Into the White: plum pudding, caramels, and ginger

Paperback edition of Joanna Grochowicz's Into the White and, in the foreground, a plum pudding.

A Plum pudding, also known as a Christmas pudding, contains no plums (explanation). Furthermore, outside the British Isles, the word “pudding” usually denotes a milk-based dessert with the consistency of a mousse or custard, so this fruitcake’s name will strike many non-Brits as misleading. Recipes vary, but roughly half of the finished pudding’s volume consists of dried fruits (e.g. sultanas, currants, and raisins). Typically, plum puddings are heavily spiced and ours, Australian products purchased from a local expatriate-oriented eatery, derived much of their flavor from candied orange peel.

Accella’s upper-intermediate-level students recently completed their reading of Into the White, a vivid and YA-accessible retelling of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1911-1913 Terra Nova Expedition, the fourth and last semi-official British Antarctic Expedition. A plum pudding, like the one in the photo above, was among the treats consumed by Scott and his four companions, huddled in a tent near the South Pole, as part of their modest Christmas Eve dinner:

I must write a word of our supper last night. We had four courses. The first, pemmican, full whack, with slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and curry powder and thickened with biscuit; then an arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit hoosh sweetened; then a plum-pudding; then cocoa with raisins, and finally a dessert of caramels and ginger. After the feast it was difficult to move. Wilson and I couldn’t finish our share of plum-pudding. We have all slept splendidly and feel thoroughly warm—such is the effect of full feeding.

That’s an excerpt from an entry in Scott’s journal, penned on December 25th, 1911. The expedition’s five-man polar party; comprised of Scott, his friend and confidant Doctor Edward Wilson, Henry Robertson (aka “Birdie”) Bowers, Lawrence (aka “Titus”) Oates, and Edgar (aka “Taff”) Evans; had reached the polar plateau less than a week earlier. Unbeknownst to them, a rival explorer (Norway’s Roald Amundsen) had already beaten them to the South Pole (arriving there on December 14th), but that crushing disappointment still lay a few weeks’ worth of grueling marches away.

The tale Joanna Grochowicz tells in Into the White hews quite closely to the accepted historical narrative, so be prepared to find yourself holding your breath at points where lives are on the line and breathing sighs of relief each time that gumption and a spot of luck allow expedition members to narrowly cheat death. You’ll chuckle at scenes depicting lighthearted moments and exalt with Scott’s men when they accomplish feats never attempted before or since. Reading the passage in which the brave explorers finally arrive at the South Pole and Bowers lays eyes on a cairn and flag left by the already-departed Norwegians will be a gut-wrenching experience for all but the most hard-hearted reader.

In a nutshell, Captain Scott’s goal was to trek from his expedition’s coastal Antarctic base to the South Pole, plant the flag of the British Empire, and trek back. While he oversaw the placement of caches of supplies at intervals along what would be the initial stages of the route, he and his companions would be traveling the entire way on foot. They would be spending much of the trip in harnesses, dragging the bulk of their food, fuel, and equipment behind them on sleds. An inadequate understanding of human dietary needs led to the adoption of rations that afforded the men a sub-starvation caloric intake. That, and with the expedition physicians’ pre-WWI-era medical knowledge, exacerbated the problems inherent in such an arduous undertaking. In the end, Scott and the rest of his handpicked polar party reached the South Pole only to find they’d gotten there a month after Amundsen. Exhausted, starving, and suffering from scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency), they perished on the return leg of their trek.

Author Joanna Grochowicz‘s novel is undoubtedly the best recent account of the Terra Nova Expedition and certainly the go-to book on the subject for younger audiences. Readers should be aware, however, that Grochowicz approaches her characters with a great deal of sympathy, seemingly even to the point of omitting particular bits of information or finessing certain topics where choices made by the expedition’s leader and his men, while perhaps understandable given their circumstances, appear less than prudent in retrospect.

For example, Into the White describes the way that frostbite ravaged the feet of Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and Taff Evans as they struggled to return from the South Pole, but never notes the fact that the men whom Scott had sent back to the coast at earlier stages of the southward journey, in what he called “return parties”, escaped with their feet unscathed. This was likely at least partly because the dried grass in return party members’ boots had not yet degraded (i.e. rotted) to the point of uselessness. Dried grass? Indeed. The finneskos (reindeer-skin boots) Scott and his men wore started out stuffed with leaves of a sedge called sennegrass and this inner layer absorbed moisture and provided the bulk of the boots’ insulation. It was a consumable item, intended to be replaced periodically, but Scott apparently hadn’t brought any extra. Grochowicz makes no mention of the sennegrass and implies that the finneskos’ failure to protect their wearers’ feet was a consequence of superficial wear to their exteriors:

The fur covering has rubbed off their finnesko boots after so many hundreds of kilometres of hard slog, and their feet feel exposed, with only several layers of woollen socks for insulation.

Another case in point is the book’s handling of the issue of scurvy. The threat posed to Antarctic explorers by this ailment is mentioned, as is the drinking of lime juice by Scott’s men at their coastal digs to prevent it from rearing its head there. The toll scurvy took later on the expedition’s second-in-command (Lieutenant Edward Evans) while he was leading one of the return parties is also described. Curiously, however, the passages of Into the White concerning the polar party are devoid of even a single mention of scurvy. An alert reader might suspect the “hoosh” (pemmican and crushed biscuits mixed together in hot water) on which the polar party subsisted of being rather low in vitamin C and wonder why the same men who had regularly consumed lime juice while at the edge of Antarctica apparently elected not to continue that regimen during a months-long trek to the continent’s center and back.

It comes down to the Edwardians’ incorrect understanding of the causes of scurvy. The evening lectures delivered by select expedition members on their areas of expertise while the expedition wintered at the coast, months before Scott and his team struck out for the South Pole, made it into Grochowicz’s book and she touches on the topics of several of these talks. Oddly, given its pertinence, the subject of Edward L. Atkinson’s lecture is never mentioned. For his turn at the podium, Atkinson (a Royal Navy surgeon) elected to hold forth on the cause, symptoms, and treatment of scurvy. In line with the British medical community consensus at the time, he attributed scurvy to increased acidity in the sufferer’s blood, caused by the consumption of tainted preserved foodstuffs. Regular intake of lime juice was known to stave off scurvy and eating fresh meat was acknowledged to be of some benefit as well but preventative measures were only deemed unnecessary if the food supplies were of high quality and had been conscientiously prepared. By the time that he set off for the South Pole, Scott had grown confident that his pemmican and other edibles were uncontaminated. Thus, no lime juice was loaded onto the sleds and fresh meat (a finite supply of horse flesh was all that was available) was consumed only rarely. For a highly readable journal article addressing the question of how large a part scurvy played in dooming the polar party, we’d recommend Anthony Robert Butler’s 2013 paper The role of scurvy in Scott’s return from the South Pole, published in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Last but not least, the book touches very lightly on the failures of Lieutenant Evans and Dr. Atkinson, who served as commander of the coastal base during the period that Lt. Evans was incapacitated by scurvy, to carry out (or see to it that others carried out) Captain Scott’s final orders concerning critical re-supply missions to caches of food and fuel and his request that the returning polar party be met at a certain point and escorted back to the coast. For more on that topic, you would do well to read Chris S. M. Turney’s , published in the Polar Record in September 2017.