Eating and Drinking in Antarctica

In the 1960s British bases in the Antarctic were isolated for most of the year. Once the supply ship left there was no way out of the frozen wastes. Personal radio messages were a hundred words once a month. Your life was centred on your work. The only interactions were with the eight or nine other people on base. The scenery did not change much, and after several months other men’s stories, comments, quips and opinions did not change either. The only daily stimulations were the meals.A well-cooked pork pie, an East Asian nasigoreng, yet another well-sweetened dessert, these gave a flip to the regularity of the days. A good meal brought the base members together in a momentary celebration that one more day had passed in the isolation and cold of Antarctica. Other meals faded into the routine of opening and serving yet another canned meat dish, with mashed freeze-dried potatoes and a can of heated peas.There was a wide range of food that the supply ship brought in once a year. But the food was canned and freeze-dried. The cooking success was in the preparation not the ingredients. And if there was no cook on base meal successes depended on our individual abilities.We all avoided the canned Brussels sprouts; they smelled like swamp water. The freeze-dried pieces of cod needed a lot of preparation to not end up like slabs of pale wood. The worst was freeze-dried cabbage that only reconstituted into inedible stalks. On one occasion four cases of the cabbage were abandoned on the sea ice.Cooking failures were remarked upon, sometimes brusquely, and quickly forgotten though not by the cook. One carbonades a la flamande of mine despite two hours of cooking still had raw flour clinging to the pieces of beef; there was a move to have canned cheese and bread for lunch. Comments were particularly poignant if the three days supply of bread failed to rise. Packages of hard sledging biscuits were opened. The only saving grace was that after three days someone else would have to slave over the hot coat-burning stove.Occasionally fresh food was available. Krill (like shrimp) even though boiled at low tide in the hot volcanic waters contained too much fluoride. The softer parts of young seal were tasty, as was the odd skimpy Notofenia fish pulled from the sea. Cooked penguins were definitely avoided as too oily and rank, and no one tried seal’s brains on toast. Horlicks and toast were a comforting standby.In compensation for the isolation and lack of fresh food we had more than an ample alcohol allowance. Once the Saturday cleanup of the base was completed the evening was spend imbibing the six cans of beer per man per week, our individual half bottles of gin, and any other alcohol beverages bought from the supply ships’ duty- free store.Once the last radio message at 9 pm was over we all hit the bar and our choice of liquor. A favourite was Royal Navy rum at 86% alcohol. Large portions mixed with cider or condensed milk (moose milk) soon had most of us inebriated. Only the night weatherman had to have some restraint for the midnight and 3 am observations. Singing along to records, and making the occasional deeply felt remark, we celebrated through the dark nights.The mid-winter celebration on June 21st. was when you knew the daily darkness would be receding, and so another reason to gorge on food and drink lots. On my first mid-winter I went overboard with two bottles of Liebfraumilch (a German wine) plus all the earlier drinks I had had. The next day started slowly around ten, with vomiting every thirty minutes. Some kind soul had placed a bucket by my bunk. I staggered downstairs in the afternoon; I was not the only one who looked like death warmed over.Impromptu parties could also happen during the week. Again the amount of liquor and lateness of the hour varied. Food and alcohol helped us during our two years of frozen Antarctic isolation.