26 September 2019

Food Recollections of a Hungry Youth in Antarctica (1959-60 Summer)

Every day for about ten weeks over the summer of 1959/60 we man-hauled sleds, climbed mountains, collected lichens and insects and rocks and surveyed all we could see to the east of the Beardmore Glacier – and we ate pemmican.  We were part of a New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) expedition to the Ross Dependency.

Pemmican is a high energy preserved meat and fat based food used by explorers in polar regions. Lean meat is dried and pounded into a powder and then mixed with equal quantities of fat.  If sealed from the air it keeps well and was a staple diet of polar explorers. We simply added water and boiled it into a thick gruel.  We would eat it with mashed potato powder to which butter and other high-energy items would be added.  Sometimes for variety we would add curry or other Indian spices.  The gruel was always very acceptable and there was always a competition to finish first and scrape the pot. Here are our rations for 20 man days.

During our man-hauling we would expend about 6500 calories each day.  At the end of our field trip we had lost weight despite all the pemmican. At the end of the field trip I was stranded at an American weather station depot near the Beardmore Glacier for about 27 days because of an aeroplane crash  - there was a change of food here as the Americans were very well supplied and generous towards this hungry youth - I particularly remember the chicken gumbo soup and the coffee and pream - by the time I got back to Scott Base all but one of the NZAC team had returned to New Zealand.

Working up an Appetite on the Ross Ice Shelf

Robin Oliver and the Wayward Cook at Scott Base

At Scott Base I found that the cook had been misbehaving.  For one, he had threatened the American McMurdo Commander and an American Senator when they visited Scott Base. The Scott Base leader and some others threw him out in the snow for his trouble.

When he found that a new cook was being advertised for in New Zealand (it had been decided that he was not going to last over the winter) he disappeared to the McMurdo rubbish dump with the remains of his problem, whisky, where he lived in a packing case and conducted a lively trade in whisky for food with the local Americans.  I was asked if I’d like a temporary job cooking for the Base until a new cook arrived.  Being a poor student I jumped at the chance to earn a few dollars.  There was another cook who was waiting to depart but he had completed his contract and overwintered, and was not going to give up the opportunity to spend some time looking at the wildlife and the historical huts before he left.  He did however give me lessons on the two essentials, gravy and bread making. The rest was up to my imagination!

It was hard work.  There was no room for me in Scott Base so I had to sleep out in a tent on my own each night.  I'd had a bath when I returned from the field - maybe I'd been the last of six or so in the one bath! But surely I didn't smell that bad.

I would rise at 4am, go across the ice to the kitchen and start the ovens.  Then I’d start making the bread for the 55 odd personnel and prepare breakfast.  After breakfast there would be more bread making activity and lunch to prepare.  On one occasion beetroot juice became accidentally mixed with the dough – novelty bread! I would get a couple of hours off in the afternoon before preparing dinner and finally I’d collapse asleep onto the floor of my polar tent about eight at night, totally exhausted.  In amongst all of the foregoing I’d have to prepare ahead for the next few days.  This would involve a trip out to the snow cave where all the food was stored.  It had to be given a couple of days to thaw so forward planning was essential. 

Staff at Scott Base (1960) and Barry the Cook (2nd from right)

One night an American scientist and his mate from McMurdo woke me in my tent.  Somehow he had fished an Antarctic Cod from a hole in the ice.  Would I cook it for him and his friend and have a third of it with them?  I staggered over to the kitchen and inspected the fish.  It was a good size and a large pan, a little butter, some salt and pepper turned it into a superb meal, one of the best fish I’ve ever had.  You shouldn't go wrong with a fresh fish unless you fail to cook and eat it immediately! Don't overcook it though.

One day someone came into the base and said that the Americans had lost a sledge and container into a crevasse while bringing it in from the Ross Ice Shelf airfield to McMurdo.  They had looked down the crevasse and abandoned the whole lot.  So we found a dog handler, hitched the dogs to a sled and raced out armed with crowbar and hammer.  We climbed onto the box, which was still jammed half out of the crevasse and was the size of a car packing case. We jemmied it open.  To our dismay it contained nothing but tins of green peas!  Undeterred, we emptied the container.  It took several trips back to Scott Base with the dogs but we ate well on green peas and I heard that the Base was still eating them a couple of years later.

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