The first aeronauts who ascended the sky in a candy-colored hydrogen balloon brought with them mercury barometers, thermometers, telescopes and bottles of champagne. Later, when the acrobatic balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi took off in London, he lunched on chicken legs as he “rowed” across the sky. As Richard Holmes writes in The Age of Wonder, Jean Blanchard and John Jeffries packed bread, chicken and brandy on their hairy trip across the English Channel in 1785.
Given the legacy of polar exploration and the abysmal reputation of modern in-flight cuisine, I was curious to find out what S. A. Andrée packed to eat during his intended flyover of the North Pole. Of the 19th century explorers—a parade of some 751 fanatics—who tried to reach the last mysterious destination on earth, risking cold and starvation, only Andrée, a single-minded Swedish futurist, made the attempt in an aerostat. He had become fascinated by hydrogen balloons after visiting Philadelphia in 1876 and, upon returning to Sweden (on account of some stomach troubles he attributed to drinking ice water!), he set about designing balloons that could be used for exploration. In 1897, Andree took off for the pole on board the Eagle, complete with a tuxedo he intended to wear upon his arrival in San Francisco.
In Alec Wilkinson’s new book The Ice Balloon, he describes what the three men ate on their voyage into the unknown. “Around noon, they had a meal: chateaubriand, the king’s special ale, chocolate with biscuits and raspberry syrup, and water”—an intriguing al fresco dining experience amid the polar fog.
Andrée never returned. His voyage remained a mystery until 33 years later when sealers found the expedition’s remains, including photographs and journals, on the island of Kvitøya. The balloon had only flown for less than three days and the men then fought their way across the ice. Some suspected that the explorers’ subsequent fare sealed their fate—both in terms of what they had eaten (eating polar bear liver causes hypervitaminosis A; eating undercooked meats runs the risk of trichinosis and botulism) and what they had not eaten (lack of fresh foods and vitamin C leads to scurvy). The tale that Wilkinson tells nearly defies the imagination, the least of which is because the foolhardy polar adventurer did something almost unheard of today: He ate extraordinarily well in the skies.