Eat Drink Man Woman. Basic human desires. Can’t avoid them. All my life, that’s all I’ve ever done. Mr. Chu
I was a guest storyteller at an inaugural event by Reel Eats, “A monthly gastronomic, film and story-telling event that brings together Toronto’s finest chefs, raconteurs, and food-lovers.” It is the brainchild of Mary Luz Meija, Sang Kim, Mario Stojanic and Vanessa Yeung.
The featured film was Ang Lee’s beautiful Eat Drink Man Women. Vanessa who runs Aphrodite Cooks hosted. For two days, she and her mom Millie prepped the ingredients. In Vanessa’s loft they lovingly recreated dishes from the film, including Shan Shan’s favourite dumplings ‘Made in the Yeung Family Tradition’.
What does Antarctica have to do with an Asia-themed dinner? As I delve deeply into this book-making project with cook and co-writer Wendy, this continent seems to link to pretty much everything. Antarctica is a mirror; a place of international people owned by nobody (in principle) but significant to everybody. It’s political state and the protection of its resources are as fragile as it’s ecosystem itself despite the goodwill of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and the ATS as a model of international law. The Antarctic is also an archive of global human activity, even though humans (men) didn’t set foot in Antarctica until say 1800 (and a women until 1935, Caroline Mikkelson). It has a transient population ranging from about 1000 to 5000 depending upon the season.
In addition to a delectable dinner, rowdy and delightful company seated at two long tables, it was a treat to meet storytellers Diana Tso and Grace Lynn Kung. Diana gave a secret ingredient for impressing at the hot pot—okra.
In the film, Mr. Chu, a chef and widow in Taipei, tries to communicate with his daughters over Sunday dinners. From what I saw in Antarctica, while those working there over many months missed their families, sharing meals and having celebrations seemed an important ritual with their Antarctic ‘family’, even if they sometimes tired of each other’s constant company. People reminisced about a favourite dish or the person who cooked it for them and shared recipes. Like Lena’s Cabbage Pie that Wendy is making for the book. Before or after supplies dwindled, expeditioners then and now grabbed every opportunity for a feast: a Midwinter Dinner, a name day, a birthday.
In Scott’s journal on Ross Island on his 43rd (last) birthday, he wrote, “After my walk I discovered that great preparations were in progress… Clissold’s especially excellent seal soup, roast mutton and red currant jelly, fruit salad, asparagus and chocolate — such was our menu. For drink we had cider cup, a mystery not yet fathomed, some sherry and a liqueur. After this luxurious meal everyone was very festive and amiably argumentative…” (Scott’s Last Expedition, v.1.)
Captain Scott’s Birthday Dinner, 6 June 1911. Photo: Herbert George Ponting
Following the serving of Chef Chu’s Abundant Blessings Braised Pork Belly with Choi Sum and Double Happiness Clams, I was invited to tell stories related to our upcoming Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning. My sweet table mates ensured I first had some nice Austrian wine, Grooner, to ‘warm me up’.
I read Wendy’s Feb 23, 1996 journal entry about a special visit with Mr. Wong, the Chinese Station cook. Chang Chen Great Wall, was China’s first Antarctic scientific station, built in 1985.
“Walk to Great Wall station for cooking lesson and dinner. Feel like a diplomat as I teach Mr. Wong to make bread and he teaches me secrets of dumpling making with Su-Chung translating. Really very enchanting with people coming into the kitchen to see a foreigner getting a cooking lesson, each offering their own approach to dumpling making. Plenty of picture taking, I don’t feel at all like I’m invading when I pull out my camera. Dinner in conference room. We taste dumplings we’ve made. Yummy and simple. Secret of Chinese cooking? Lots of oil. Drive home at 9pm, laden with gifts, century eggs and lichees. Can’t believe their generosity.”
We stayed at the Russian Antarctic Expedition station on the ‘tail’ of Antarctica closest to Argentina, across a wild sea. Living conditions were basic. Next door was Chile’s modern Eduardo Frei base. China’s Chang Cheng and the Uruguayan Artigas research stations were not far away. We brought volunteers there to help keep clean up years of debris at the Russian base but a preoccupation was food.
At a tipsy Christmas lunch we and a small Russian delegation were invited to with the Chileans I tasted the most delicious artichokes in my life. Mucho pisco sour y водка. I argued with someone about Pinochet, not relenting for any middle ground. He was a war criminal.
Wendy ordered the environment expedition’s food from Argentina. No one went hungry, but at times she had to swap and borrow ingredients and wing meals out of unusual stock or unexpected items. We ate unbelievably well – you’ll see in the book –a testament to Wendy’s skill and ingenuity (and our luck).
Wendy in the “Canada House” kitchen, Bellingshausen Dec 1995 Wendy’s breadmen she made for the Russian scientists
King George Island Photo: Wendy Trusler
Bellingshausen and Frei stations. King George Island. Photo Wendy Trusler
I gave thanks for Vanessa’s gorgeous dinner and lamented there is avoidable hunger in parts of the world today. I remembered Roald Amundsen, RF Scott and Nobu Shirase who 100 years ago separately struggled to survive their quests to or from the South Pole. Less known is the first Japanese Antarctic explorer, Lt. Shirase, who on January 28, 1911, at 80° 5′ South made the difficult decision to turn back as the risks were too great to push on. People over national so-called feats. He and his team also contributed to exploration and science of this continent that has become a canary in the mine.
While preparing for this event, I smiled when reading about an Outward Bound type of limit-testing survival course inspired by explorer Ernest Shackleton (1874 -1922). The course is called “The Journey is Everything.” In my mind, he was an excellent leader. At the moment these largely white male explorers like Shackleton from the “heroic” era of Antarctic exploration are getting a lot of air time but our book will also share some lessons of a different sort. Wendy and Lena Nikolaeva were the ones making our small but spirited expedition happen. We were kind of “borderless” in the Antarctic, in a liberating way. Canada had no presence there and we and the volunteers were guests of the Russians but were on no diplomatic mission, only a human one. Much depended on goodwill.
In 1908 explorer Frank Wild was moved by an act of selflessness when he was ill on the Nimrod Expedition’s southern journey march and the four-man team was on reduced rations.
“S[hackleton] privately forced upon me his one breakfast biscuit, and would have given me another tonight had I allowed him… thousands of pounds would not have bought that biscuit.” (Mills, Leif (1999). Frank Wild. Whitby: Caedmon of Whitby.)
Thanks Sang Kim, Ann Shin and all for the chance to share a meal and a story. Carol
June 21, 1912, In the Footsteps of Douglas Mawson, South Australia Museum. photo: Sandy Nicholson