1954 First cook at Mawson Base, Antarctica

Jeff Gleadell on his return from Antarctica. The Argus, Melbourne 1955

In January 1954, a party of 10 men set out to build the first permanent Australian base on the Antarctic mainland. Among them was Jeff Gleadell, who became the cook at the new base. The National Archives has the hand-written diary of the Antarctic cook, which has been digitised and is available online.

The Perth Guardian reported on the departure from Melbourne of the Kista Dan, a ship built in Denmark especially for navigation in polar waters. The paper quoted the leader of the expedition, Mr P G Law, a seasoned Antarctic expeditioner, who explained a little about the rations for the group saying they would live mainly out of tins, but that there would be some local fresh meat.

There is seal meat (“something, but only something, like steak”), penguin meat, and penguin eggs. They may also have an occasional piece of whale steak, though whale meat, says Mr Law, “tastes just like whale.” But they find seal brain and liver “very choice.”  

The same article declared that it was not difficult to find men anxious to go to Antarctica, but that it was a very specialised field.

When they advertise for a cook, they don’t just advertise for a cook. They say, “Wanted. A cook for the Antarctic Continent. He should have an interest in adventure and a history of outdoor life and adventures. The cook they got, Jeffrey Gleadell, was born in the Antarctic at South Georgia.

It’s not clear how Jeffrey Gleadell qualified for the cook’s job as, prior to joining the expedition, he had been working as a bricklayer in the coal mines at Kurri Kurri, a town in the Hunter region of New South Wales. But he had spent two and a half years at a South Georgia whaling station (whether this was in his infancy the Newcastle Morning Herald failed to mention). Also in his favour, he first went to sea at the age of 15 and, at 17, had been “mess boy” for a previous Antarctic expedition led by Sir Hubert Wilkins in 1929.

Judging by several newspaper reports, however, Gleadell’s cooking was appreciated by the team.  Mid-winter was a milestone event, celebrated by a lavish dinner. The menu began with tomato juice and hors d’oeuvres of olives, gherkins, salami sausage, toasted cheese and sardines on toast. Cold consomme was to be matched with French red wine, while the asparagus purée called for white wine (also French). The entrée of cheese souffle was accompanied by sherry. Then it was on to the chicken casserole with sauté potatoes, buttered asparagus and cauliflower in white sauce. Desserts were steamed fruit pudding, brandy sauce, fruit cup and ice cream, followed by cheese, biscuits, cake, coffee and liqueurs. Quite a feat for a bricklayer from Kurri Kurri.  A similar menu was presented on Christmas Day but included roast pork and Christmas pudding.

Gleadell varied the menu by serving up the local wildlife. On just the third day of the diary, seal brains featured on the luncheon menu. “Remove all skin, boil in milk, dip in egg, crumb and fry” he noted.  It seemed there was never too much of a good thing. One Sunday, on “cook’s day off”, Gleadell went out on the sea ice seal hunting.  The hunting party bagged two seals. “Larder and dog food now well stocked”, the diary records. The following day saw seal liver on the luncheon menu, with fried seal steaks for dinner. Tuesday’s lunch featured saute of seal – a mix of the steak, heart and kidneys – with seal steaks once again on the dinner menu. By Wednesday evening, everyone was no doubt relieved to sit down to roast lamb and baked potatoes.

Another specialty of the Antarctic cook was braised skua. “Cut breasts from fresh skua, clean and fry with onions & gravy, simmer in pressure cooker for 1 hour. Very good way of cooking skua from eater’s point of view,” Gleadell wrote. Before too long, the fresh vegetables were in poor condition. Dehydrated cabbage replaced fresh. As the year drew on, potatoes appeared at every meal, cabbage and carrots almost daily.  The menus were surprisingly diverse, although very much in the “meat and three veg” tradition. Dessert accompanied every dinner and soup preceded every lunch.

As well as serving up three cooked meals a day, plus tea and biscuits or cakes mid-morning and mid-afternoon, Gleadell baked bread, buns, scones and pastry. His kitchen equipment included a slow-combustion stove and a gas stove supplied with fuel from cylinders of compressed gas. Gleadell complained about the draughts in the gas oven and noted that bread dough was slow to rise because of the cold. The gas cylinders were exhausted by the end of March and he began cooking on the AGA, which he said “worked very well”.

Tuesday 4 May was Gleadell’s birthday and culinary duties were assumed by another member of the party. “An excellent dinner. Good time had by all,” the diary records. A footnote reads, “Night. Reflections vague”. The following day, there’s just a question mark over breakfast, with a note: “cook recovering after birthday”. By dinner time, though, the Antarctic cook was back in action – cooking up fried seal steak.

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