The Antarctic Book of Cooking & Cleaning

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 the 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, letters and photographs 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 tinted 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 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.”