Food for thought

Man wearing stripey chef's trousers and apron holds up a big salmon
Robbie and his smoked salmon for Saturday night's dinner (Photo: C. Spencer)
Hydroponic plants at Casey station

Meals are very important, especially when heavy work is done in extreme cold and five thousand calories or more could be needed. Vitamin and protein content must be watched carefully. Because the air is so dry there must be plenty of fluids to drink.

With the exception of fruit and vegetables, storing food is relatively easy. Most items used to be kept in the open, using holes in the natural ice. Food is now kept at carefully controlled temperatures to ensure its longevity. All water is obtained by melting ice or snow blocks.

Food can also be an important morale booster, particularly during the long dark Antarctic winter, and the chef is often seen as the most important person on a station.

Our meals were regular… this point was essential, since the conditions of the voyage made increasing call on our vitality. Breakfast at 8am, consisted of a pannikin of hot hoosh made from Bovril sledging ration, two biscuits and some lumps of sugar. Lunch came at 1pm and comprised Bovril sledging ration, eaten raw, and a pannikin of hot milk for each man. Tea at 5pm, had the same menu. The meals were the bright beacons in those cold and stormy days. The glow of warmth and comfort produced by the food and drink made optimists of us all.

Shackleton, South, 1919.

  • Read about food at an Antarctic station, and the role of a Antarctic chef.
  • Study the ration list summary [PDF] per person per year at an Antarctic station. A full list is also available [PDF] - you will be really surprised at the detail.
  • In groups the students can discuss why the 'mess' is the heart of an Antarctic station (it is the place where expeditioners all get together for meals, food and drink) and why the chef's role is so crucial. Have them come up with ideas to maximise the attractiveness of the mess and of meals for everyone:
    • for special occasions like birthdays, Midwinter, Christmas
    • routinely.
  • Have the students design the meals for Casey station for three days during June.
  • Have students make up a food provisions list for a party of three biologists visiting a snow petrel breeding site on an island near Casey in late October (two days' camp). Use the ration pack list [PDF] as a guide.
  • As an interesting contrast, read Cherry-Garrard's Worst Journey in the World (an expedition to an emperor penguin colony) and have the students describe the food they had and how they prepared it.
  • In groups, students can analyse a balanced diet. Using the food pyramid they should look at the different properties of each of the food groups and the quantities that are recommended for a balanced diet. They can then compare their own diet to this model. They could do this by graphing the quantities of different foods they have eaten over a day or week. They could then estimate the quantities of food required to feed an expedition group for a year.

Until recently, fresh fruit and vegetables were only available for short periods after the ship had visited the stations. Now, each station has a hydroponic garden, which ensures both a steady supply of fresh produce and provides a valuable recreational activity for expeditioners, especially in winter.

  • Ask students to research which varieties of fruits and vegetables would provide the maximum value for space and nutrition, with a view to planting a hydroponic garden. Compare this with the days before hydroponics, researching how long different fresh foods can last, and what are optimal storage conditions, and suggest ways of cooking balanced meals without fresh food. See hydroponics for further information and links.

Until 1998, the Commonwealth Government supplied generous quantities of alcoholic beverages to expeditioners free of charge. After visits to Antarctic stations by several politicians, the practice has now ceased and expeditioners must take their own supplies, except for a modest amount provided by the Australian Antarctic Division for special occasions such as Christmas Day and Australia Day. Up until the mid-1980s, cigarettes and tobacco were also supplied. For health and safety reasons this was stopped. There is now no smoking allowed in any building in Australian Antarctic stations.

  • Students can debate whether these arrangements are fair or not. What kind of problems would you expect these issues to cause within the community?
This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.