November 28, 2012
What would you want to eat if you were starving on a dinghy lost at sea? In the 2001 novel Life of Pi, adapted as a movie now in theaters, the castaway protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi, spends the better part of a year on a lifeboat—and one day as he reaches a near-death pinnacle of hunger, suffering and delirium, he envisions a tree full of ripe figs. “‘The branches…are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs,’” Pi drones to himself in reverie. “‘There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.’” Readers are convinced: Perhaps nothing beats a fig for a starving man.
Life of Pi is fiction, but daydreaming of food is a real-life tradition as old as the saga of man against the elements. If we scour the pages of the many books about grueling expeditions across land and sea, we find an impassioned menu of sweet and savory delights to make the mouth water. In his 1986 memoir Adrift, author Steve Callahan—a sailor who was lost at sea for 76 days in 1982—sets a lavish table of dreams on page 108: “I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about food. Fantasies about an inn-restaurant [I dream of opening] become very detailed. I know how the chairs will be arranged and what the menu will offer. Steaming sherried crab overflows flaky pie shells bedded on rice pilaf and toasted almonds. Fresh muffins puff out of pans. Melted butter drools down the sides of warm, broken bread. The aroma of baking pies and brownies wafts through the air. Chilly mounds of ice cream stand firm in my mind’s eye. I try to make the visions melt away, but hunger keeps me awake for hours at night. I am angry with the pain of hunger, but even as I eat [the fish I caught] it will not stop.” (Film director Ang Lee consulted Callahan during the making of Life of Pi for accuracy in portraying the hardships of being lost at sea.)
Men Against the Sea, the historical fiction account of the sailors cast away on a lifeboat by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, is a novella steeped in stomach-scraping hunger. At one point, a man named Lawrence Lebogue exclaims after a failed skirmish with a huge sea turtle he had nearly pulled into the boat, “‘A monster…all of two hundredweight! … To think of the grub we’ve lost! Did ‘ee ever taste a bit of calipee?’” (Calipee is a main ingredient in turtle soup.) Moments later, Capt. William Bligh tells the crew’s botanist, David Nelson, of the feasts he sat in on in the West Indies. Bligh describes “‘their stuffing and swilling of wine. Sangaree and rum punch and Madeira till one marveled they could hold it all. And the food! Pepper pot, turtle soup, turtle steaks, grilled calipee; on my word, I’ve seen enough, at a dinner for six, to feed us from here to Timor!’”
Bligh and the loyal men of the Bounty lived like princes compared with those of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by an angry bull sperm whale in 1820. In Owen Chase’s autobiographical account of the ordeal, part of the book The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, the first mate holds a mostly dry and colorless course: He tells of how the 20 men journeyed for weeks in their small open boats, racing time, dehydration and starvation. They attempt in vain to kill sharks and porpoises, they land on an island and quickly exhaust its thin resources of bird eggs, and they continue across the open Pacific, hoping always to see a sail while growing ever weaker and emaciated. Through it all, the New Englanders essentially never eat or drink. Finally, Chase pauses in his chronology of dates and coordinates to tell of a moment in which he dozed off: “I dreamt of being placed near a splendid and rich repast, where there was every thing that the most dainty appetite could desire; and of contemplating the moment in which we were to commence to eat with enraptured feelings of delight; and just as I was about to partake of it, I suddenly awoke….” Chase leaves us with our eager forks aloft—and we never learn just what it was that he hoped to eat. Turtle soup, likely. In the following days as the anguished men expired one by one, Chase and his companions resorted to cannibalism. Just eight of the lot were rescued.
While stranded for the austral winter of 1916 on the barren Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, after escaping from Antarctica in three tiny lifeboats, the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition passed the time reading through a Penny Cookbook that one of the men had kept dry through many months of dire tribulations. And how that book made them dream! The men had been living for months on seal (and sled dog) meat, and Thomas Ordes-Lee, the expedition’s ski expert and storekeeper, wrote in his journal, “[W]e want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, black currant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.” Their carb cravings were more apparent when one man—the surgeon James McIlroy—conducted a poll to see what each sailor would have to eat if he could choose anything. Their answers included apple pudding, Devonshire dumpling, porridge, Christmas dumpling, dough and syrup and a fruit tart—with most of these dolloped with cream. Just two men wished for meat (pork was their choice), while one with a bleaker imagination said he just wanted bread and butter. For three more months until their rescue, they ate seal and rehydrated milk.
Author Jon Krakauer tells us in his 1990 Eiger Dreams of the time 15 years before that he and a climber friend named Nate Zinsser were holed up during a storm while ascending a new route up the 10,335-foot peak Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska. Dreaming of food, Zinsser said, “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member on Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic voyage of 1901-1903 on the Discovery, recalls one frigid winter’s day, saying, “And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.” And Felicity Aston, a modern explorer from Britain whom I interviewed last January about her solo ski trip across Antarctica, recalled as a highlight of her journey receiving a gift of a nectarine and an apple upon reaching the South Pole research station.
There was no food shortage on the Norwegian research vessel Fram, which Fridtjof Nansen captained into the Arctic Ocean in 1893. His sturdy boat was built with a fortified hull under the plan that she would become frozen in the sea ice and thereby allow Nansen to track the drift of the ice layer by watching the stars—classic, rock solid science in the golden age of discovery. It was a planned “disaster” voyage—and the men went prepared. Nansen, who finally stumbled home again in 1896 caked in campfire soot and seal grease, wrote in his 1897 memoir Farthest North that the expedition carried at the outset several years’ worth of canned and dried foods of numerous sorts. Only during foot or skiff expeditions away from the boat—such as Nansen’s long hike home—did the team members experience great monotony of diet. On one outing, they forgot butter to slab on their biscuits and so named the nearest land “Cape Butterless.” They lived during longer forays on seal, walrus and polar bear—pinniped and bear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; so much pinniped and bear that the reader feels an itch to floss his teeth and scrub down with dish detergent. Meanwhile, Nansen stops to take depth soundings, sketch fossils, study rock strata and express interest in every piece of possible data—and though the pragmatic scientist never does slip into a shameless food fantasy, we know he had them.
If you’d been in Nansen’s boots, what would you have piled on your plate?
June 19, 2012
Seems like just weeks ago that I was hustling to get the dog walked and my bike ride in before dusk fell at 5 p.m. Now, the sun is still shining two hours after dinnertime. You’ve got to love the summer, which technically hasn’t even started yet. For northerners, the first day of summer comes June 20 this year. I’m in Spain, at above 40 degrees latitude, where the solstice sunrise will come at just past 6 a.m. and the sunset at just before 10—and it won’t be dark until well past 11. My celebration plans are to camp on the highest mountain around and, well, I’ll be honest: I’ll probably conk out before it’s dark. A tame party, I know—but here are a few of the grander ways that others of the world are honoring the longest day of the year:
Stonehenge, England. Hippies, pagans and partiers gather by the thousands at the famed and mysterious stone cluster in Stonehenge to watch the sun rise over the slabs—which occurs at precisely 4:52 a.m. each year. The event drew 18,000 people in 2011, of whom 20 were reportedly arrested for drug-related offenses and public disorder. The year before, 20,000 people stood vigil until daybreak, while 36,000 had the patience in 2009. Bad weather in recent years may explain the variation in numbers. From 1972 to 1984, a large free music festival was held at Stonehenge in June, with the event climaxing on the solstice—but the Stonehenge Free Festival was getting out of hand, by authorities’ standards, and in 1985 it was banned. But the sun still rises, and today, though it’s a tamer time than in the past, the solstice gathering at Stonehenge remains one of the largest summer kickoff parties on the planet.
Norway. It needn’t get dark to party, as the annual Midsummer’s Eve bash in Grimstad, on the Norwegian south coast, proves. In the constant light of dusk, or dawn, or whatever you call that twilight state that will persist for several months, Norwegians and others from afar drink expensive beer and dance to the music while the solstice sun plods along the horizon. The Midsummer’s Eve party is generally the biggest Scandinavian holiday of the year and a time of bonfires in honor of Saint Hans, live music and street feasts of sausages and kebabs. Alcoholic drinks are notoriously expensive in Scandinavia, and locals generally get their bloodstream warmed up with cheaper stuff at home before hitting the bars. Not far away, and just a few days later, some 50,000 people are expected to amass on the island of Tromoya for the Hovefestivalen—or Hove Music Festival—a four-day rock fest scheduled for June 26 to June 29. Three stages will feature numerous performers, including headliners The Shins, Skrillex, Snoop Dogg and more. The ticket price includes a campsite.
Mount Shasta. New Age pagans who believe that California’s most massive mountain is inhabited by aliens called Lemurians will gather as they do each year on the summer solstice to meditate, generate love, share hope, generally be in awe of the great mountain and—as stated on the event’s blog site—”receive an incredible download of energy sent from the Crystalline Council of Light.” The blog also says that 2012′s will be “the most potent solstice experienced on your planet in aeons.” Most of us don’t know what that means, but the party sounds like one worth, at least, standing by to watch. Anyway, Mount Shasta is truly a cathedral of nature, and the namesake town that dwells at the base of the volcano is one of the most charming, if quirky, in California, including a restaurant called the Goat Tavern with several dozen beers on tap, a natural foods grocery store, fast access to the Upper Sacramento’s hot fly fishing, book shops where you can learn about the aliens in the mountain and free camping just uphill in the National Forest. Might as well go hiking on the mountain while you’re there, perhaps even a midnight ascent on the solstice—and for a real gas bring skis and have a fast trip down.
Michigan. On June 20, it’s weird beers until well past sundown at one of Michigan’s most outrageous breweries, Kuhnhenn Brewing Company, known for such oddities as the creme brulee java stout and the beet-sugar triple bock. The annual summer solstice party (counterpart to the same brewpub’s winter solstice event) begins at 11 a.m. and in years past has attracted hundreds of people with promises of inventive and festive beers brewed specially for the party. Expect standing room only if you arrive late, a barbecue if you’re there midday. Scheduled for the taps are 12 different wheat beers, including four sour ales and one spiced with habanero peppers. A colorful variety of herb-infused meads (think lavender, hibiscus, saffron, etc.) and several other strong beers will also be available by the bottle. The event gets a bit tribal as the night goes on, with hourly chants hailing the wassail mulled mead, anticipated every year. Meanwhile, beer geeks who know each other by web forum code names meet in the parking lot to trade treasured bottles from their cellars. Sip slowly. The beer pours until 2 a.m.
Spain. The summer sun is a beast to be feared on the scorching plains of La Mancha and southward, but on the north Spanish coast, frequent clouds and rain make the sun a treasure to bask in—and on June 23, the night of San Juan, summer kicks off each year in Spain with bonfires and all-night celebrations. In the northwest city of A Coruña, locals and visitors occupy their days at street festivals, with music and dancing and sardines sizzling on the grill, while the real partying is yet to begin. As the sun nears the horizon, crowds assemble along the cliffs and beaches to watch it sink into the Atlantic later than nearly anywhere else in Spain. Cider flows and bagpipes sing (there seems to be a relation between culture here and just north, in the rainy isles of the United Kingdom) as revelers light the bonfires. Traditional practice is to jump over the flames three times as a purification stunt. By midnight, hundreds of fires are burning, and the Atlantic glowing in reflection.
Alaska. In Anchorage, thousands of people run for 26 miles in the Midnight Sun Marathon to mark the summer solstice. The race, set for June 23 this year (a Saturday) will be accompanied by a half marathon, as well as two even shorter runs. Further north, in Fairbanks, many sun-loving sports fans come out to watch the historic midnight sun baseball game, first played in 1906 and still played today by the Alaska Goldpanners, without lights and only the sun on the horizon illuminating the ball. There’s no sun-in-the-eyes excuse for sloppy right-fielders on this game day. And further north still, sun-seekers annually gather at Eagle Summit in the White Mountains. From here, one can see over the Arctic Circle and, on the solstice, watch as the sun dips, dips, dips—but remains just above the horizon—the first time in the year that the great ball of fire doesn’t entirely vanish. It’s a spectacular reminder of the Earth’s tilt and its motion—but let’s not all lose our heads in celebration, because when we wake up on June 21, it’s all downhill to winter.
And for some summer solstice science…
If you happen to be in the Bahamas, or in Mazatlan, or anywhere else roughly on the tropic of Cancer, try this: Prop a broomstick into the ground, directly upright. At noon, the sun straight overhead, that broomstick will cast no shadow. And if you chance to be on the equator somewhere, then take that broomstick and tilt it due north 23.5 degrees. At noon, no shadow. Or perhaps you’re in New York. Then subtract 23.5 from your latitude of about 41. Now, facing due south, lean your broomstick forward the difference of 17.5 degrees. At noon on the solstice, the sun—as high as it ever gets in the New York City sky—will make no shadow of that broomstick. And for all you readers currently at the north pole, well, you’re in a funny place. Because technically, there’s only room for one of you on the pole itself. Moreover, every direction is due south and you’re standing in every time zone at once. Weird. So, just tilt that broomstick toward the ground, any direction, at 66.5 degrees. When its shadow shrinks to nothing, you know it’s noon somewhere. Neat stuff!