Inside the Collection

History Week: eating in extremes -what did Mawson and Scott eat in Antarctica?

Red aged box of unopened Tower Tea
H4730 Scott’s unopened tin of tea made by Tower Tea Limited, England, 1895-1905, from the 1901-1904 British Antarctic Expedition. Gift of Mrs Watson, 1946.

On the base of this one pound (0.45 kg) unopened tin of Tower brand tea in our collection is the label “This tin of tea was cached by Commander R.F. Scott during his journey towards the South Pole in 1902. It was recovered and brought to New Zealand by the Shackleton expedition in 1908″. (This was Scott’s first expedition, not the one where he tragically died in 1912).

So, British Antarctic expeditioners drank tea which is to be expected. But what else? We know from Mawson’s wonderful account of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914 in ‘The Home of the Blizzard’ that while on trips away from their hut hauling sledges over the ice, they drank tea for lunch and Cadbury’s cocoa with dried milk and sugar at breakfast and dinner. Man-hauling the sledges took heavy demands on the body so Mawson thought foods high in energy from meat, starches and sugar would sustain them.

Drawing of a Nansen cooker from 'The Home of the Blizzard'
Drawing of a Nansen cooker from ‘The Home of the Blizzard’. As the name suggests it was developed by the Norwegian Arctic explorer.

The main sledging meal of the day was pretty unappetising. It was crushed up wholemeal Plasmon biscuits with pieces of pemmican (dried beef and beef fat flavoured with currants used by Arctic explorers) made by Bovril. This was cooked in the Nansen cooker, a cylindrical aluminium vessel with an enclosed kerosene primus stove which cooked the “hoosh” in an inner vessel and melted snow for tea and cocoa in an outer section. Before setting out the food was taken out of the tins and packaging and repacked into weekly rations to save time and weight while sledging. The hoosh compound and cocoa/dried milk/sugar mixture were prepared in the right proportions while the tea was sewn into small muslin bags ready to be dropped into the cooker. These may have been the world’s first tea bags. The sledging supplies were put into calico bags then stored in waterproof bags on the sledges. The Museum has one of Mawson’s sledges which still has the box with a half circle of timber chocks to hold the bulky Nansen cooker in place.

Mawson’s sledge from the 1911-1914 expedition showing the box on which the Nansen cooker was placed
Mawson’s sledge from the 1911-1914 expedition showing the box on which the Nansen cooker was placed. Gift of the Australian Museum, 1967.

Food consumed in Mawson’s hut at Cape Denison was totally different to that eaten by the summer sledging parties. Mawson was keenly aware of the monotony of being confined in the hut during Antarctic winters and the importance of food. Any and every special event was celebrated, especially birthdays.

Photograph of a menu celebrating Christmas in 1930 on board the ship “Discovery” with photographs of the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Expedition members 1929-1931
Photograph of a menu celebrating Christmas in 1930 on board the ship “Discovery” with photographs of the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Expedition members 1929-1931. Gift of Harold Fletcher, 1987.

Expeditioners took turns in being the hut cook and messman and Mrs Beeton inspired them all to outdo each other. They served up lashings of puff-pastry, steam-puddings, jellies, blanc-manges, curried and spiced seal, fried penguin and tinned vegetables. As Mawson put it “Cooks were broadly classified as ‘Crook Cooks’ and ‘Unconventional Cooks’ by the eating public. Such flattering titles as ‘Assistant Grand Past Master of the Crook Cooks’ Association’ or ‘Associate of the Society of Muddling Messmen’ were not empty inanities”.

Cooking in a hut in Antarctica where the inside temperature wasn’t much above freezing often caused problems. The hapless cooks served frozen honey on the toast, burnt the porridge and had tins exploding in the oven while thawing. The dried remnants of one tin of shattered baked beans were apparent on the hut walls and door for weeks. One of the cooks with a military background facetiously referred to this hazard as “platoon firing in the starboard oven”.

Numerous food companies donated goods for the 1911 expedition and many of them are familiar to us today including CSR, Nestles, Cerebos, Arnotts and Schwepps. All sorts of delicacies made the trip down to Antarctica including preserved figs, port wine, preserved fruit, and canned rabbit and fish. But by far the most popular was chocolate. It was distributed every Saturday night and became the hut currency being used for betting, games of chance and sweeps on the monthly wind-velocity readings. Two hut members who weren’t bothered with chocolate acted as the “bank” and bankruptcies occurred.

It’s apparent that the type of food eaten in the huts on Antarctic expeditions was the same or similar to what was being eaten by upper middleclass British and Australian families at the turn of the twentieth century, except for the inclusion of seal and penguin meat. So how has eating in extremes changed a century later? When Australians, James Castrission and Justin Jones, were the first to successfully paddle across the Tasman Sea in a kayak between Australia and New Zealand in 2007-2008 they had similar problems of nutritional requirements, convenience, cooking and the plain monotony of their food as explained in James’ very readable account, Crossing the Ditch.

In place of pemmican and biscuits they took modern dehydrated meals which they cryo-vacked into airtight plastic bags. Instead of a Nansen cooker they used a flameless heating pad in a small bucket with 100 ml of salt water (the salt water infused with the pad and created an exothermic reaction providing the same amount of heat as a microwave for 40 seconds). A meal would be poured into a foil bag with a sachet of olive oil and fresh water and the foil bag added to the “cooking water” for heating. Their favourites were roast chicken, spaghetti Bolognese and chicken babotjie. The worst meal was Thai green curry. Chocolate bars were used to barter and a homemade fruit cake was their delicacy. James and Justin are now in training for their next great adventure, Crossing the Ice, a world first attempt at an unsupported 2200 km, 3-month trek on skis hauling sledges, like Scott, to the South Pole. They leave in November 2011. I expect they’ll be packing lots of roast chicken and spag. bol.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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