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Seal Brains on Toast, Anyone? The Cuisine of the Antarctic
10/29/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Maine has many "foodies" - culinary adventurers who relish new gastronomic experiences. But how many of them have tried fried seal brains, or roast penguin? Those are two examples of the sort of cuisine enjoyed - if that's the right word - by the Antarctic explorers of 100 years ago. This was during the so-called "Heroic Age" of polar exploration, which lasted from the turn of the 20th century until the the early 1920s, says Maine writer Jason Anthony. Tom Porter has more.

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Author Jason Anthony in the Antarctic.

"And that's a period characterized by men showing up in little wooden ships with not enough food to do a lot of exploration of what was a blank spot on the map," says Maine writer Jason Anthony.

Anthony made his debut as an author recently with a book called "Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine," which examines this most unusual chapter in culinary history.

He says his aim is to tell the story of these explorers by looking at the kind of food they ate, "and how it helps us relate to all these old, incredible stories of survival and scurvy and that sort of thing."

julian hiking 8The book was well-received critically, and helped Anthony recently win a prestigious Maine Arts Commission Fellowship, worth $13,000.

Anthony's fascination with the Antarctic (that's him walking in the photo at right) - which is bigger than the U.S. and Mexico combined - goes back nearly 20 years, when he spent the first of eight summers there working in the support staff of the U.S. scientific research program. The place made an immediate impact. "I really fell in love with the landscape," he says.

He also became fascinated with how the early, mostly European, explorers managed to keep themselves alive in a vast, frozen, uninhabited wilderness, during expeditions which could last as long as two years. One of the staples of that era was called "hoosh" - the less-than-appetizing dish that gave Anthony's book its name.

8-Frank Wild - killing a seal"Hoosh was an old British polar explorers' slang term for kind of a slurry or porridge that they would make out of pemmican and melted snow - I should say, you know, boiled water," Anthony says.

Pemmican, he explains, was an endurance food eaten by native Americans for thousands of years - an early version of the high-energy protein bar - made with dried meat, ground and mixed with fat, and maybe some dried berries thrown in.

By the time we get to the Heroic Age, says Anthony, European explorers in both the Antarctic and the Arctic had co-opted this idea and made their own pemmican, mainly out of beef, which they put in cans.

"When they were on the trail, what they had every day, three times a day for their meal - if they were lucky enough to eat three times a day - was their hoosh, which was to take a can of this pemmican, throw into in boiling water and thicken it with somce crushed biscuit," he says. "And that's when things were going well."

These rations often had to be supplemented with whatever could be killed locally - which, most of the time, tended to be seal and penguin.

"Sometimes men were caught out, away from the hut, without food," Anthony says. "There was a case of six guys who ended up living in an ice cave for an entire winter, and the only food they had were 18 seals and a few penguins they managed to kill during that time."

On some occasions, he explains, the explorers had to make some tough choices to stay alive. "Probably the things that would upset your listeners most would be the cases in which some of the men striving to be first to the South Pole ate their sled dogs, in the case of the Norwegians, and their ponies, in the case of the British."

Hoosh is not a cookbook, explains Anthony. Having said that, it does contain a few recipes, although the ingredients may be hard to acquire. "I have a recipe for roast penguin, as the title of the book suggests," Anthony says, "and another one for savory seal brains on toast."

Tom Porter: "Have you eaten any of the food we've mentioned?"

Jason Anthony: "No, I have not sampled the Antarctic wildlife, which people will be relieved to hear."

In fact, says Anthony, locally-harvested meat has been off the Antarctic menu for about the past three decades, thanks to an international treaty protecting all wildlife there from the clutches of hungry explorers or any other carnivorous human.

Instead of explorers, the most southerly continent is today inhabited by the several thousand people who work at various international research stations and subsist mainly on imported cafeteria food - no doubt pleased, for once, that there is no "locovore" option.

"Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine," by Jason Anthony, is published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Photos:  Courtesy Jason Anthony


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