Madhouse at the End of the World: a Doomed Antarctic Expedition, Insanity, and Penguin Meat

“The soft, colorless drops that the men found on their plates every evening bore little resemblance to the dish that was promised on the label of the can. Most outrageous for most were Kjøttboller, the spongy meatballs de Gerlache bought in Norway … To vary the flavors, Michotte [the appointed “chef”] I often mixed the cans together into a nondescript stew that was somehow less than the sum of its parts. “

All they had to look forward to for six sunless months was dinner. But even that was becoming hard to bear.

The first time they prepared a platter of penguin meat, the only game in town (the town = huge ice glaciers and nothing else), “it tasted kind of like fish and poultry, with a game smell.” They decided never to eat it again . Until a few weeks pass and men’s health begins to deteriorate. Their heartbeat increased and decreased, some had sagging bags of fluid under their eyes, and lethargy was common. The ship’s first comrade, Roald Amundsen, became particularly ill.

Cook recognizes their symptoms as scurvy, and without fresh fruit, vegetables, or meat they could die from it. He persuades the Belgica boys to try penguin one more time with seal meat. (Cook had spent time with the Inuit during a previous harrowing trip to the Arctic and found that they survived the winter on meat and bacon, often raw.) Cook preferred his lightly seared penguin steaks, but recommended that everyone eat them as infrequently as possible eat.

“Remarkably, after just a few days of eating the schnitzel, which was the consistency of fatty, undercooked chicken, Amundsen was almost back to normal,” writes Sancton. They did not know then what we know today that meat contains vitamin C, which is essential for the formation of collagen in the body.

Scurvy is one of a list of nightmares the men encounter on this large, rat-infested ship in the middle of the Antarctic ice. The rest, however, are outside the scope of this food publication. So all you have to do is read the book to find out.

Madhouse at the end of the world

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