Henry R. Brett was the second of three cooks aboard Robert F. Scott’s Discovery Antarctic expedition. The other expedition members didn’t like him, his cooking was unimaginative and he was dirty (not a good look for a cook).
In January, 1902, Ernest Shackleton persuaded Scott that more seat meat should be eaten by the men of the expedition to keep scurvy symptoms at bay. Albert Armitage described the culinary potential of seals:
‘The Weddell seal formed our staple meat diet, more especially during the second year. Its flesh is a dark brown colour and coarse-grained. If attended to properly by the cook, thawed gradually, and all fat eliminated, it is very palatable, and readily lends itself to any culinary treatment—like beef, for instance. By itself, without seasoning or sauces, etc., it is somewhat flavourless—something like poor horse-flesh, which I have had the pleasure of eating in the North Polar regions.’
Shackleton directed Brett to prepare daily seal meat. Brett refused. Shackleton brought Brett before Scott for insubordination and the cook was equally rude and dismissive. Scott ordered him to be put in irons for disobedience. Brett struggled with his gaolers and escaped twice but afterwards spent eight hours shivering on the fo’c’sle which ‘brought him to his senses and a condition of whining humility’. Scott’s assessment was that Brett was ‘a wretched specimen of humanity’.
During the Antarctic summer of 1902-1903, with Scott away, Armitage became leader at Hut Point. He was particularly adamant that scurvy would not reappear. Following the return of a voyage, on 26 September, 1902, to locate a route towards the South Magnetic Pole, several of the team displayed symptoms of scurvy, particularly Hartley Travers Ferrar.
Armitage was aware that the cook was proving useless at cooking the seal and creating something even near palatable: ‘For about nine months our cook did not appear able to tackle the problem of serving it with any variety; we had fried seal-steak day after day until many of us loathed the sight of it.’
Armitage delivered a thorough dressing-down to Brett, which is unfortunately not recorded. Following this intervention, well-prepared and well-cooked seal steaks appeared from Brett every day. It appeared Brett was a changed kitchen hand. Armitage certainly brought about a change to meals and to how the others viewed their seal: ‘Subsequently, with a change in the method of cooking it, we all voted Weddell seal real good eating’.
Armitage went on to consider the value of seal as well as other polar animals: ‘…though I cannot say that I ever went so far as to declare it [seal] equal to fresh beef or mutton, as some of our company did. In common with other Polar animals, the Weddell seal has a thick coating of blubber as well as a tough hide; so that, at a pinch, a castaway explorer on the shores of South Victoria Land could, by means of this valuable mammal, obtain food, fuel, clothing, and shelter, as Nansen did in the North by means of the Polar bear and the walrus.’
Anthony, J. C. Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine. Lincoln, 1999.
Armitage, A. B. Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition. London, 1905.
Baughman, T. H. Pilgrims on the Ice: Robert Falcon Scott’s First Antarctic Expedition. Lincoln, 2008.
Fiennes, Ranulph. Captain Scott. London, 2004.
Huntford, R. Shackleton. London, 2000.