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Southern Comfort: A Poet’s Biography of Antarctic Cuisine

By Jessica Monk

Here the geography is so singular that our presence is inseparable from our desire to see: here we are the only figure on the figureless ground we study. This is the bright ground that obsesses me. Where else on Earth could I find such marvelous reflection?

JasonAnthonyicedBefore Jason Anthony settled on the topic of Antarctic food for his book Hoosh, nobody was writing home about Antarctic cuisine. Starving explorers dreamt up lavish feasts, and Antarctic workers smuggled in vegetables to relieve the boredom of canteen food. “In my case, the worse the food, the better the story, which is sort of anti-foodie,” says Anthony. “I’m pretty laid back about food, I’m more concerned with quantity than quality.”

It’s a good thing Anthony feels this way, because Hoosh is full of divinely or demonically inspired culinary creativity, each time a gamble and sometimes a violent confrontation with your dinner (if you’re stuck with a live penguin to dispatch). But Hoosh shows that people aren’t just great at surviving, they’re great at turning any kind of blankness–the page, the Antarctic landscape–into some form of abundance, real or imaginary. An explorer faced with a scarcity of women once lamented that the girl on the Land O’ Lakes butter packet didn’t look any better. The Russians made sure they never ran out of alcohol, even if they had to substitute eau de cologne or ‘aerovodka’–airplane de-icing fluid consisting of pure ethanol. The heroic explorers fantasized about feasts while living on one biscuit a day.JasonAnthonyemperorchickJason Anthony image tentJasonAnthonylandscape

Hoosh is named for the indefinable brew/stew of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration journeys. It’s a basis for Antarctic food the way that sauces are the basis for French cooking, except that unlike French cooking its only strict requirements are basic nourishment and anti-scurvy properties, if you’re lucky. The weirdest ingredients–like toothpaste–can become the saffron of expedition cooking when other flavors are scarce. One expedition cook even got plaudits for making peppermint flavored peas with toothpaste–and then there was the exquisitely disgusting “Chicken à la Staite”: chicken fried in the toothpaste-flavored backwash of explorers’ morning spit.

If you want to see what necessity gives birth to, it seems you need only take a glance at the short history of human life at the bottom of the world. To give a loud hint, it’s no perfected ivy-league child, it’s a strange genius with a spasmodic grade point average of innovative leaps and blank troughs. And Anthony clearly takes pleasure in retelling anecdotes of the sometimes insane progress of humans on the ice. After an 8 summer stint down south, his current vantage point is the safe distance of his home in Maine. Maine is also in its own way “on the perimeter,” he ventures. The “idiosyncratic creative types, and also sort of practical people” who flock to America’s own chilly outlier mirror the persistent renegade streak in the Antarctic population: “the transients who are deep travelers and who are overeducated”–people like Anthony’s friend Nicholas Johnson, author of Big Dead Place, which Anthony describes as “a sort of a Hunter S. Johnson gonzo journalism take on life in McMurdo…sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll…fear and loathing in McMurdo”

“In Antarctica?” asks LT incredulously.

It seems so.

“He and his buddies are just sitting there drinking, just talking about sex around the cafeteria table. This is who he hung out with and he wants to portray exactly… it’s true journalism.”

DSC_0286JasonAnthonyfoodstore“It’s a powerful book: he’s deliberately trying to cut away some of the romantic sense of what Antarctica is, either contemporary or heroic age.”

Anthony himself manages to toe a line that’s somewhere between irreverence and the poetic wonder that illuminates his landscape essays. The book started out as an uncharacteristic essay with “a funny little food angle” published in a magazine called Alimentum, and ended up being a project that condensed 20,000 words of Antarctic history into a food timeline of the frozen continent.

Another Antarctic perspective that Anthony recommends is Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World: it asks the important question of who actually works in Antarctica besides the scientists.

Most Antarctic workers are not on a noble scientific mission according to Anthony, they are grunt-workers, like an aptly nicknamed Antarctic winterover called Rhino who was stranded at McMurdo during his first summer in Antarctica. After a winter of perpetual night during which his girlfriend back home had abandoned him, Rhino took to standing in the canteen queue with a sign that said:

“DON’T TOUCH ME, DON’T TALK TO ME, DON’T EVEN F******G LOOK AT ME.”

For some, it seems, a bleak Antarctica beats a bleaker McDonalds or Starbucks. Anthony’s offbeat career in Antarctic summer work begins, naturally, with a humanities degree and uncertain career prospects. With McMurdo’s population of over 1000 in the summer, PhDs willing to shovel snow are in demand.

“Imagine you’re going to the moon and you have to create a town from which a few scientists can do their thing.”

“I was about to graduate with a master’s degree in poetry, which of course suited me for many jobs…but I thought I’d set those aside and go South instead.”

Instead of glorious isolation though, Anthony found Rhino’s main bugbear: camaraderie.

“The first time I went down I brought 30 books with me because you think you’re all gonna be hermits, and instead you’re claustrophobic, you’re sharing a dorm room with someone, you’re in the cafeteria 3 times a day, you’re in a workspace, you’re in a truck…it’s hard to get private space down there.”

As Anthony branched out into field work (the holy grail of Antarctic workers who are often tied to the base doing menial jobs), he got more opportunities to study the beauty of Antarctica, and was able to follow what he calls his “aesthetic quest” to find more than the “flat and white usual descriptions” of the landscape.

Outside of Hoosh his work manifests as landscape writing, with descriptions of Antarctica so crisp, attentive, and unusual that they are riveting in themselves:

“You could show a movie on this storm. No soundtrack, no tune, just the static and howl of the whirling reels, the slapping of the brittle film-end against your face.”

Then there are the characteristic Antarctic skies and weather, which in a poet’s hands become strange life-forms inhabiting a lifeless landscape:

“Wind is the journey Antarctica makes into us. For us, working into it, wind is the Antarctic reality, the Antarctic curse. It cuts through layers of our insulation like a practiced knife.”

“September is the month for strange skies: nacreous clouds and noctilucent clouds bring weird light to our indigo evenings. Both are at home only in the polar regions, and both only in the long twilight between winter and summer. Noctilucent clouds are over 50 miles high, so high that they’re still lit by the sun long after it has set for us. They are bright well into an Antarctic twilight that has already altered our notion of what happens after darkness falls. Little else is known about them.”

Strangely, as a poetic observer of its changing forms, Anthony feels as if Antarctica rejects deliberate attempts to build poetry on it. It’s as if the monuments of poems do not survive, like so many National bases buried under snow and drifting out to sea.

“I lost my poetry. The Antarctic sort of took my poetry away…because I didn’t feel that poetry was the right response to the place. And it wasn’t a choice it was just sort of an intuitive thing. Writing a poem about that space sort of didn’t really work. I haven’t really seen a good Antarctic poem yet, most of it is just sort of carrying the Shackleton and the Scott language and just sort of romanticizing all of that.”

“So, were there writers that you took with you that influenced the landscape writing?”

“I carried…my background. One of the people that’s always been an influence was the person I went to study with at University of New Hampshire, that’s Charles Simic. Since then he’s been poet laureate of the US: he’s one of America’s greatest poets, he’s amazing. And his work, especially his early work, is really fairly spare and that sort of fits in.”

“And there were other people. I did a lot of searching in various literature looking for things that seemed Antarctic and I sort of pretended they were Antarctic in a way.”

“…and you know Vasko Popa, who’s a Yugoslav. People who had those really sort of strange but somehow fitting fragments…”

“So I sort of stole from world literature to start to glue together some kind of Antarctic literary response.”

“In my reading anything that seemed to fit with my obsession with the Antarctic I would just grab it and put it in my notebook.”

Anthony speaks for all Antarctic workers when he writes the more mundane stories of survival into the heroic narratives of Shackleton, Amundson, and Scott. But in the days of exploration before poets were moonlighting as fuel specialists, the cook reigned supreme as the unsung superhero batting all expedition externalities into safe corners. In Hoosh, we encounter schizophrenic cooks, enigmatic cooks, incompetent cooks and culinary maestros who are so good that they drive workers to divorce their wives when they get back home (according to legend, Jean Louis at the French base made bereft workers unable to go back to their wives’ cooking).

These days the more seasoned workers who are tired of sharing elbow-space at every meal find sly ways to be their own cooks and enjoy food that can’t be got in the cafeteria.

The greenhouse at McMurdo, where fresh vegetables are grown like living gemstones, is described in Hoosh as a verdant Eden where couples go to talk and kiss. Fresh vegetables are so prized down south that they have a nickname – “freshies” – that sounds like slang for an illegal drug. Whatever culinary rarities that can be begged, borrowed, or stolen are sought through swaps, trades and underground railroads of supply.

“Veterans in McMurdo tend to cook for themselves,” says Anthony.

“They’ll send down via mail an electric rice cooker, a little electric wok and some people have a microwave and a pizza oven and all these funny little things if they’re serious about it.”

“You never see them in the cafeteria until they come in to steal vegetables from the salad line to go home and cook them.”

“So they’re sort of surreptitiously making their own food?”

“Not only are they shipping down the tools, they’re shipping down the boxes of food.”

“I did some of that for maybe the last half of my time there…”

“I’d have rice and thai curry paste, and I’d get some vegetables and just make a simple sort of stir-fry rice thing…”

“Is it illegal? Or not done?”

“Sort of don’t ask, don’t tell sort of thing”

Speaking of which, there’s no noble Antarctic conversation about man versus nature that can be had without mentioning the bloody penguin wars (or more accurately, penguin massacres) that stained the heroic age of exploration before animals were protected and thai curry paste was a favorite ingredient. Sadly many animal inhabitants of Antarctica had no native fear of their human predators.

“Emperor (penguins)…really sort of act regal in the sense that they’re not afraid of any sort of contact, and they’re just slower and more somber. And the Adelies are like little cartoon characters”

“I’ve been in a helicopter flying over the land and the ice maybe from here to that wall away from that Empereror penguin, and they just sort of look at you and walk over… whereas if you fly over the Adelies, it’s like the great bird of death. Because they do get hunted a little bit by the Skuas, mostly for chicks and eggs–but they’re terrified of things flying over them, so an entire colony will abandon its nest at least temporarily if you fly over it with a helicopter.”

“Seals too… none of the wildlife down there… there’s nothing in its DNA that says there are predators on land, because there’s no Polar bears of course, they’re all on the other end of the planet.”

“So you can walk right up to a seal, the Wedell seals, and a penguin and they’ve no native fear…”

“They have fear in the water, because they have predators there, but not on land.”

“It’s the only place on earth where there’s no fear of terrestrial predators”

Probably one of the saddest episodes in Hoosh is when a remorseful explorer writes of how a seal weeps over the body of its dead mate, killed by explorers.

The “blubber-kings” as Anthony calls the era of survival cooks, had their reasons for dispatching the wildlife though. Fresh meat, lightly prepared – not just fresh vegetables – wards off scurvy. Before food preservation methods were perfected, eating penguins and seals kept stranded explorers alive.

Hoosh does contain a few recipes for roast penguin from cookbooks of yester-year, like the jolly cookbook Fit for a F.I.D.: or, How to Keep a Fat Explorer in Prime Condition, written by a no-nonsense British chef who gamely (pardon the pun) took on the challenges of stringy skuas and blubbery seal

Did Anthony actually develop a fondness for some of the more disgusting or boring foods that he had to eat down in the Antarctic?

“Well, the historical stuff is that, it’s historical… We haven’t been allowed to destroy wildlife since well before I first went down…the wildlife’s been protected since the Environmental protocol to the Antarctic treaty was passed in the 1980s.”

“The French probably steal a penguin egg once in a while, but officially that doesn’t happen…!”

One of the most entertaining tendencies in Hoosh is Anthony’s sidelong observation of cultural differences in the attitudes to food. Naturally the French base settles for nothing less than foie-gras on a regular basis. The homewrecking chef Jean Louis once prepared a 19-dish menu for midwinter that has to be seen to be believed (Hoosh’s finale is the ostentatious midwinter banquet at the French and Italian base).

Penguins may march together but they do it grudgingly, according to Anthony. “They mate for life, but they also they cheat on each other and they steal…They’re not as cute as everyone thinks they are.”

No penguins were harmed during the making of this article, but in a hypothetical reckoning, LT and Anthony (jokingly) agreed it was probably better to pick off penguins in pairs.

“Who’s going to miss one?”

“Maybe its mate! So eat ‘em both!”

It’s about this point in our interview that we’re interrupted by a couple of giant creatures–humans dressed up to entertain kids at the Boston Book Festival. Thereafter,  the friendly inquisitive creatures in their foam blubber suits become a ghostly presence shadowing all our conversations about Antarctic animals. Humans after all, are creatures too. And the most recent wave of Antarctic invaders are the inquisitive tourists – sometimes hardcore adventure tourists, other times innocents herded briefly onto the ice by well-organized tour guides.

“You have the cruise ships mostly around the peninsula side, and that’s been a business for 30 years and it’s really big now,” Anthony says.

“But you also have a lot of adventure tourism where they’ll get flown in and they’ll ski –close to the South Pole but not quite all the way there — they’ll ski the last degree they call it… from 89 south latitude to the south pole, just sort of sixty miles and they’ll pay $10,000 for that.”

“Or you can just get flown to the South Pole itself, go into the US base at the South Pole, get your Chinese made trinkets and then fly home again.”

“You don’t have to be super adventurous, you don’t have to ski across the continent.”

Good news for those of us who read Hoosh and laughed at many of the darkly comic anecdotes partly out of relief that we weren’t there to deal with the minus -70 F temperatures and the diet of dog meat and biscuit crumbs.

Any illusions we had about survival cooking, fuzzy animals or anything of the sort were shattered by Hoosh and Anthony’s litany of witty and sympathetic anecdotes. But the power and stubbornness of human endurance is another thing. Imagination, not necessarily a trait that you’d associate with survival, seems to be equal to endurance matching it ounce for ounce with madcap innovation, the way the Hoosh pot was ritually filled every day on Antarctic expeditions, no matter what ingredients were thrown into it. In a place as bleak as the Arctic, both endurance and imagination are sharpened to a point that writes indelibly of experience.

“As someone has said,” Anthony writes in one of his landscape essays, “every theory is an autobiography of the theorist, and this is the story of an “I” looking for a blank page. Not a new story, but on a new page, more blank than any other. Here the geography is so singular that our presence is inseparable from our desire to see: here we are the only figure on the figureless ground we study. This is the bright ground that obsesses me. Where else on Earth could I find such marvelous reflection?”

“For the first time,” he writes, after an intense 3 month stay in the shadow of a glacier, “I feel like I’ll leave behind more of my old self than I’ll be able to salvage.”

“When I think back to other Antarctic journeys, the remembering reveals how the Antarctic has tied itself to me, has connected me to it by its white threads wherever I am in the world.”

It’s been eleven years since Anthony’s last summer in Antarctica. Does he miss it?

“It’s not so much that I miss it, but that it’s just still a part of who I am,” he replies.

“And that’s something that you see in the writings of people who have spent serious time there, all the way back to Shackleton and Scott. They were all haunted by the place.”

Jason C. Anthony is a writer and photographer based in Maine. His book Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine was a winner of of the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Award (2012), a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Award (Travel), a Silver Medal in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards (Creative Nonfiction), and was a finalist for a 2013 Maine Literary Award (Nonfiction).

All photographs in this article besides the portrait of the author are by Anthony and can be browsed, along with his landscape writing at www.albedoimages.com.

Antarctic Cuisine: Further Reading

Robert Feeney, Polar Journeys: The Role of Food and Nutrition in Early Exploration (1997)

Jeff Rubin, “Train Oil and Snotters: Eating Antarctic Wild Foods”, Gastronomica (Winter 2003)