TRANSCRIPT Dining at the (Other) Top of the World

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Dining at the (Other) Top of the World: Hunger, Fruitcake, and the Race to Reach the South Pole, first released on February 20, 2024. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: At the beginning of this century, two last glittering prizes remained to be won, the North and the South Poles. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, in 1909, an American on a dog sledge got to the North Pole first.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Those damn Americans and their dog sleds. This is, of course, British national treasure Sir David Attenborough. Take it away, big Dave.

ATTENBOROUGH: Only one goal now remained, the South Pole. In 1902, Captain Scott had got to within 430 miles of it. Six years later, an Irishman, Shackleton, turned back only 100 miles short of it. So, by 1910, when Captain Scott had raised the backing to try again, the entire nation was in a high state of excited expectation. Apparently, he had no rival. He was bound to win. What nobody in Britain knew was that there was, in fact, a most serious competitor about to show his hand, a Norwegian called Roald Amundsen.

TWILLEY: Dun dun dun!

CYNTHIA GRABER: And what was fueling this race to the Pole? Their food!

TWILLEY: Wait, do we have to stop listening to Attenborough storytime? I was really relaxing into that.

GRABER: Sorry Nicky, alas, Sir David, while he tells the story of the race to the Pole, he doesn’t tell *our* story, which is what those explorers were eating and how that decided their fates. We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode, we’re still dining at the top of the world. Or the bottom, depending on which way you’re looking at it. But the food scene in the Antarctic is quite different from the Arctic.

GRABER: This episode, we’re telling the tale of the intrepid men—yes, they were basically all men—who were the first to step foot on a continent that no humans had ever before visited, a continent that was totally inhospitable to flora and fauna alike. And the destiny of those heroic men was pretty much determined by food.

TWILLEY: This episode is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as our awesome supporters. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


GRABER: Author Jason Anthony took his first trip to Antarctica a couple decades ago.

JASON ANTHONY: Yeah, I fell in love with it, really from the first minute. So I came in late August.

GRABER: That’s towards the end of the Antarctic winter.

ANTHONY: And so the sun was still just kind of creeping up over the horizon. In the Antarctic, as in the Arctic, you have basically a six month day and a six month night. You know, you don’t really have spring or fall. There’s no vegetation. There’s no foliage. It’s just, it’s a landscape of ice and stone. It’s a desert essentially, even though it’s a desert made of ice. And it’s austere and, and incredibly beautiful. The quality of the light is—at that time of year, especially, just made me fall in love with it hard.

TWILLEY: There seem to be two things that everyone who spends time in Antarctica ends up obsessed with: one, how incredibly alien and gorgeous the landscape is, and two, food. Jason ended up combining these two topics, and writing a book about the Antarctic landscape through the lens of food. It’s called Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine.

GRABER: The funny thing is that historically there wasn’t an Antarctic cuisine because there were no humans there. Until the 1700s, as far as we know, very few humans had ever even seen the continent, and nobody had ever eaten dinner on it.

ANTHONY: It’s the one place that European explorers actually discovered. You know, everything that we claim to discover had been long occupied, right?

TWILLEY: But not Antarctica. There’s some evidence from oral history that potentially Maori from what’s now New Zealand spotted Antarctica, but the first Europeans to get close to the continent were the crew of Captain Cook’s second ‘round the world voyage. When he got home, Cook wrote up his accounts of the sea ice he encountered at the bottom of the world, and the large seal and whale populations living there.

GRABER: And people were inspired by his accounts of all those large mammals—hey look! sources of food, fur, and oil!—and so sealers and whalers started heading down there too.

ANTHONY: The first glimpse of the mainland without really knowing what they were seeing, was 1820. The sealers and whalers had been down for a little while at that point, but again, just around the sub-Antarctic islands, especially the sealers. Just devastating the seal populations for the fur, and then eating the other ones. And penguins as well. Both seals and penguins were being taken for their oil. You about a pint of oil from an Adelie penguin. In case you were wondering.

TWILLEY: Before electricity, all that marine mammal oil was what Americans and Europeans used to light the darkness. It was the oil and gas of its day.

GRABER: So it might have seemed kind of like there was quite a rich ecosystem full of large creatures in Antarctica. But actually that wasn’t exactly the case.

ANTHONY: Everything that we think of as the life, the wildlife there, is ocean bound. Right, seals, penguins, whales, krill. But the largest terrestrial animal in Antarctica is a wingless midge, you know, a couple millimeters long. There’s no life there, no terrestrial life to speak of, aside from mosses and grasses on the peninsula.

GRABER: The peninsula is a rocky, mostly ice-covered tongue of land jutting off Antarctica closer to South America. It’s the closest point on Antarctica to another continent—it’s about 620 miles away from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America across the Drake Passage. That’s considered one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world, with waves up to 40 feet high.

TWILLEY: The peninsula itself is about three times the size of Florida. It’s where many of the heroic age explorers landed, where the majority of the research stations are still today, and where basically all the cruise ships go. And it’s a solid 800 miles’ trek from the peninsula to the South Pole.

ANTHONY: And so once you leave the coast, then you’re, you’re basically heading to the moon. And you’re relying on the food that you can carry with you. Traveling Inland, into Antarctica is one of the hardest things you can do. At that stage of human history, there’s really nothing waiting for you except ice to melt and air to breathe,

TWILLEY: Sounds like a dream destination. You or I might decide we would rather not. But fortunately there were some eager young men, determined to prove themselves, who wanted to give it a go. The south pole, as David Attenborough said, was still a glittering prize. And so they all set out on expeditions, there were dozens of them, mostly European but some Australian and even one Japanese, over roughly a two-decade span.

GRABER: This time period from about 1898 to 1922 was called the Heroic Age.

LIZZIE MEEK: And it’s a point in time where Antarctica was largely undiscovered and had only previously been sighted by people in passing vessels or, sealers, whalers, a couple of expedition ships. And so these early Heroic Era expeditions were established to explore the area, to claim it for nations, to undertake science and further discoveries on the continent. It was a hugely exciting time.

GRABER: Lizzie Meek is the collections conservation manager for the Antarctic Heritage Trust. She’s based in New Zealand, which is also one of the closest points on the globe to Antarctica, and it’s the place many Heroic Age explorers passed through on their southbound voyages. Her organization preserves the remaining traces of these Heroic Era expeditions.

TWILLEY: The dawn of the twentieth century was primetime for these expeditions for a few different reasons. One, there were finally ships with sturdy enough hulls to be able to navigate the ice-filled seas around Antarctica. But the other real technological advancements that made the pole seem as though it might actually be within reach were to do with food.

GRABER: One critical development was the invention of canning. We’ve talked about this multiple times on Gastropod. Canning itself was first invented in the early 1800s, the can opener was invented in 1855 to get out all the food stuck in those cans.

ANTHONY: Yeah, the advent of preserved foods provided a huge boost to Antarctic exploration. With that, you could go anywhere and not have to rely entirely on the wild foods.

TWILLEY: The other real breakthrough was something to cook that food on, while you were on the road. Or the ice.

ANTHONY: The Primus Stove was basically the ancestor of every camping stove that’s existed since then. You know, before that, what you might call a camping stove was basically just like a large candle. There wasn’t much heat or much intensity.

GRABER: This new stove was invented in 1892 by a Swedish factory mechanic. It was basically a kerosene burner, and it was way hotter and stronger and more focused than a candle, and it didn’t get all sooty, and yeah, it’s like the types of stoves you might cook over on a camping trip today.

TWILLEY: But it wasn’t the only hot new innovation in the Antarctic kitchen.

ANTHONY: The Nansen cooker, designed by Fritjof Nansen, the great Norwegian Arctic explorer, was designed to work with that stove. And it wasn’t just a pot that sits on the stove, because so much of that heat is lost. You know, when you heat a pot on the stove, a lot of that heat, you know, hits the bottom and it flies up around the sides of the pot. He designed a, sort of a, a shell around the central pot, and that he would fill the snow.

GRABER: The snow actually acts as insulation, so the food inside the pot heats up faster AND the snow in the outside layer melts. This means you could heat up your food more efficiently and melt water to drink! Two things you needed to survive, all provided by that one new Nansen cooker.

TWILLEY: Even though this snazzy stove cooker combo weighed in at a hefty 25 pounds of extra baggage, it was so much more efficient than the old candle-style version that it made a huge difference.

GRABER: Weight was something that the explorers worried about. Weight, fuel, packing—all of it took a lot of foresight, because an Antarctic expedition would typically last quite a long time.

ANTHONY: I think two years is a typical length of the early Heroic Age exploration. You know, typically you arrive in the late summer when the sea ice is broken up enough for you to get to the part of the coast you want to get to, and then you, and then you basically settle in for the winter, and then you don’t start your initial explorations until the following summer.

TWILLEY: This timeline is because you could only really explore in the relatively balmy summer months, and you would want to maximize that time. But, you couldn’t sail to the Antarctic in the winter. You didn’t want your sailing time to eat into your exploring time, so you sailed the summer before, huddled indoors in a hut all winter, and got going as soon as you could once the weather permitted.

GRABER: And really, you needed to prepare for even longer than two years, just in case you got stuck in the ice.

MEEK: And to do that, kit set wooden buildings were loaded onto ships and a range of supplies for two to three to four years, perhaps—they didn’t always know how long they would be there for or quite when they would manage to get out. But a large number of supplies.

TWILLEY: So, the packing list looks like prefab little sheds and lots and lots of food. But what food exactly?

MEEK: So there was a real combination of, of dried and jarred and tinned food.

ANTHONY: Every expedition ship in the Heroic Age was just jammed to the gills, both below decks and on top of the decks, with, with crates of food, everything from delicacies to just your basic, you know, lunch tongue

GRABER: Yes, that popular lunch meat, canned tongue.

ANTHONY: Or, you know, whatever, various canned meats. And then there’s a lot of biscuits and flour, and, you know, your basic provisions. So simple foods, that pack tightly, and last a long time. That’s the mantra, basically.

TWILLEY: That said, the expeditions would always bring some alcohol for celebrations, and some treats—puddings and cakes—to keep up morale. While doing conservation work on one of the tins left in a heroic era hut, Lizzie’s colleagues came across a classic British treat: fruitcake.

MEEK: And we were able to see that inside the wrapper the fruitcake was in quite wonderful condition, actually. It looked as new. It smelled very definitely like fruitcake. It also smelled quite definitely like rancid butter, and that’s not something that you would [LAUGHS] want to even consider eating. But if you just looked at it, it was like a Christmas cake that you would, you would purchase today.

TWILLEY: But all of this imported food—biscuits and flour and tins of meat and the occasional fruitcake—it wasn’t enough. You just simply couldn’t cram enough food on a ship to feed an entire expedition for years. Plus it was expensive, and by the time they set sail, these expeditions were often already deeply in debt just gathering all the equipment and men.

GRABER: But fortunately for the men, once they set up huts on the coast near their boats, there was plenty of wildlife along the shoreline and in the nearby waters, and not only did those animals provide survival food, but they also added to the variety of what could be served for dinner.

TWILLEY: There were two main kinds of seal on the menu in the Antarctic: crabeaters, which were petite and apparently had blubber with melon flavor notes. And then the big guys.

ANTHONY: These are Weddell seals. Which, you know, are hundreds of pounds, and heavily fortified with a thick layer of blubber, for swimming comfortably in Antarctic waters, which are usually, you know, about 28, 29 degrees, Fahrenheit. And, seals and penguins, an emperor penguin, if I recall, can feed about 20 people in a meal. And they’re about 90 pounds.

GRABER: Seals and penguins hanging out on land either ignored the new two-legged creatures approaching them, or they found humans kind of fascinating. What they didn’t feel was any fear at all.

ANTHONY: They have no experience of predators on land. All the predators are in the water. Orcas, leopard seals, that sort of thing. And, on land, you can walk right up to—as I have—seals and penguins. What I did not do is what these explorers did, which is knock them on the head, or shoot them. And, to be fair, most of the men felt terrible about it because it’s like going up and knocking a golden retriever on the head, you know, it’s—sorry, but it’s terrible. And these are just cheerful, sweet, you know, curious animals. But they represent the kind of food that these guys needed. And exploration was, was a cruel process, especially down there.

TWILLEY: Honestly, this was the worst part of Jason’s book. The penguins especially seemed to love music, and the men found they could lure them in to be killed just by playing the cornet.

GRABER: And even without the melodious trumpet music, one explorer pointed out that the penguins even saw him, the human, as kind of a friend or at least a potential protector. They were scared of the dogs on the trip, dogs were brought along to pull sleds…

ANTHONY: He said that they really understood what was going on, that these four legged beasts were killing them. And so if they had a chance, they sometimes would hide between his legs. They could see the men were trying to control the dogs, that sort of thing.

TWILLEY: So adorable. And yet, these Heroic Age explorers looked at penguins and saw dinner.

ANTHONY: They really loved the penguin eggs. So they would go through thousands of eggs. And there were these heartbreaking moments where, like, guys don’t know if a ship’s coming to rescue them. And so they would start harvesting thousands of eggs. Like basically every, every egg that gets laid, they’re harvesting and storing in barrels or whatever, you know. And then the ship shows up.

TWILLEY: And all those barrels of eggs are left behind, and a generation of penguins isn’t born.

GRABER: It sounds horrible, sure, but to the explorers, it was either that or starve. Good news is that the local penguin populations recovered from the effects of human harvesting at the time—though frankly they’re now threatened by climate change, but that’s a different story.

TWILLEY: So the contents of the Antarctic pantry were basically tinned and dried food and coastal wildlife. That’s what the expeditions would survive on while they holed up through the dark Antarctic winter, after they arrived and before they started their explorations.

GRABER: Like we said, they basically brought along these small wooden huts with them that they’d set up as their base camp. They all had to live in these huts, and they had to cook in the huts, and so there’d be a tiny galley kitchen for food prep. Jason saw this for himself, some are still around today.

ANTHONY: And you can look into the kitchen area and, you know, you get Moire’s lunch tongue, you know, little cans of, of odd little, selection of some of their canned goods on the shelves. Next to the discovery hut, there’s a couple of seal carcasses, you know, laying next to the door. And, you know, we’re talking over a century ago. Well over a century.

MEEK: And it wasn’t a lot of room, at all, to move around. So they did a tremendous job in tiny cramped quarters of pushing out meals for so many men every day. And of course there were several meals a day and bread that they baked. And the night watchman would be up overnight, sort of eating hot sardines off the stove as one of his little treats. [LAUGHS]

TWILLEY: Sardine snacks aside, food in the huts was typically prepared by the expedition chef. And it wasn’t as basic as you might imagine.

ANTHONY: One of my favorite cooks from the literature is a mysterious character named Rozo. Who was Jean Baptiste Charcot’s cook on his first expedition.

GRABER: Charcot was a French medical doctor who led one of the earliest European expeditions to Antarctica during the Heroic Age. He was trained as a scientist, too, and he described more than 600 miles of coastline, and he created new nautical charts, and he came home with lots of samples and data for the French Natural History Museum.

ANTHONY: They’d found Rozo in Rio, I think, Rio de Janeiro. He just sort of wandered up the ship and got the work and, they went down to the Antarctic. They said they never knew his real name. They never knew his age. They didn’t know his backstory. He was an excellent cook. He could do, you know, desserts and perfect croissants for this French audience, in a ship trapped in the ice, in the Antarctic for a year.

GRABER: That is pretty shocking, to think that he could create croissants out there on the ice from their supplies that they’d schlepped all that way. But he did, and he also used penguin and cormorant eggs to make cakes and custards, and he roasted penguin cutlets, and he made a very popular black pudding from seal blood and liver.

ANTHONY: He was beloved and also kind of this mysterious character. Charcot said they wouldn’t be surprised if he said, Oh, you want to get to the pole? I can tell you how to get there. Like he’s just been everywhere and done it, done everything, you know? And so he was sort of—he’s like the, the, archetype of, of the great Antarctic cook.

TWILLEY: So far, so delicious, but things became much more existential once summer came and parties of men would set off inland with sleds. We’ve got the life and death stories of the race to the pole coming up after the break.


GRABER: The reason all those men traveled to Antarctica wasn’t to hang out in the huts and eat baked seal in a beautiful pastry crust. It was to get outside, to do scientific research, and most of all to try to be the very first person in the world to make it to the south pole. And that meant they had to travel far, outside, often hauling their own sleds.

TWILLEY: Just being in Antarctica, even before the sledding, you needed to eat a lot more than you usually would. Outside of the hut it was really, really cold. So cold that on occasion, the mens’ teeth literally froze and cracked in their mouths.

ANTHONY: Your body responds to cold weather, you know, with a demand for more calories. So you’re going to, your body’s going to want to eat more. But once you start doing the work of sledging, of hauling a sled across Antarctica, then you’re looking at its most extreme, to say, 10,000 calories a day. More—it’s calculated as more demanding than the Tour de France, for example.

TWILLEY: It’s literally hard to shove that many calories in your body on a daily basis. You need food that is basically just a compact, portable brick of energy. And that has a name: pemmican.

ANTHONY: Pemmican was vital for the sledging expeditions into the heart of the Antarctic. It wasn’t eaten so much around base, you know, they had other heavier foods for that. Pemmican is an incredible Native American technology. It goes back millennia that was essentially dried and shredded meat, lean meat. So your bison, elk, moose, you know, what have you. Along with fats from the animal. So you take, you’d butcher, say your bison, you’d dry the meat, you’d shred it. Maybe even get it down to a powder if you could, and then mix it with fat on a 50:50 ratio. And Native Americans were smart enough to mix berries of whatever kind they had on hand. Saskatoons, or, you know, what have you. Dried berries.

GRABER: But most Europeans didn’t recreate the Native American style of pemmican, they created an industrial version.

ANTHONY: It had been first kind of designed for some of the Arctic expeditions of the 19th century. So by the time Robert Scott went down with his first expedition in 1901, for example, they had sort of canned pemmican, made from beef, and beef fat. The brilliance of pemmican was that it was the most amount of calories you could pack into the least amount of weight, which is the gold standard for traveling into a landscape that’s trying to kill you. And so, without pemmican, sledging to the South Pole or exploring, you know, more deeply into the Antarctic would have been impossible.

TWILLEY: Pemmican was the key ingredient in the most iconic Antarctic dish of all, Hoosh.

ANTHONY: So Hoosh, is, in its simplest terms, it was a soup made of pemmican and melted snow.

GRABER: Hoosh is a kind of funny word, it almost sounds like whoosh, finally we can eat. But it’s a relative of the word hooch, which is moonshine, and THAT Jason says is a corruption of the name of a tribe in Alaska and also the European-style liquor that they made after colonization.

TWILLEY: But for inexplicable reasons, British polar explorers used the word to mean a sort of porridge or stew for the ravenous.

ANTHONY: You’d melt the snow to get it boiling, throw a block of pemmican in. And if you had some extras, you’d throw in maybe some biscuit, maybe chunks of penguin, you know, whatever it is you had on hand. But it was basically a kind of a sludgy soup of meat and fat and, you know, whatever extras you can throw in. And that was calories. It’s the kind of thing that if you were to eat it now—you know, if you’re healthy and happy, it just tastes like you’re eating this like, fatty sludge. It’s way too many calories to comfortably eat normally. But, once you start burning several thousand calories a day in the cold, hauling a sled, doing other hard work in, you know, in that environment, your body recognizes it as exactly the kind of food you need.

TWILLEY: Hoosh was so prized that explorers developed a complex system to ensure it was divided evenly by having the men choose their mugs blind. Basically, the cook would pour out all the servings into mugs, and then one crewmember would turn away so he couldn’t see the mugs. The cook would point at a mug and say, whose? The crewmember would say a name, and that’s how the hoosh was doled out, to avoid unseemly rows over this precious commodity.

GRABER: This dinner game was called Shackleton’s shut-eye, though it does seem like everyone, not just Shackleton’s crew, divvied up dinner the same way. But the tradition likely goes back much further, because there seems to be a similar communal food-sharing custom among the Inuit.

TWILLEY: But even with all the planning, and all the pemmican, and the nifty stove to melt water and cook hoosh on, not to mention the psychological tricks to make sure there were no food fights, the explorers still couldn’t easily sustain themselves all the way to the South Pole. They couldn’t carry enough, for starters, so they relied on a complicated system where support teams would go on mini expeditions to drop food at set intervals along the route, setting up caches or food depots for the actual team that was heading to the Pole to find and eat on their way back.

ANTHONY: So basically big piles of food every like 10 to 15 miles, along the route toward the South Pole, for example. And so they would do these back and forth trips from the main base, and, and, you know, set a pile of food, go back, get some more. Set of set a pile of food farther on. And of course you have to calculate all the food it takes to do that laying of depots. And, so there’s a lot of math, and you want to keep your men alive and, and working and able to work, but not an ounce more, right? Because you were riding the line, you had the timing for one thing. You have to be home, in your hut before the winter falls. And you want to cut the weight down as much as possible. And you can bring a lot of food and not travel very far, or you can bring less and risk starvation. Because of the amount of calories you’re burning just to exist in that cold. And to haul those sledges.

TWILLEY: It was an exquisitely nuanced calculation, and if anything went wrong, then you were left balancing on the knife edge of starvation. Even when things went mostly to plan, the explorers were often wildly hungry.

GRABER: Ernest Shackleton is one of the most famous explorers of the time. During one of his failed expeditions to reach the pole, he and three of his crewmates had turned around before reaching it and were on their way back, they just didn’t have enough food. They were down to four biscuits a day.

TWILLEY: At one point, Shackleton gave one of his precious four biscuits to his crew mate, Frank Wild, who was super weak from diarrhea. Frank was overwhelmed with gratitude. He wrote in his diary, quote: “I do not suppose that anyone else in the world can thoroughly realize how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this. I DO”—all caps—“by GOD I shall never forget it.”

GRABER: Also, as they marched, Shackleton and his guys would do what seems to me almost like torture, they’d describe feasts that they’d eaten in the past, they’d fantasize about epic feasts they’d enjoy in the future. One such fantasy? Quote: “There will be melon, grilled trout and butter sauce, roast chicken with plenty of livers, a proper salad with eggs and very thick dressing, green peas and new potatoes, a saddle of mutton, fried suet pudding, peaches a la Melba…”

TWILLEY: But wait, there’s more, this banquet would also include egg curry, plum pudding and sauce, Welsh rarebit, Queen’s pudding, cream cheese and celery, fruit, nuts, port wine, milk and cocoa. Boom.

GRABER: Despite what seems like kind of a nightmarish time on the ice, Shackleton and his crew survived this trip and came back for more. A few years later, they set sail on the Endurance expedition. The goal of this one was to set up camp and then cross all of Antarctica. Unfortunately they never even made it to the continent. The Endurance sunk in the ice, the men were stuck on an ice floe.

TWILLEY: All 28 of them crammed themselves into lifeboats, and rowed to the nearest land, which was called Elephant Island. And then six of them, including Shackleton, set off in one of the lifeboats, a vessel called the James Caird.

ANTHONY: It’s a 22 foot dory, essentially, that six men, Shackleton and five others, sailed from Elephant Island, where he had left the rest of his shipwrecked crew.

GRABER: The six men sailed for 17 days in this little wooden boat in some of the worst seas in the world.

ANTHONY: It’s an incredible, incredible voyage. They, you know, they should have died a hundred times in that passage. But they had their hoosh, you know, two, three times a day. Just kind of jammed it under the decking of this, you know, this little modified dory. And that kept them alive. They’d drink it, you know, boiling hot, basically.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, the other 22 men waited it out on Elephant Island for months, not knowing whether Shackleton’s desperate rescue mission was going to work.

ANTHONY: They were in pretty desperate straits. And lost one of their guys to scurvy. And then, and a couple others were right on the knife’s edge in terms of dying from scurvy.

TWILLEY: The Elephant Island crew may have been running low on food and getting sick from malnutrition, but they did have some inspirational reading material.

GRABER: They had what was called a penny cookery book, it had somehow survived everything that had happened. And so each night, one and exactly and ONLY one recipe was read aloud—Jason says they read it like it was a passage from the Bible. They’d discuss the recipe, they’d propose changes and amendments to it, they’d debate it, and then they’d dream of such incredible meals.

TWILLEY: Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Shackleton made it, everyone was rescued, and there was roast beef and plum pudding all round.

GRABER: Shackleton’s food-obsessed expeditions are the stuff of Antarctic lore. But he never made it to the South Pole. Two other famous Antarctic explorers were the ones who ended up competing for that particular prize. Like David Attenborough said, they were the British Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

ATTENBOROUGH: Amundsen had been bitterly disappointed by the American achievement in the North. He had been planning to drift across the North Pole in the pack ice. And indeed, as Captain Scott now headed south in his ship the Terra Nova, everyone thought that Amundsen was still intent upon crossing the North Pole that way.

GRABER: But actually Amundsen decided that since he couldn’t be the first to the North Pole, dammit, he’d be the first to the South Pole instead. So he turned his ship around and started sailing south.

ATTENBOROUGH: When Amundsen aboard his ship, the Fram, got to Madeira, he sent a telegram to Captain Scott, who by this time had reached Melbourne. It said simply, beg leave to inform you; proceeding Antarctica. The secret was out. Amundsen had changed his plans.

TWILLEY: And the race was on! Scott was a handsome British naval officer, he was a popular hero already from his first voyage to the Antarctic with Shackleton. Together they’d made important scientific discoveries and got to just 530 miles away from the Pole.

GRABER: Unlike Scott, Amundsen had experience at both Poles. He’d been on the first Antarctic expedition to ever overwinter on the continent, and he’d also spent time in the Arctic as well. He led the first expedition to traverse Canada’s northwest passage.

TWILLEY: And both of those experiences were extremely important to Amundsen’s polar preparations. On that first Antarctic overwintering, young Amundsen was a first mate and the expedition doctor was an American called Frederick Cook.

ANTHONY: It was Cook, who had spent time in the Arctic, and who had learned from the Inuit how to prevent scurvy. And he didn’t convince the expedition leader that they needed to be eating fresh meat until they all started getting sick over the winter.

TWILLEY: In case you didn’t catch our most recent episode on Arctic food, what you need to know is that raw or lightly cooked meat, particularly organ meat such as spleen and liver—they contain vitamin C and so, if you eat enough of that, you can prevent scurvy. Frederick Cook had picked up that handy diet tip from the Inuit.

ANTHONY: And finally, he basically prescribed penguin meat as medicine rather than just, rather than just for the menu. And people recovered pretty promptly. And so Amundsen learned from Cook.

GRABER: And also, when Amundsen was in the Arctic region himself, he learned to make pemmican the Native way from the Inuit, not like the industrial British version, so he added vitamin C-rich berries. And he also learned to run sled dogs. All of this was a key part of his planning for his attempt on the South Pole.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Scott suffered from… being British.

ANTHONY: Yeah. The British especially were particularly confused about scurvy. As you know, the British Navy had figured this out, and then they forgot.

GRABER: We’ve told this story before on Gastropod, the British were the first to figure out that fresh citrus would prevent scurvy. But then they kind of messed it all up. They started using limes instead of lemons, and limes have less vitamin C, and THEN they started using preserved lime juice that had been heated, which killed the vitamin C that was there.

TWILLEY: And then eventually, the British came to believe that scurvy was actually caused by bacteria. In the late 1800s, scientists were enraptured by a hot new scientific discovery called the germ theory of disease. They’d started to figure out that specific microbes—drink!—caused specific diseases. In all the excitement, they forgot about citrus altogether.

ANTHONY: And so, yeah, the British sort of lost track of the science and then they never paid attention to, you know, the folks in the north. And there was a lot of talk about, you know, the way to avoid scurvy was to have proper hygiene, fresh air. Good attitude. You know, there’s a lot of sort of, chin up, stuff going on there. And that didn’t work too well. So they suffered from scurvy.

TWILLEY: Amundsen was on top of the scurvy situation and he had another vitamin-related edge: he made his biscuits from whole wheat flour, which has B vitamins that were missing from the industrial white-flour biscuits preferred by Robert Scott and the Brits.

GRABER: The other thing that was kind of an Achilles heel for Scott was that the British were sentimental about their dogs, Scott didn’t want to use them to pull sleds—in fact they’d even developed a couple of mechanical sleds, although those broke down.

ANTHONY: Rather than having dogs haul the sleds—they did some of that and they even had brought ponies down, which was nuts. But they didn’t learn like the Norwegians did from the Inuit, and the people of the North how to run dogs. And so they did a lot of man hauling. You know, when you’re hauling a sled, you know, several hundred pounds on it, you know, with a team of four guys, all of you in harness, hauling this thing up a glacier, up to the Antarctic—East Antarctic Plateau. Yeah, you can burn 10,000 calories in a day pretty easily. And you just, you know, you can’t carry that much food.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Amundsen copied the Inuit and used dogs to haul his sleds. They didn’t break down, the crew saved their own energy, and then, as the food on the sleds got eaten and the sleds got lighter, some of the dogs became surplus to requirements, and so they were repurposed as dinner themselves. Hey presto, more food.

GRABER: All that knowledge and scientific understanding and lack of sentimentality worked in Amundsen’s favor—he got to the Pole first. Scott did actually get there too, 33 days after Amundsen did. He saw the Norwegian flag and was, unsurprisingly, super disappointed. He and his men turned back. But unfortunately, they never made it.

TWILLEY: They were exhausted, dejected, suffering from hunger and likely malnutrition. Famously, one of the men’s toes had become badly frostbitten and he was slowing down the team because he could hardly walk. So one night, he told the others, quote: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” And he wandered out into the cold to die.

GRABER: Eventually Scott and his crew members all died. They died just 11 miles away from a food depot—actually, the depot was in the wrong place. If things had gone according to plan they would have already come across it. It’s kind of a ridiculously tragic story.

TWILLEY: And so the Heroic Era drew to a close. But today, there are at least a thousand people living on Antarctica at any given moment. And they all need to eat. So is hoosh still on the menu at the South Pole? That story after the break.


GRABER: Today, there are about 70 bases on Antarctica. Some operate year-round, some are only inhabited during the summer months.

ANTHONY: There’s new bases being built every year. Some of this is geopolitics. Everybody, you know, nations that can afford it won’t have a foot in the door in case, you know, when or if Antarctica gets divvied up as private land for resources or whatnot. There is a treaty that governs that right now that no one owns any part of Antarctica. It’s set aside for science.

GRABER: Basically, after Amundsen won the race to reach the South Pole, Antarctica was kind of ignored for a few decades. But then ships got better, planes became more common, there was better machinery, and we all, as humanity, decided that it was an important place to do research.

TWILLEY: And nowadays, with planes and bigger ships and big modern bases with electricity, eating in the Antarctic is a lot easier.

ANTHONY: The cuisine changes, the—it becomes much more like what you eat at home. And it becomes, you know, a job that you would, that you go to and, and, and, you know, an experience that you have rather than, you know, a survival experience.

GRABER: But food is still important there, remember how your body craves a lot of extra calories when you’re outside in the cold?

MEEK: As a human being. Wow, food in Antarctica is the most important thing to you often on any given day. It’s like, what am I next going to get to eat? Cause I’m so bloody cold. [LAUGHS]

TWILLEY: And treats are still essential.

ANTHONY: You always have a good range of desserts. I think one thing that’s been a consistent from the earliest days of Antarctic life is, you really, really want to have a good baker. It makes everybody happy. If you don’t like the chicken or the potatoes, you know, at least you’ve got a good piece of cake or a donut or whatnot.

GRABER: Jason says the food on the biggest American base, McMurdo, it used to be pretty bad cafeteria food when the US Navy was running it, though it did get better after the National Science Foundation took it over. But even so, other countries’ bases do have a bit of a better reputation than ours.

ANTHONY: There was always a lot of jealousy if someone managed to somehow get a trip up the coast to the Italian base. Which I was very close to getting one time, but never happened. There’s an Italian base called Terra Nova that’s farther up the coast in, on the Ross sea. And by all accounts, the food was extraordinary. There’s a French base, called Dumont d’Urville, quite a ways away. That is also famous for its foods.

TWILLEY: But even today, a Rozo-like wizard in the kitchen who is trying to make the perfect French patisserie—they don’t have it easy, at least at the South Pole.

ANTHONY: You know, the pole is at 9,300 feet above sea level. There’s two miles of ice beneath it, basically. And it’s incredibly dry. The humidity is negligible, essentially. And the altitude plays a huge role in the cooking as well.

GRABER: When you’re that high up, the atmospheric pressure changes, and this affects the boiling point of water. Jason told us that most cookbooks for cooking at altitude stop at around 7000 feet, but if you’re at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, you’d be cooking at 9300 feet.

ANTHONY: So if you’re trying to boil water at Pole, for example, it boils at 189 degrees. And so the water’s boiling, but it’s not actually cooking your food at the same rate. And so it can take like, four hours to make a soup for, you know, a large group of people. Just to make a basic soup. Baking is just off the charts weird.

TWILLEY: For his book, Jason spoke to the chef at the South Pole Station at the time.

ANTHONY: She says, you know, when, when new chefs show up, or new bakers show up, she says, don’t, don’t even bother trying to make muffins. Because the way the bubbles act, you know, in a dough is different. Your ingredients, you know, your flour basically has no moisture content at all, even less than it would at home. The ratios all change between your liquids and your flour and whatnot.

TWILLEY: Pro tip from South Pole bakers: Jason says that because of the low humidity, you typically have to increase your flour and liquid and decrease sugar, fats, and rising agents—but the only way to know exactly how much is to experiment.

GRABER: Then you need to consider that the altitude means that the bubbles in your dough will expand faster and so your bread and cakes often rise too fast, overflow their pans, and then collapse.

TWILLEY: Plus, because moisture boils off at a lower temperature, the crust will brown before the interior is even close to cooked. Cake may be essential for morale at the South Pole, but wow does it sound like a hassle.

GRABER: At the South Pole, another issue is that it’s, yes, incredibly cold out. And so if you’ve been storing your food at those temperatures, it takes a really long time for dinner to thaw. Cans of fruit and vegetables can take a full week to defrost, and large cuts of meat can take twice that.

TWILLEY: Even today, on all the bases, carbs and canned and frozen foods still form the bulk of the menu in Antarctica. Fresh food is not nearly as rare as it used to be, but it is still treasured.

ANTHONY: We’re getting planes all the time during the summer, Antarctic summer. And so we get freshies, as we call them, from New Zealand on a regular basis. Not as often as we’d like, and it sort of depends on the weather, you know, because you get—Antarctica’s famous for its bad weather, and so you can not get flights for, you know, weeks at a time. And they’re prioritizing other cargo, and so freshies don’t necessarily show up. And, so. It’s rare, but not, you know, kind of hallelujah rare.

GRABER: Some of the bases do have small greenhouses—

ANTHONY: There’s even one at the U. S. base at the South Pole, which is pretty high tech. It’s kind of a model for, what they’ll eventually, what they eventually hope to use on a lunar base. So, yeah, small greenhouse, but basically it’s not going to feed, you know, a thousand people on a regular basis, right? You get a few tomatoes, you get, you get some salad, you know.

TWILLEY: A few leafy greens wouldn’t necessarily be something to get super excited about back home. But small delicacies—fresh food, fruitcake, chips and chocolate—these kinds of treats have always punched above their weight in the harsh conditions of Antarctica. And they still do today. Jason told us about an annual ritual called the Midwinter Auction, which takes place at the South Pole in the sunless days of deep winter and is all about food.

ANTHONY: It’s the midpoint in the winter where you can look, at least in your imagination to the sun coming back, you know, in a few months’ time. And so it’s always been a big feast, and celebration.

GRABER: Michele Gentille, she was a chef there, she told Jason how the auction tradition got started.

ANTHONY: There were just a few snacks left at the little South Pole store, where you can just get snacks and pharmacy stuff, that kind of thing. And, there was, you know, like a Snickers bar, and some other odds and ends. And, so they decided to turn it into an auction. And, so somebody paid like 10 bucks for the last Snickers bar and something. And somebody paid 66 dollars, absurdly, for the last bag of cool ranch Doritos. And, and as, as Michele said, she said for that price, I hope he at least slept with it once.

TWILLEY: If there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of dining in Antarctica, it’s that you have to be in the Antarctic to really feel that kind of passion for food.

GRABER: We talked to Lizzie just before she set off for the Antarctic summer, and we asked her what she was going to miss most.

MEEK: Strawberries. It’s strawberry season in New Zealand and, and I’m about to head away from the best of the summer fruit and vegetable season. And I just find myself buying boxes and boxes of strawberries and eating them every day. And also anything crunchy, because when you’re out in the field, you, you, don’t have access to that fresh produce. And so you just really miss kind of raw, crunchy, good things.


TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Jason Anthony and Lizzie Meek, we have links to Jason’s book and Lizzie’s work at the Antarctic Heritage Trust on our website. And in our special newsletter for supporters of the show, we’ll also have the story of the whiskey Shackleton left behind and how Lizzie’s team not only preserved it but helped recreate it. You can get that newsletter by becoming a supporter of the show today.

GRABER: Thanks also to our superstar producer Claudia Geib. We’ll be back with a brand new episode in two weeks, ‘til then!