by Greg McKenzie © Copyright 2016
Seals, Scurvy And Survival:Diet Secrets Of Ancient Cultures
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Seals, Scurvy And Survival: Diet Secrets Of Ancient Cultures (Part 3))

Polar expeditions of the time were provisioned by companies eager to have their products taken far beyond the known horizon. The resulting publicity was sure to increase sales. This was true for both British and Norwegian expeditions. Herbert Ponting was the official photographer for the British, and he was careful to pose members perched on cases emblazoned with brand names. He fulfilled his duty to Heinz by capturing RN steward Hooper spooning baked beans from an open tin, sitting atop a Heinz case, the logo turned to camera of course.

Amundsen was not faulty in rewarding his sponsors; samples of their food items like pemmican (by Moss) and biscuits (by Saetre) that had been to the Pole were kept and forwarded to them for publicity purposes. In Antarctica, tinned and packaged foods were essential, but to rely on them too much invited disaster.

Amundsen saw a fundamental flaw in the British approach: they were “over civilized.” He knew what it took to survive in polar regions and perform at one’s best. Although he was an Arctic specialist, having devoted several years to navigating the Northwest passage, and longed to conquer the North Pole, like Scott he had been to Antarctica before.

In 1897 he signed on as second mate of Belgica and embarked on a journey of disease, death and despair that taught him lessons he would never forget. Belgica was bound for the Bellingshausen Sea off Graham Land in Antarctica under the command of Lieutenant Adrien de Gerlache. The plan for the combined Belgian/Norwegian expedition was to spend a winter frozen in the sea ice and drift with it, until released the next spring. It was a voyage of firsts: the first modern Antarctic expedition, carrying a geologist, a meteorologist, and a doctor; the first sledging and skiing party ashore on the mainland; the first to winter in Antarctica.

What seemed a good idea at the time turned into an unendurable hell for the crew who simply fell apart. Many become ill during the nine months Belgica drifted with the pack ice, the long period of darkness drove two sailors mad, and one of the party died. Amundsen went into a kind of scientific mental shell, observing his colleagues and surroundings under the tutelage of the ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook. Cook had spent time in the Arctic and knew such conditions required special attention to health and diet. Scurvy was rampant on board Belgica and Cook knew from contact with Inuit peoples in the Arctic that fresh meat from penguins and seals was the antidote. Unfortunately participation in his cure was voluntary; the one fatality was of a member who had refused to eat seal or penguin.

As well as picking up useful Inuit lore from Cook about the importance of eating seal to prevent or cure scurvy, Amundsen also picked up future key members of his South Pole team: whaler and sealer Hanssen, and his cook Lindstrom.

Adolf Henrik Lindstrom played a pivotal role in getting the Norwegians to the South Pole and back, and he did not even accompany them. His role was back at base – “Framheim” – where his skills as chef, baker and pastry cook were augmented by the part he played as clown and joker. He was an instrument maker and worked all winter prior to the Pole assault on perfecting the sledgemetres that played a vital role in measuring distances traveled but were prone to icing up. He was a taxidermist, cabinetmaker and painter, but those contributions to the expedition paled next to the morale boost he gave members as the expedition’s human alarm clock. Men were woken mornings by Lindstrom flinging teaspoons into enamel mugs at the breakfast table. They rose to the smell of freshly ground and brewed coffee and devoured his buckwheat pancakes slathered with whortleberry preserve with pleasure.

Lindstrom learned to make these hearty hotcakes in America, and had also learned during his time in the seal trade to prepare seal in a tasty and nutritious way. He brewed the yeast he used to bake the tasty wholemeal bread enriched with wheatgerm the men enjoyed with cheese, butter and jam at every meal.

Men on grueling depot-laying runs would open a tuck box the big bear of a man had prepared for them and be surprised and delighted by the cake, tinned pears and pineapples and vermouth inside. Building morale as well as strength for the push to the Pole was a vital role provisions played and no one did it better than Lindstrom. Perhaps it was his smuggling in bottles of champagne for the victory celebration, nursing them every winter night against his body to prevent them freezing that most won him Amundsen’s admiration: “A better man has never set foot inside the polar regions,” the leader declared.

Scott did not cultivate such a great relationship with his cooks. On the 1901-1904 Discovery expedition, Navy routine prevailed over common sense and harsh punishment befell any member who did not submit. Discovery’s decks were scrubbed with buckets of water every morning in Antarctica; the water froze, naturally, and had to be chipped off with shovels.

On this expedition Scott dismissed Roper, his first cook, and replaced him with Brett, a New Zealand civilian. Brett was out of his depth with harsh Naval routine and soon fell foul of his commander’s wrath. He was flung in the brig for “insubordination” and escaped twice before Scott had him chained to the windlass on deck. “Eight hours brought him to his senses and a condition of whining humility” that no doubt pleased Scott but did little to motivate a crew member vital to the health of the expedition.

For the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-1913 Scott took no chances with rebellion and recruited Thomas Clissold, a Royal Navy seaman. One of Ponting’s photographs shows him baking snowy white bread in the hut ashore in Antarctica, surrounded by the tinned and packaged food items the British relied on. Shelves are lined with Heinz tomato ketchup, Griffiths McAlister and Co. tins of bacon rations, beef marrow fat, cod roe, pearl sago and salmon steak. Outside the hut, mountains of blubbery seal provided more nutrients than tinned cod, salmon or marrow fat ever could. Presumably Clissold did his job dishing up civilized fare for the men but he was replaced after he fell off an iceberg posing for Ponting and sent home injured.

The British wanted to maintain the trappings of home at the dinner table at the expense of eating nutritious food that would sustain them out on the Plateau. Special dinners like the 1911 Midwinter’s Day celebration reflect the importance of tradition over nutrition that would spell disaster later. A surviving menu describes a meal better served at a London hotel than in the Cape Evans hut:

The table groaned under Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding with Horseradish Sauce, Potatoes a la Mode and Brussels Sprouts, Plum Pudding, Mince Pies, Caviare Antarctic, Crystallized Fruits, Chocolate Bon Bons, Butter Bon Bons and Walnut Toffee, Almonds and Raisins. They were washed down with: Wines, Sherry, Champagne, Brandy, Punch and Liqueurs. Pineapple Custard, Raspberry Jelly and the quaint Buzzard Cake were accompanied by Cigars, Cigarettes and Tobacco. Seal made it onto the menu, but only as consomme.

A morale-boosting, frivolous “we’re still British” meal probably did wonders for the men but that ethos carried through to everyday fare with debilitating results. The final Midwinter’s menu triumph was Snapdragon, and you can see the men’s excited faces gathered around the flaming brandy punch with the lights out, burning their fingers and mouths with fiery raisins plucked from the cauldron.

The Norwegians ate and drank for celebratory purposes, too. Lindstrom dished up “Napoleon Cakes” on special occasions and smiled as the men devoured the fluffy confections of flaky pastry and vanilla custard. Then it was back to seal, seal and more seal. They knew fresh, undercooked seal was vital to building up the body’s defenses against scurvy. The whortleberry preserve they topped it and their pancakes with was an ancient Norse anti-scorbutic carried by Vikings on long sea raids over one thousand years earlier.

For the Norse, alcohol played a conciliatory social role. “A little Lysholmer snaps” or “a glass of wine or toddy” helped Amundsen keep his team together. “two men who have fallen out a little in the course of the week are reconciled at once by the scent of rum,” he mused.

Sledging rations for both parties were pemmican, a dried meat, and biscuits. For Huntford, “the biscuits symbolized the two different worlds.” The British biscuit, baked by Huntley and Palmers, was of white wheat flour, raised with soda bicarbonate. The Norwegian firm Saetre baked theirs for Amundsen from wholemeal flour, with rolled oats, milk powder, sugar and raised with yeast. They were bursting with B Vitamins, the British biscuit was virtually empty calories.

Pemmican was a hunter-gatherer staple borrowed from the Plains Indians of North America. They air-dried bison or venison from the summer hunts, and pounded it with marrow and berries to form a long-lasting preserved staple over winter. The explorer’s pemmican was an insipid copy, simply combining dried beef with melted lard. Amundsen took one look at the product offered him by the Chicago meatpacking firm Armours, and decided to develop something better. He recruited Professor Sophus Torup, biologist and nutrition expert who had advised Nansen, to oversee a more nourishing mix made by the Moss company that contained oatmeal and peas. The extra roughage from these ingredients helped with the scourge of Polar explorers – constipation, as well as providing B Vitamins. Amundsen suffered from hemorrhoids and was determined not to slow the party with strained movements in icy conditions. Besides, it just tasted better.

It’s likely that Scott’s party was well into the early stages of scurvy as they set out for home base from the Pole, already dejected by their defeat. Hanging over the return leg was the gloom of a desperate race for survival. Fuel and food was desperately low. The men relied on making it to the depots laid out on the return route, there was no margin for error. Already hungry men, toiling under an almost unendurable strain had their food intake cut drastically. Fuel for melting snow for drinking water, heating and cooking was also rationed. Dehydration added to their woes.

Petty Officer Evans, the biggest of the five man party, was the first to decline. He’d cut his hand earlier while shortening a sledge, and the wound just would not heal, He became sluggish and disorientated and was left behind to catch up several times. Finally he was retrieved from the crevasse he’d fallen into in a pitiable state, and dragged on a sledge to the tent, a liability to the others. His death gave them a sliver of advantage.

Oates’ old Boer War wound had most likely sprung open and was bleeding as if new. This happens when scurvy takes over and even old scar tissue dissolves. His famous walk out of the tent and into oblivion meant the others had a little more leeway with provisions and could travel a little faster. But the odds were against them. In Huntford’s words “Fate was sitting at the dining table” with them back at Cape Evans, even before they set out for the Pole. They overcooked their seal, finding it “fishy” to the taste, and did not eat it frequently enough to build up Vitamin C stores. Their scurvy prevention program consisted of checking their tinned foods for taint. To be fair, the discovery of Vitamin C was decades away but they made a fatal error in insisting on eating civilized fare and not eating like the ancient peoples of the Arctic and North America.

It seems strange to think of seal as a source of Vitamin C. Most animals synthesize their own, and store it in their tissues. Rats do it, ponies do it – only we primates have lost that ability and must eat fresh food to obtain it. Eating an animal like a seal, as the Inuit and other Arctic peoples have done for thousands of years, has allowed humans to colonize uninhabitable polar regions. The seal is high on its food chain and harvests the Vitamin C rich tissue of the fish it eats, and the the fish they eat, all the way back to the algae and plankton that support that chain. Nowadays, scientists spending a long time in polar regions take synthetic Vitamin C: before its discovery ancient peoples thrived on the natural food hierarchy.

Amundsen sat in his tent, trying to concentrate on his journal. Yesterday had been a hard day. They had struggled up the Axel Heiberg Glacier, the dog teams doubled up on the sledges to get them up the fearful climb. They had been wonderful, digging their claws in and never giving up. Several times the sledges had been stopped by huge impassable ice blocks and they had to turn around and pick a new route up through the ice falls.

Now, that was over. They were on the Plateau and the run to the Pole could begin again in earnest. There was just one grisly task to complete first. Amundsen jolted, his pen scrawling on the page as the first loud report went off. A pistol shot. One of their faithful companions had just received his reward, a bullet through the head. He bent over the page and tried to ignore the next shot. And the next. Let the others do it, he could not. He was reminded of the seal slaughter he could never participate in as a young man when crewing a sealing vessel. More shots. Sixteen, seventeen. Amundsen realised he was counting, not ignoring the carnage. The pack of 42 would be winnowed down to just 18, enough to pull three sledges to the Pole. And it would go on. After the Pole they would shoot six more and abandon one sledge for the run home.

The final shot echoed away over the snowy plain. Amundsen grunted. Who was the last? Was it Odin, or Thor, or perhaps Peary? No point wondering. Each cheeky rascal that had given his all was now just 50 pounds of meat for the others. 50 pounds of food that did not have to be hauled or stashed in a depot. He looked out of his tent and saw Wisting butchering carcasses. The other dogs sniffed at the discarded hides and looked bewildered for a moment. Then their saliva ran and they raced to tear at the bleeding chunks they were thrown. Amundsen snapped his journal shut and crawled out of the tent.

The stove would soon be going and tasty canine Greenlander cutlet and soup was on the menu tonight…(to be continued)