Longitude's Book of the Month focuses on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler's The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.
The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning
By Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler
What do you think about when you think about Antarctica? Penguins? Icebergs? Shackleton? If food was not the first thing to come to mind, writes Carol Devine, it should be the second. In 1996 Devine led several volunteer groups to Bellingshausen, a Russian research station in Antarctica, to conduct an environmental clean-up project in conjunction with the Russian Antarctic Expedition. One of the first people Devine hired was chef Wendy Trusler. In collaboration once again, Devine and Trusler have produced a beautiful compendium detailing their experiences cooking and cleaning in polar realms.
The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning is designed in the style of historical Antarctic publications, such as Ernest Shackleton's handmade Aurora Australis. It's a miscellany of packing lists and plans, menus, journals, recipes and photos that give the reader a full understanding of what it was like not only to plan and execute an expedition of 50 plus volunteers in harsh conditions — but also to feed them.
The volunteers ate well, not only far better than explorers before them (on Shackleton's expedition in 1916 Frank Hurley hungrily records that "in the stomach of the leopard were found some 50 pre-digested fish, in excellent condition, their stomachs in turn, crammed full with amphipods") but possibly better than many of us might fare in warmer climes and better-equipped kitchens. Trusler managed to feed her fellow adventurers Rosemary Maple Borscht, Mulled Wine, Rosemary-Crusted Lamb Ribs, Red Cabbage Confit, Custard with Fruit Compote, Asparagus Pate, Almond Biscotti with Anise Seed, and her famous Honey Oatmeal Bread — among other gastronomic delights.
Kinfolk-style photos of the tantalizing dishes are paired with historical shots of previous expeditions, such as a photo of Shackleton's men washing up after a meal at Cape Denison. Pictures from the past are flushed with today's color while current photos are mellowed into gray tones. As a result, past and present merge in the sepia-tinted images of the common activities that connect the expeditions across time: cooking and cleaning.
The fact that cooking and cleaning have historically been seen as a woman's responsibility while the uncharted Antarctic was deemed a man's domain makes for an interesting intersection of gender roles and expectations. Just as the borders between nations are easily crossed on the Antarctic continent (the women navigate between Russian, Chinese and Chilean bases), the boundaries of gender roles are also blurred, stretched and explored.
In Ursula Le Guin's fictional story Sur published in The New Yorker in 1982, eight women travel to the South Pole. Though they are among the first humans to reach it, they don't publish their journals. Though they lose their toes, they are happy to leave no footprints. And when the narrator finds the mess Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition left at base camp she declares: "Housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs."
If housekeeping is the art of the infinite, where better to practice it than in a place that embodies the infinite. And how better to protect seemingly endless stretches of landscape than to pick up trash or cook a meal? As Trusler writes, “whether we are taking care of each other or taking care of the land, small gestures matter...There is wisdom to be gleaned from sound housekeeping practices.”
A Longitude Interview
Of interest to armchair travelers, environmentalists, adventurers and foodies alike, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning is an absorbing chronicle of a 55-person environmental cleanup expedition in Bellingshausen, Antarctica. The two authors, Carol Devine, who organized the trip, and expedition chef Wendy Trusler, share the rich experiences and creative thought that went into their captivating travelogue. Read more on our blog.
LONGITUDE: What first inspired you to take a group of volunteers to clean up a portion of the Antarctic? Did you find the prospect intimidating?
DEVINE: I was intimidated, but in hindsight I was ambitious and naïve; that perfect combination of "I didn't know I couldn't do it so I did it." The Russian Antarctic Expedition said they'd have us temporarily at their base Bellingshausen to help clean and volunteers were keen to join. It was our chance to do a small part, though we were conscious this was a special opportunity and we were rightly regulated to tread extremely lightly and not interrupt the scientists.
LONGITUDE: Historically, cooking and cleaning have been assigned to women, while the conquering of continents — especially those with harsh conditions like Antarctica — has been a man's job. How did you both inhabit and break gender roles as you cooked and cleaned in the Antarctic?
DEVINE: I was inspired by women before me who broke through gender ice shelves. I don't think we thought about cooking and cleaning as traditionally female roles — both are necessary components of living to be done by all. Maybe subconsciously we were like the fictional characters in Ursula Le Guin's short story Sur who found themselves tidying up some mess the men left behind.
TRUSLER: Yes, historically cooking has anchored women in the kitchen, but I've never really looked at what I do through a gender lens. In fact, cooking has allowed me to see the world. In Antarctica it was my passport to visit other bases where it helped me break down cultural and class barriers. This was particularly salient at one dinner party where we invited the Chilean and Uruguayan Base Commanders and the Chilean cook to adjudicate my first attempts at their national cuisines. The Chilean cook arrived long after dinner was finished when the other guests had left and told me the reason he was late was because cooks could not eat at the same table as officers. I've always thought it was funny that I'd been able to eat with them. In a way I guess I broke gender roles by not being afraid to inhabit them in the first place.
LONGITUDE: We love the book's thoughtful design and scrapbook aesthetic. How did you come up with the idea to format your memories in the style of other handmade Antarctic publications?
TRUSLER: The decision to piece together our book using archival materials from our expedition (lists, menu and meal plans, recipes and journal entries) was an organic one that grew out of a desire to immerse readers in the expedition experience. We were delighted to learn that approach had such a rich history.
LONGITUDE: How did reading the words of those who had gone before you help to prepare or inspire you for the task ahead?
DEVINE: I'd read bits of classics before departing such as The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard who survived the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1912, but had not read a lot of Antarctic history. I'd heard of Shackleton's inspiring survival story and was aware several countries were involved in early polar explorations. After returning I dove into Antarctic books and spent a few days in the Scott Polar Research Institute archive. That helped for the next part of the journey, the book-making. As Cherry-Garrard wrote, "The first object of writing an account of a Polar voyage is the guidance of future voyagers."
TRUSLER: I hadn't read much, if any, Antarctic lore before we departed, but I certainly relied on it while down there. Antarctica is so remote and its history so short, the stories felt relevant and as essential as knowing your neighbors. For example, we had a problem with a smoky stove that left a dusting of soot on anything I made in the oven. We eventually got to the root of the problem, but for a while the only way we could explain it to the volunteers was by reading an early explorer's journal where he described smoky stoves as an Antarctic phenomenon.
LONGITUDE: What books do you recommend to the traveler contemplating a trip to polar regions?
DEVINE: Something contemporary and historic. There's so much to choose from. Sir Douglas Mawson's Home of the Blizzard (first published in 1930) and Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (1996). I also just learned about the genre of Antarctic Thriller at a meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. In these stories the ice is invariably anthropomorphized as a villain or savior.
TRUSLER: Captain Scott, Sir Ranulph Fiennes' definitive biography of Sir Robert Falcon Scott, contextualizes all Antarctic exploration and explores the way that Scott's reputation has been maligned and distorted. Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur is a compelling novel written by the first novelist selected for the US Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.
LONGITUDE: What opportunities are there for the traveler who wants to both appreciate the Antarctic and protect it?
DEVINE: If you're lucky enough to go to Antarctica, it is an incredible place to bear witness to a last wilderness. Not only travelers but also those going in a scientific or governmental role, please think about your footprint, the size of the ship, the program or company's ethos, adherence to and engagement with guidelines for visitors to the Antarctic. Many are thoughtful trips that include educational and awareness components.
TRUSLER: Look for a reason to go to Antarctica in line with what you do for a living. Artists, scientists, geologists, historians, environmental scientists, etc. can ask if there are any openings for lecturers or workshop facilitators on board ship and pitch an idea for your own program.
LONGITUDE: Carol, what was your favorite thing to eat in the Antarctic, and Wendy, what was your favorite dish to cook?
DEVINE: After a long day of trudging to a work site and picking up garbage or hauling an abandoned fuel pipe I adored the smell and luscious taste of Wendy's warm honey oatmeal bread covered in Argentine butter. It wasn't just me talking about Wendy's bread all the way across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia, it was the volunteers, the Russians and the others on King George Island who had the good fortune to eat it.
TRUSLER: One of my favorite dishes to cook was a recipe our nearest neighbors, the Chileans, shared with me — Cazuela, a rustically, elegant one-pot meal akin to pot roast. It's perhaps counter-intuitive to make a big steaming pot of anything heading into summer, but Canada House Cazuela is one of those simmer-and-neglect-all-day recipes that doesn't require you to be in the kitchen for extended periods, with the built-in latitude to finish the dish with whatever is growing in your garden: fresh beans, new potatoes, squash.
When I make it in the winter I tend to hover over the pot.
For more recommended reading on Antarctica, click here.