Tuesday, September 27, 2011



Food was important to Captain Scott’s team in numerous ways. Most obviously, it was essential sustenance. Although they couldn’t have known this at the time, their sledging rations were not planned to be calorific enough. On a typical day, a sledger would be allocated 4600 (kilo)calories in biscuits, pemmican (a mix of dried meat, fat and cereal), butter, cheese, sugar and cocoa. The crew generally preferred cocoa to tea, which they would drink from aluminium pannikins, pre-warmed to avoid frostbite. Modern ice explorers aim to consume 7000 (kilo)calories a day, which is the maximum the human body can absorb, though more than that can be expended in keeping warm. Sadly, in Captain Scott’s time vitamins had not yet been isolated or identified, so they did not aim to replenish micronutrients, except in a vague way, e.g. they worked out that fresh seal meat would keep scurvy symptoms at bay. In fact, Thursday was known as ‘Scurvy Day’, because it was the only day when they wouldn’t eat seal meat, when not sledging. In a nose-to-tail way that would please the Heston Blumenthals of the world, they would eat every part of the animal, and one seal could last the Discovery crew of 46 for two days.

Picture credit: H Ponting; Getty Images Gallery'

When on the boat or based at more permanent camps (the huts), the crew ate well. On the Discovery expedition, they took with them 16 tons of 12 kinds of meat – mostly tinned – including veal, rabbit, partridge and duck. These provisions were kept in an ice cabin, which sadly did not keep it all from spoiling.

Secondly, food acted as social glue and an aid to regular time-keeping. Regular routines helped to keep motivated the men disorientated by the lack of daylight. Indeed, a significant part of their daily routine involved food preparation. Once they had landed on the Antarctic mainland, they had daily trips to cut out blocks of ice to melt for drinking. Strict Edwardian mealtimes were observed, which must have been especially important in the bleak winter months. For example, they would have their lunch at 1300 hours, followed by grog (a mixture of rum and water), served from a tub. This naval practice was only abolished in 1971. Captain Scott’s crew were not actually keen drinkers, which is why much polar archaeology involves preserving the bottles of booze they left behind at the huts.

Thirdly, food was a motivating factor and source of pleasure. Although luxurious feasts were put on for special occasions, such as Midwinter Day and Christmas, standard fare could be quite unappetising, e.g. ‘hoosh’, a mixture of pemmican, ground biscuits and water. Improvisatory variants of hoosh would include raisins and curry powder. Captain Scott was well aware that 3 years of bottled fruits and concentrated foods with Huxley-novelistic names (e.g. plasmon, somatose, tropon and serin) would affect his crew’s morale, so he paid close attention to the quality of his cook’s output. He dismissed two cooks on the Discovery expedition alone, but was happy enough with Charles Clark’s service to retain him until the end. Clark was tasked with baking bread every day.

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