What’s there to eat on the coldest, windiest, and loneliest continent on Earth? All sorts of things, it turns out—each of them more or less appetizing (“Savory Seal Brains on Toast”), and certainly more creative (“Peppermint Chicken,” made with toothpaste), than the next. Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine is U.S. Antarctic Program crewmember Jason C. Anthony’s culinary history of sorts from the South Pole, out now from University of Nebraska Press. We asked Jason about the origins of his new book and what it’s like to eat a McMurdo ice cream cone.
Funny thing is, I never thought that much about food during my eight years working on the ice. That is, I rarely thought about it as cuisine, as a way to take the long view of Antarctic history or to frame my own relationship with Antarctica. (As a tall, thin guy working outside at -25°F, however, I thought about it as sustenance all the time… and whenever possible I scrounged up Cadbury chocolate bars—the ones from New Zealand, which are richer and creamier than the American stuff—and crammed them into my pockets before heading out to fuel aircraft, groom a skiway, or shovel snow.) Like most humans on all the normal continents, I thought about food when I was hungry. Unlike millions of people on those normal continents, and despite the noble tradition of starvation and scurvy in Antarctic history, I never had to worry about real deprivation. In modern Antarctica, food is mentioned far more often as a cafeteria complaint than as an existential concern.
Like all Antarctic bases, McMurdo Station, where I spent most of my time, derives nothing from Antarctica for its consumption but air and water (well, except for the occasional Antarctic toothfish for holiday feasts). In fact, McMurdo’s industrial hodgepodge of a hundred buildings spread out over as many acres speaks to such an extraordinary relationship with the place we left behind—built over fifty-five years by importing thousands of tons of equipment and material from the U.S. every year—that it’s quite possible to forget you’re in Antarctica at all. Food, like our other imports, plays an important role in that delusion. For one thing, plenty of McMurdo workers limit their Antarctic experience to a daily head-down trudge between dorm, work, and cafeteria. And the comfort food (burgers and fries, meatloaf, grilled cheese, tomato soup) they scoop onto their trays three times a day reinforces the perception of McMurdo as a “little America” (as the jingoistic Admiral Byrd, America’s pioneering Antarctican, named his base). Instead of eating Antarctica, we’re eating a frontier version of our own home cuisine.
McMurdo cafeteria food, whether artfully wrought or dumped from a can and smothered in liquid smoke, generally has had one effect: to convey the idea that Antarctica was not about food. Antarctica is about science, about employment, about having a grand adventure while working six or seven days a week and getting fat on soft-serve ice cream, but not about the food itself. And so it was for me at first, except that I also had the habit of keeping my head up and looking out and away from McMurdo across the frozen sea to the icy slopes of the beautiful Transantarctic Mountains.
Picture this: While walking back to my dormitory from dinner in a cold McMurdo wind, a bowl of rapidly-hardening soft-serve ice cream in my hand, I’d imagine myself amid the mountains, or out on the vast featureless ice cap, camping and experiencing the real Antarctica. Lots of people in town do this, of course, but I was persistent and lucky enough to get there eventually, convinced that out there, in the wild emptiness, the relationship with the ice continent would become a little more genuine.
And sure enough, the material barrier between me and the ice eventually thinned down to a tent wall. I was also beginning to read more deeply into Antarctic history and so could see the connection between my little box of food, the great inhospitable icescape, and the deprivation described in the journals of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. Not that I was ever deprived, but I did run out of chocolate once or twice, and was, for instance, glad for the extra week of food I packed on one journey when it turned out that our plane would be delayed an extra week. And while even in these latter years of my Antarctic life I wasn’t thinking in depth about Antarctic cuisine, I was thinking in depth about Antarctica. And on more than one occasion when working in the difficult cold, when worn down by a constant, slicing wind, when I felt swallowed up by the empty space of the ice cap, I knew that whether or not I was eating Antarctica, Antarctica was gnawing at me.
Jason C. Anthony’s essays have been published in VQR, Alimentum, the Missouri Review, and in the Best American Travel Writing 2007. His short essay “The Moment’s Meditation” appeared as a Coda in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion.
Funny, McMurdo’s food scene sounds like what one sees at US military bases the world over.
John T: There’s a good reason for the similarity. McMurdo was a Navy base – albeit one supporting science – from the mid-50s into the mid-90s, by which time responsibility for the USAP had been devolved to civilian contractors. But the model, one begun actually by Admiral Byrd decades earlier, remains: massive infrastructure supporting a minority of science personnel. The cafeteria didn’t escape that industrial model, but it has improved, and civilian culture has eliminated the division between Officer and Enlisted dining areas, etc.