wrote: “How many of my readers know what it means to lie in cold, and darkness, and hunger, week after week?”
But it was all a sort of cruel survival math. Even today, it takes roughly 5,000-plus calories a day to feed a person doing outdoor work, Dr. Gavin Francis, who spent a year as the medical officer at the British Antarctic Survey’s remote Halley Research Station, tells me. (He chronicles his time there in Empire Antarctica, a lyrical meditation on the continent.)
Those involved in manhauling — i.e., pulling sleds across the ice and snow with their bodies — need more like 6,500 calories a day. (Those of us shivering back home stateside may also be tempted to munch more right about now — some say for evolutionary reasons — but we don’t have the same excuse to chow down.)
The mix of calories matters, too: Ironically, before British explorer Robert F. Scott famously starved and froze to death on his way back from the South Pole, his party conducted a study that suggested a high-carb, high-fat diet to be optimal for the harsh climes.
Of course, it’s not just physiology but psychology at play. Hunger does strange things to a man. In the 1930s, trans-Antarctic aviator Lincoln Ellsworth — a bona fide millionaire — found himself pondering whether a piece of two-year-old gum stuck under his bunk was still safe to chew.
More heartbreaking is the tale Anthony recounts of Xavier Mertz and Douglas Mawson with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, who at the end of 1912 found themselves alone, some 300 miles from base, with but a 10-day supply of food after the third man in their party fell through a crevasse with most of their supplies and dogs. Mertz, a longtime vegetarian, and Mawson were forced to eat their remaining dogs to survive. (They weren’t the only polar party to turn man’s best friend into dinner.)
Mertz eventually went mad and died, leaving Mawson to carry on the final 100 miles back to camp alone. At one point, Mawson fell into a crevasse, but one thought motivated the emaciated man to pull himself out:
“After having stinted myself so assiduously in order to save food,” he wrote, “I should pass on now to eternity without the satisfaction of what remained.”
These days, the food is plentiful in Antarctica — though many “freshies” — fresh produce — must still be flown in and thus remain relatively rare. (The greenhouse at the U.S. McMurdo Station helps.)
As for the quality? “It has everything to do, really, with what cooks you have on staff,” Anthony, who spent eight seasons with the U.S. Antarctic Program, tells The Salt. (Rumor has it, the best place to feast is at the Italian research stations, while foodies should steer clear of the Russians.)
And a good meal remains essential to morale, adds Francis, who was lucky to have a professional chef as one of just 14 staff members who wintered over at Halley with him. One of their diversions through the endless Antarctic night? Cooking classes.
“The chef,” Francis tells me, “is not only one of the hardest-working base members, how good he or she is at his or her job just about defines what kind of winter you’re going to have.”