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Anyone who is in the slightest acquainted with stories of polar exploration up to about 1970 will have heard of Pemmican. This is an early form of a processed food first invented by the Hudson Bay Company and based on traditional Native North American Indian recipes. It was planned to be very compact, very nutritious and to remain edible for a long time.
There are many recipes for Pemmican, but basically it consists of a mixture of pounded dried beef with beef fat - other meats or mixtures of meats may be substituted for beef. Explorers of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration would take great care in where they bought their Pemmican from and the recipe that it was made to. Pemmican would provide nearly half of the total calories eaten out in "the field".
Pemmican was basic nutritious food that also had the added advantage of remaining edible for years though it is not terribly appetizing. It was often made up into a thick meat soup when simmered with melted snow known as "Hoosh", this was eaten with butter-laden sledging biscuits.
Today, pemmican is gaining something of a resurgence as it is prepared and eaten as a snack-food by body-builders and the like, although they often cheat by putting berries in with it. I found recipes on the net for all kinds of meat ingredients, kangaroo seems popular in Australia. The best I tasted was made of reindeer from the herd that are naturalized on South Georgia (released by whalers and sealers) - it was also about 8 years old at the time I ate it. It was ok but as a savoury snack, I prefer pork scratchings.
Make your own pemmican
1. Dehydrate strips of raw red meat on a very low heat in the oven. About 2-6lbs for a batch. Ask the butcher to slice it for you as thinly as possible. It should be completely dry but not cooked. If it cooks, it will taste gritty when finished.
2. Grind the dehydrated strips up. The Indians pounded them with rocks, but a food processor is probably more acceptable in the modern kitchen. Spices or berries can be added at this time.
3. Prepare the tallow (for binding it all together) by rendering animal fat. Melt strips of beef fat (possibly free from the butchers - ("you want to do what with it?!!") in a frying pan on a low heat until the rinds float to the surface (throw them away - maybe in the direction of the dog or bird table). Carry on heating the resulting tallow until all moisture is removed. It is very important to remove all water from the fat to prevent it going rancid (yuck). Proper tallow can be made from beef fat (suet is best) or lamb fat but not from pork fat as this won't set hard enough when cool. Tallow when cold looks like candle wax in colour and consistency.
4. When the resulting tallow is cold enough to touch but still liquid, add it slowly to the meat powder mixing thoroughly, until all of it is just saturated. This is about a 60:40 meat:tallow ratio by weight.
5. Mould the finished product into tins or whatever - manly bone shapes or gingerbread men moulds etc. When it hardens you've finished. Store in a dry place.
Along with Pemmican, sledging biscuits are a part of polar lore. They are approximately 2" x 3" (5 x 7.5 cm) and fairly thick for biscuits. They are hard and rather like the boring plain ones you get left in a mixed box of "biscuits for cheese" at Christmas.
Along with pemmican sledging biscuits were - and still are - one of the mainstays of food for Antarctic field parties. So much so in fact that sledging biscuits from Scott's 1912 polar expedition and Shackleton's voyage to South Georgia on the James Caird have even come up at auction in the last few years with price tags of many $1,000's. Ordinary ones are cheaper however.
Scurvy is a deficiency disease caused by lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). It was a common complaint on sailing ships before about 1900. Humans are one of the few animals (along with monkeys and guinea pigs) that are unable to make vitamin C from other components of the diet. We have to consume it ready made in our food.
The body stores enough vitamin C for about three months. It is found in a whole range of foods, but especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Now as you have already learnt, fresh fruits and vegetables are not common in Antarctica even today. So for early explorers in particular, scurvy was a very real problem. Polar exploration (amongst other exploits) resulted in scurvy as much as anything because it had been relatively rare since 1803 when the Royal Navy introduced citrus fruits, lemons and limes to combat it. By the end of that century it was such a distant problem that those who suffered from it did not recognise the early stages that their grandfathers would have spotted straight away.
Those going to the Arctic generally had an easier time of it as game is generally more common than in the Antarctic. Where explorers could eat fresh meat (raw) they could usually escape the effects of scurvy. Even though meat contains relatively little vitamin C it does contain enough. Another factor contributing to scurvy is that vitamin C in stored food breaks down over time and is also broken down by cooking. Some expeditions had considerable quantities of lemon juice (fresh lemon juice is a good source of the vitamin - not the best though) but still the members fell ill with scurvy as the vitamin C in the juice deteriorated until it was no longer effective.
Symptoms: Insufficient vitamin C affects the body's production of collagen - a protein in connective tissue that surrounds body structures and holds them together. When someone has scurvy, collagen is still produced, but it is unstable and causes small blood vessels to become weak and wounds to be poorly held together.
Haemorrhages can occur any where in the body, but are most obvious in the skin where they cause widespread bruising. Bleeding from the gums and loosening of teeth is common. Bleeding into muscles and joints also occurs causing pain, tiredness and disorientation. If no vitamin C is available then eventually death is caused usually by bleeding into and around the brain.
A particularly gruesome symptom of scurvy is that old wounds re-open. Wounds are kept closed by scar tissue with a high proportion of collagen, this collagen is continually replaced in the healthy body. With scurvy, the replacement collagen is defective and so wounds from decades beforehand can re-open and bleed once again. Life at sea was a rough and dangerous existence so the men most likely to get scurvy were also those who would most quickly suffer the most from it by old wounds re-opening. On one Arctic expedition in 1875 an Admiralty surgeon specified that no sailors with "old wounds" would be accepted.
In particularly unfortunate individuals;
"Scurvy can reduce the body to a bloated yellow carcass daubed with purple, red and green blotches caused by previous bouts of bleeding of differing ages. The skin itches viciously and where scratched can erupt into suppurating ulcers. The flesh literally falls away reeking of putrefaction."
The cure for scurvy is simply to administer large quantities of vitamin C, noticeable improvement occurs within 24 hours.
Ernest Shackleton suffered from scurvy on Scott's Discovery Expedition in 1901 - 1904 and had to be sent home sick on a relief ship that arrived. Several other members of the ship's crew and expedition also showed symptoms. The reason was that lime juice was taken as a source of vitamin C, and it's not really that good. Lemons have about twice as much, but one of the best things of all are blackcurrants with four times as much, they also grow really well in Britain whereas lemons and limes don't - but their high vitamin C content wasn't known at the time.
Some expeditions, took supplies of cress seed or bean seeds with them. If any of the men looked like they were coming down with scurvy, the seeds would be sprouted and fed to the ill man. As the seeds grew, they made vitamin C and so worked to make it on demand. Unfortunately, this was not widely known or practiced. On the expedition on board the Belgica from 1897-1898, the leader and ship's captain both became ill with scurvy. Roald Amundsen (later to be the first to reach the South Pole) and Frederick Cook (later to claim to be the first to reach the North Pole), rallied the crew and forced them to eat a diet of raw seal meat to overcome scurvy. It worked and no-one else fell ill because of it.
Lemons, and oranges (and later on, limes) were discovered to be a cure for scurvy in 1747 when James Lind a Royal naval surgeon on board HMS Salisbury gave different cures to six pairs of scurvy victims. One lucky pair had two oranges and a lemon in addition to their normal food and were soon strong enough to help nurse the others. Foods that contain vitamin C and can fight off scurvy are sometimes called "scorbutic".
|It is wrong to suggest modern consumers of pemmican are
'cheating' by eating preparations with added berries. These provide
essential vitamins missing from meat/fat only combinations and this
addition was common amongst Native Americans.
Amundsen believed the pemmican he chose for his team made a crucial difference to their success. It included both berries and dried peas (the later particularly containing necessary B-complex vitamins, without which their diet was entirely devoid). Scott's was a meat/fat only type. That the death of the latter and his companions was complicated, if not hastened, by scurvy (and probably beri-beri - see the research by Hunstford with nutritionists on this issue) is now accepted and well-known - although the British authorities such as the Royal navy and Geographic Society did their best to hide it at the time. It reflected poorly not only upon Scott's choices but also on the persistence of obsolete theories and poor sources of information and knowledge throughout these institutions - a dangerous heresy during WWI. The considerable propaganda surrounding Scott was to propagate a hero-myth by insisting they succumbed to nature's forces by bad luck and not by poor preparation, questionable leadership and the inflexibility and absurdity of the Navy's cleaving to the outmoded tradition of man-hauling.
Topov - UK - by email
My comment about "cheating" was intended as tongue-in-cheek as with berries it is not as hard-core (and unbalanced) as the supposed "better" pemmican devised by the British explorers with little reference to more "primitive" cultures (such as American Indians) who were ignored to the detriment of the product.
You are quite right in your comments about nutrition, status and blind adherence to out-dated methods. Amundsen on the other hand was far better prepared, nutritionally and in terms of transport and clothing having taken and valued knowledge from the Inuit in particular that was ignored by the British at that time.
Paul Ward - webmaster
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