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A Different Kind of Dinner Bell in the Antarctic

How do you catch a penguin supper when you're trapped in Antarctic ice? Play music

“Penguin Interviews,” via Frederick Cook’s Through the first Antarctic night, 1896-1899.

Frederick Cook was an American surgeon and a polar explorer who set out for the edge of the unknown: Antarctica. It was the first major scientific expedition of the Heroic Age. The year: 1897. The ship: the Belgica.

On its way back to South America, the ship got stuck in the ice for an entire cold, sun-less Antarctic winter. What little they had to eat, they ate—cans of mysterious tinned meat and fishballs that supposedly contained cream. Even Nansen, the ship’s cat, went a little crazy.

Eventually, penguins began flocking to the ship and the birds were—Cook wrote—“of equal interest to the naturalist and the cook.” He began eating penguins. They taste like “a piece of beef, odiferous cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce”—but eventually he convinced the crew’s leader to make everyone eat penguin. Remember, Cook was a physician and was essentially prescribing this fresh meat as medicine.

Raoul Amundsen was a member of the crew, who perhaps should be remembered not just for reaching the South Pole first, or even going on to reach both poles first, or even passing through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage. Because Amundsen and his Belgica shipmate Frederick Cook ate penguin meat, they were able to stave off scurvy—a vitamin C deficiency that plagued nearly every explorer of the Heroic Age. They’re some of the very few explorers of that era who can make that claim.

What the crew of the Belgica also stumbled upon was a novel method for hunting the birds. According to a recent paper in Endeavour, Jason C. Anthony (also the author of forthcoming book on polar cuisine), writes:

By the end of July they were living mainly on penguin meat, with a marked improvement in the crew. Gerlache, the captain, was the last to consent, and thus the last to be cured, but soon offered rewards to the crew for bringing in penguins for the larder—one frank for living birds, fifty centimes for dead ones. This was easy money, as it turned out. The crew learned in their final months that they could summon both penguins and seals to the ship by simply playing a tune on their cornet.

They played them music, almost like polar snake charmers intent on eating the birds they charmed. Cook reported on December 16 (p. 382):

At meal time, a cornet is used to call the men together, and the penguins, it seems, also like the music; for when they hear it they make directly for the ship, and remain as long as the music lasts, but leave once it ceases. In this manner we have only to wait and seize our visitor to obtain penguin steaks, which are, just at present, the prize of the menu.

Of course, the music may have played only a bit part in the overall conquest of the South Pole. And, as Ernest Shackleton later learned, not all music was a recipe for catching a potential penguin dinner. As Fen Montaigne writes in Fraser’s Penguins:

One of his men pulled out a banjo and began playing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which, as Shackleton recounts in South, “The solemn looking little birds appeared to appreciate.” The bagpipe, however, was another story, and when a Scottish member of the expedition began to play the national instrument, the Adelies “fled in terror and plunged back into the sea.”

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