Oct 092017

Today is Leif Erikson Day in various parts of the US. Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans known to have set foot in continental North America, well before Columbus. The book America Not Discovered by Columbus by Rasmus Anderson, first published in 1874, helped popularize the idea that Vikings were the first Europeans in the New World. During his appearance at the Norse-American Centennial in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge gave recognition to Leif Erikson as a precursor to Columbus due to research by Norwegian-American scholars such as Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen. In 1929, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to officially adopt Leif Erikson Day as a state holiday, thanks in large part to efforts by Rasmus Anderson. In 1931, Minnesota followed suit. By 1956, Leif Erikson Day had been made an official observance in seven states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, and California) and one Canadian province (Saskatchewan).  In 2012, the day was also made official in Las Vegas, Nevada. October 9th is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life. The date was chosen because the ship Restauration, coming from Stavanger, arrived in New York Harbor on October 9, 1825, at the start of the first organized emigration from Norway to the United States.

Leif Erikson, according to several Icelandic sagas, established a Norse settlement at Vinland, tentatively identified with the Norse L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station.

Leif was the son of Erik the Red (hence his patronymic which is not a family name), the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild (Þjóðhildur).  He was the grandson of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson, and distant relative of Naddodd, who discovered Iceland. His year of birth is most often given as c. 970 or c. 980. Though Leif’s birthplace is not accounted for in the sagas, it is likely he was born in Iceland, where his parents met[16]—probably somewhere on the edge of Breiðafjörður, and possibly at the farm Haukadal where Thjóðhild’s family is said to have been based. Leif had two brothers, Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr, and a sister, Freydís.

Thorvald Asvaldsson was banished from Norway for manslaughter and went into exile in Iceland accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was himself banished from Iceland, he travelled further west to an area he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Leif and his crew travelled from Greenland to Norway in 999 CE. Blown off course to the Hebrides and staying for much of the summer, he arrived in Norway and became a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason. He also converted to Christianity and was given the mission of introducing the religion to Greenland. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both thought to have been written around 1200, contain different accounts of the voyages to Vinland. The only two known strictly historical (in the modern sense) accounts of Vinland are found in the work of Adam of Bremen c. 1075 and in the Book of Icelanders compiled c. 1122 by Ari the Wise. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif apparently saw Vinland for the first time after being blown off course on his way to introduce Christianity to Greenland.

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen’s translation of the two sagas in Voyages to Vinland, Leif was not the first European to sight North America: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when Leif was also blown off course to a land that he did not expect to see he supposedly found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country and went back to Greenland (and Christianized the people there). Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see North America, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.

Leif then approached Bjarni, purchased his ship, gathered a crew of 35 men, and mounted an expedition towards the land Bjarni had described. His father, Erik, was set to join him but dropped out after he fell from his horse on his way to set sail, an incident he interpreted as a bad omen. Leif followed Bjarni’s route in reverse and landed first in a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland (Flat-Rock Land; possibly Baffin Island). After venturing further by sea, he landed the second time in a forested place he named Markland (Forest Land; possibly Labrador). Finally, after two more days at sea, he landed in a verdant area with a mild climate and plentiful supplies of salmon. As winter approached, he decided to encamp there and broke his party into two groups – one to remain at camp and the other to explore the country. During one of these explorations, Tyrker, one of Leif’s thralls, discovered that the land was full of vines and grapes. Leif therefore named the land Vinland. Leif and his crew built a small settlement there which was called Leifsbudir (Leif’s Booths) by later visitors from Greenland. After having wintered over in Vinland, Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of grapes and timber. On the return voyage, he rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew, earning him the nickname “Leif the Lucky.”

Research done in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has been suggested that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is Leif’s settlement of Leifsbúðir. The Ingstads demonstrated that Norsemen had reached America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station and waypoint for voyages there. That does not necessarily contradict the identification of L’Anse aux Meadows with Leifsbúðir since the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider region which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other settlements in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfjǫrðr, which lay beyond Kjalarnes promontory and the Wonderstrands, and one called Hóp, which was located even farther south.

We know what ingredients the Vikings used in their cooking but there are no extant recipes. Here, instead is a Norwegian recipe for chieftain’s soup which seems appropriate even if only in name. As is usual for my soup recipes the quantities are merely suggestions. I scrub, but do not peel, root vegetables.

Chieftain’s soup


1 shoulder of lamb, diced (plus bone)
500 gm smoked pork, diced
5 onions, peeled and chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
5 parsnips, diced
5 parsley roots, diced
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 cups broad beans
4 Angelica stems, chopped
5 spring onions, chopped
2 cups cream


Brown the smoked pork in a heavy cooking pot over medium heat allowing the fat to run. Add the diced lamb, chopped onions and garlic and cook until translucent.

Cover with water (or stock) and add the parsnips, parsley root, broad beans, mushrooms and Angelica stems. Leave to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary. When the meat is tender season with salt to taste and add the cream.

Sprinkle with chopped spring onions and serve with crusty bread.

Sep 052016


Today, the first Monday in September, is Labor Day in the United States and Canada. Ostensibly it honors the North American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of their countries. Nowadays, however, the trade union and labor movement ties are relatively week, but the day makes a three-day weekend which people use as a last hurrah of summer.


Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists in the US (where I will focus) proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor. “Labor Day” was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, which organized the first parade in New York City. By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty U.S. states officially celebrated Labor Day.

In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed a Labor Day holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York. Some maintain that Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor put forward the first proposal in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labour festival held in Toronto in Canada. In 1887 Oregon became the first state of the United States to make Labor Day an official public holiday.


Following the deaths of workers at the hands of United States Army and United States Marshals Service during the Pullman Strike of 1894, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law six days after the end of the strike. Cleveland supported the creation of the national holiday in an attempt to shore up support among trade unions following the Pullman Strike. The date of May 1 was an alternative date, celebrated then (and now) as International Workers Day, but President Cleveland was concerned that observance of Labor Day on May 1 would encourage Haymarket-style protests and would strengthen socialist and anarchist movements that, though distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Affair on International Workers’ Day.


The form for the celebration of Labor Day was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday: A street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” followed by a festival for the workers and their friends and families. This became the pattern for Labor Day celebrations. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the civil significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the Labor movement.


Nowadays most of the overtly labor and union activities are muted in the US, and the day is seen primarily as a time for family gatherings. When I began working as a professor in New York in 1980 I was expected to work on Labor Day because students moved into the dormitories over the weekend and needed advising before commencing classes after Labor Day. This practice did not sit well with the faculty, especially in the Social Sciences – many of whom simply refused to work that day. The problem was solved about 10 years later when the university moved the start of term to the end of August, which allowed Labor Day to be a proper holiday for everyone.

Family barbecues and picnics are the order of the day. I always got a bit tired of big gatherings that tended to feature the same cast of characters year after year – hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and beans. People in the US have a bad habit of looking down their noses at UK cuisine whilst overlooking the numbingly bland and repetitive aspects of their own cooking. For me, Labor Day was an opportunity to build a big blaze in my fire pit and grill or roast whatever I felt like.


Roasted corn on the cob was always a big family favorite to complement meats and other vegetables. If you want to be dead simple and lazy, leave the cobs unshucked, remove as much tassel as you can without breaking the husk, and whack the cobs on a grill over your fire until the husks are charred and the insides are steaming. It’s best to place the cobs over medium heat for this. When cooked just shuck and enjoy.

If you want to have a bit more finesse, and less mess, shuck the corn cobs and wrap them in heavy aluminum foil along with a knob of butter. Then grill them in the same manner. Either way, the cobs will char a little, adding to the flavor. Cooking times vary, but usually 25 minutes are sufficient if you have a steady fire going.  With a foil wrapping you can check regularly before serving by opening the foil just a crack. Make sure you rotate all the cobs periodically so that cooking is even.

Either way, serve the cobs with extra butter, and a salt shaker for those who want it.

Jun 152016


Today is Nirjala Ekadashi, a moveable sacred event in the Hindu faith, and therefore perfect for this year’s blog, were it not for the fact that it is the most stringent fast day in the Hindu lunar calendar.  Devout Hindus are supposed to refrain completely from all food and drink for a 24-hour period on this date – much stricter than the Ramadan fasting regulations which call for an absence of food and drink in daylight hours, but relax these prohibitions after dark. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is a FOOD blog, and finding a way to include a recipe du jour for an absolutely austere fast day, while not impossible, runs counter to the spirit of the Hindu faith. I could, for example, focus on what people eat after the fast, as I did for Ramadan, but in the latter case the focus is legitimate because Muslims do break the fast at sundown. Not so for Hindus on this date. For them the fast is absolute for a complete 24-hour cycle. Instead I’ll move on to a fixed anniversary– the Pig War.

Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Pig War,which was a confrontation in the 19th century between the United States and the British Empire over boundaries between the US and Canada. The territory in dispute was the San Juan Islands, which lie between Vancouver Island and the North American mainland. The Pig War is so called because it was triggered by the shooting of a pig, on this date in 1859. It also called the Pig Episode, the Pig and Potato War, the San Juan Boundary Dispute or the Northwestern Boundary Dispute. There were no shots exchanged in the dispute, and no human casualties, therefore this was a bloodless conflict.


The Oregon Treaty of June 15, 1846, resolved the Oregon boundary dispute by dividing the Oregon Country/Columbia District between the United States and Britain “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean.” However, there are actually two straits that could be called the middle of the channel: Haro Strait, along the west side of the San Juan Islands; and Rosario Strait, along the east side.

In 1846 there was still some uncertainty about the geography of the region. The most commonly available maps were those of George Vancouver, published in 1798, and of Charles Wilkes, published in 1845. In both cases the maps are unclear in the vicinity of the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. As a result, the geography of Haro Strait is not fully clear either. In 1856, the US and Britain set up a Boundary Commission to resolve a number of issues regarding the international boundary, including the water boundary from the Strait of Georgia to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. However, because of mapping and treaty ambiguities, both the United States and Britain claimed sovereignty over the San Juan Islands. During this period of disputed sovereignty, Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company established operations on San Juan and turned the island into a sheep ranch. Meanwhile, by mid-1859, around 25 US settlers had arrived.


San Juan Island held significance not for its size, but as a military strategic point. While the British held Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island to the west, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entry point to Haro Strait, leading to the Strait of Georgia, the nation that held the San Juan Islands would be able to dominate all the straits connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the Strait of Georgia.

The map below, which you can click to enlarge, shows the region with three lines showing the different boundary proposals. The blue line was favored by the US, the red line by Britain, and the green line was a proposed compromise. Both the red and green lines place San Juan in Canada.


On June 15, 1859, exactly thirteen years after the adoption of the Oregon Treaty, the ambiguity led to direct conflict. Lyman Cutlar, a US farmer who had moved on to the island claiming rights to live there, found a large black pig rooting in his garden. The pig was eating his tubers. Cutlar was so upset, this not being the first time a pig had entered his garden, that he took aim and shot the pig, killing it. It turned out that the pig was owned by an Irishman, Charles Griffin, who was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to run the sheep ranch. He also owned several pigs that he allowed to roam freely. The two men had lived in peace until this incident. Cutlar offered $10 to Griffin to compensate for the pig, but Griffin was unsatisfied with this offer and demanded $100. Cutlar refused, believing that he should not have had to pay anything for the pig because the pig had been trespassing on his land. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, US settlers called for military protection.

Brigadier-General William S. Harney, commanding the Department of Oregon, initially dispatched 66 US soldiers of the 9th Infantry under the command of Captain George Pickett to San Juan Island with orders to prevent the British from landing. Concerned that a squatter population of the US would begin to occupy San Juan Island if they were not kept in check, the British sent three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby. Pickett was famously quoted as saying defiantly, “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it.” Escalation continued. By August 10, 1859, US troops with 14 cannon under Colonel Silas Casey were opposed by five British warships mounting 70 guns and carrying 2,140 men. During this time, no shots were fired.


The governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, ordered British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes to land marines on San Juan Island and engage the US soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Harney. (Harney’s forces had occupied the island since July 27, 1859.) Baynes refused, deciding that “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig” was foolish. Local commanding officers on both sides had been given essentially the same orders: defend yourselves, but absolutely do not fire the first shot. For several days, the British and U.S. soldiers exchanged insults, each side attempting to goad the other into firing the first shot, but discipline held on both sides, and thus no shots were fired.

When news about the crisis reached Washington and London, officials from both nations were shocked and took action to calm the potentially explosive international incident. In September, U.S. President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott to negotiate with Governor Douglas and resolve the growing crisis. This was in the best interest of the United States, as sectional tensions within the country were increasing, soon to culminate in the Civil War. Scott had calmed two other border crises between the two nations in the late 1830s. He arrived in San Juan in October and began negotiations with Douglas.


As a result of the negotiations, both sides agreed to retain joint military occupation of the island until a final settlement could be reached, reducing their presence to a token force of no more than 100 men. The British Camp was established on the north end of San Juan Island along the shoreline, for ease of supply and access; and the US Camp was created on the south end on a high, windswept meadow, suitable for artillery barrages against shipping. Today the Union Jack still flies above the “British Camp”, being raised and lowered daily by park rangers, making it one of the very few places without diplomatic status where US government employees regularly hoist the flag of another country.


During the years of joint military occupation, the small British and US units on San Juan Island had a very amicable mutual social life, visiting one another’s camps to celebrate their respective national holidays and holding various athletic competitions. Apparently the biggest threat to peace on the island during these years was the plentiful amount of alcohol available.


This state of affairs continued for the next 12 years. The dispute was peacefully resolved after more than a decade of military bluster by the respective high commands, during which time the local British authorities consistently lobbied London to seize back the Puget Sound region entirely, given that the US was engaged elsewhere with the Civil War. In 1866, the Colony of Vancouver Island was merged with the Colony of British Columbia to form an enlarged Colony of British Columbia. In 1871, the enlarged colony joined the newly formed Dominion of Canada. That year, Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, which dealt with various differences between the two nations, including border issues involving the newly formed Dominion. Among the results of the treaty was the decision to resolve the San Juan dispute by international arbitration, with Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany chosen to act as arbitrator. Wilhelm referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission which met in Geneva for nearly a year. On October 21, 1872, the commission decided in favor of the United States. The arbitrator chose the US-preferred marine boundary via Haro Strait, to the west of the islands, over the British preference for Rosario Strait. On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew their Royal Marines from the British Camp. The US followed suit in July 1874.

Obviously roast pork, or any pork dish, would be appropriate as a celebration, but a whole spit-roast pig would be ideal. I recognize that most readers won’t be able to manage this for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that you need a whole pig, about 100 guests and space to put them, never mind having a giant yard, a fire pit, and a spit. But I used to do this every year in the 1980s and 90s when I lived on a big property in New York State, so I’ll give you some thoughts. I will say at the beginning though that June around the solstice is the worst time of year in the northern hemisphere for roasting a whole pig. I used to do mine in October. You can do it in the summer, and I have friends who still do it annually, but you multiply difficulties.


Let’s begin with the pig itself. I lived in pig farming country, so it was easy to get a whole pig. A local farmer would kill and dress the pig, and then deliver it the day before I was set to roast it. All I had to do was attach it to the spit. When I lived in North Carolina, locals held pig pickin’ parties. They split the pig completely open so that it lay flat on a grate, roast it skin side down, and then lay a second grate on top, flipped the pig over (big job), and roast the underside next. Roasting skin side down took the bulk of the cooking, and then cooking the underside took several hours more. When the host decided it was time, guests helped themselves by cutting off (pickin’) cooked pieces, and any parts of the pig that were not done were left on the fire to roast more. This makes for a very sociable gathering, but I always preferred to spit roast.

So . . . first get a pig. You don’t want it to be too big because you need to be able to handle it, and you need to be able to cook it in one day. The pigs I cooked were usually around 100 lbs when gutted, that is, young pigs – less than a year old. The pig must be stripped of all bristles on the skin, and the internal organs removed so that all you have are muscle meat and bones. Then the belly needs to be sewn or clamped shut in some manner, ready for roasting (I kept head and trotters attached).

I don’t have any photos of the setup I used because they are all in storage in New York, from the days before digital photography. The photo here that I nicked from the internet is fairly close, however. You have to wire the pig firmly to the spit so that you can turn the spit through 360°, and the pig will rotate with it without slipping. You also need a crank on the spit so that you can turn it easily. I am sure that all cooks differ over method. Mine evolved over time, and it’s not complicated – just time consuming.

I used matured and split hardwood for the fire – usually cherry or apple because they were available, but any hardwood will do. The smoke from the wood is an essential component of the cooking process. I started the fire at around 4 am on the day of the party. I took about an hour to get a good bed of coals spread evenly over the fire pit which I replenished throughout the day from a secondary fire pit that I had constantly on the go nearby. I  kept the pig, already attached to the spit, in a shed adjacent to my fire pit, and I would get a friend to help me carry it to the fire pit when the coals were ready. I used to do this in mid October so that it was possible to keep the pig outdoors overnight without the need for refrigeration.

Once the pig was situated over the fire it was just a matter of time and patience. You need to keep the pig turning so that it cooks evenly. I never felt the need to baste the skin in any way, although I know plenty of cooks who do. The skin browns and crisps nicely without any aids. You do need to wrap the ears in foil, however, because they can burn before the pig is cooked, and someone always wants an ear. My hound-dog friend, Lawson, a split cane rod maker from North Carolina, brought his blade to hack them off to chew on towards the end.

My formula was to rotate the pig through 360° in the course of an hour, which meant rotating it through 90° every 15 minutes. Professionals have machine driven spits that slowly rotate the pig for you, but you don’t need it. You can rotate faster or slower as you desire. I don’t think it makes any difference. A quarter turn every quarter hour just seemed neat and simple to me. The vast bulk of the time roasting the pig is just idle time. In the dark of the early morning I sat with the pig, staring at the sky and meditating, and then as the day progressed friends and other guests would arrive and sit with me for a spell. You don’t really have to sit beside the pit; dogs and stray animals will stay away because of the fire. They’d burn themselves trying to get to the pig. I used to sit with it anyway, from start to finish, more or less.  In the pre-dawn hours I could see Orion, the hunter, chasing Taurus, the bull. It seemed fitting given that the October moon is the hunter’s moon, and I was cooking like a hunter of yore.

Some cooks use a meat thermometer, and it’s probably a good idea. I never did. The USDA used to recommend an internal temperature for pork of 160°F but recently lowered it to 145°F (followed by 3 minutes of rest). Pork cooked to 145°F is pinker than many cooks are used to, but it is perfectly safe, and is a great deal juicier than meat that is cooked longer to higher temperatures. There’s a good website on this issue here http://www.pork.org/new-usda-guidelines-lower-pork-cooking-temperature/ My rule of thumb was 14 hours over a moderate fire for a 100 lb pig. It was usually not completely cooked on the inside, but there was enough meat for 100 guests, and I kept the partially cooked parts for later.

Serving the pig is also not complicated, but time consuming. You’ll need butchering knives and some knowledge of butchering pork, but you don’t have to be pretty about it. You need to cut the whole pig into manageable segments and then strip the meat from the bone. Pile the cut meat on heated platters and let guests help themselves. This is where paper plates and plastic forks come in. It’s not a bad idea to have some sauces available in case guests want them. Barbecue sauce is popular. I like very hot English mustard.  Your choice.

Accompaniments are also important. Might as well let the fire do double duty. I used to roast potatoes and apples. For the potatoes, split them partly open, insert a knob of butter, close back up, and wrap each individually in foil. For apples, core them, stuff the center with butter, brown sugar, and spices (any combination of allspice, cloves, cinnamon and ginger will work), and wrap individually in foil. Cook the apples and potatoes by placing them in a single layer on the coals at the edge. Potatoes will cook in around an hour and need to be checked periodically after that. They can stay a little longer if need be. Apples require a shorter cooking time. Depending on the heat of the coals, they cook in about 30 minutes. They won’t stand overcooking in the way that potatoes will. For other side dishes I served a cabbage and mayonnaise coleslaw and baked beans (all home made of course). They were good times.

Jun 012013
James Clark Ross

James Clark Ross


Today we celebrate the anniversary of the first discovery of the North Magnetic Pole in 1831 by James Clark Ross.  He was on an arctic voyage with his uncle Sir John Ross in the side paddle steamer Victory, attempting to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. Their ship was ice bound for four years, and, in the end had to be abandoned.  During their second and third years of entrapment, James Ross made expeditions overland to explore and map the region around where they were trapped.  It was on the second of these that he discovered the North Magnetic Pole on the Boothia peninsula, the northernmost tip of the North American mainland to the northwest of Hudson Bay, surrounded by islands and shallow straits.

The North Magnetic Pole is different from the North Geographic Pole (called sometimes “true north”). The North and South Geographic Poles represent the points on the earth’s surface around which the earth spins (the axis of rotation).  They shift around a tiny bit, but are basically fixed points. There is actually a third North Pole called the Cartographic North Pole which is absolutely fixed, and is the basis for drawing all maps. The North Magnetic Pole is the point that all compasses point to, and is quite different from the Geographic Pole. It’s the place on the surface of the earth where compasses point vertically down, and it moves around – a lot.  James Clark Ross found it at Cape Adelaide on the Boothia Peninsula. Roald Amundsen found it in a slightly different location in 1903. The third observation was by Canadian government scientists Paul Serson and Jack Clark, of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, who found the pole at Allen Lake on Prince of Wales Island in 1947. The Canadian government has made several measurements since, which show that the North Magnetic Pole is moving continually northwestward. During the 20th century it moved 1100 km (683 miles), and since 1970 its rate of motion has accelerated from 9 km/year (5.6 miles/year) to approximately 41 km/year (25.5 miles/year), or 1.3 mm/sec (.05 inches/sec). The map pictured shows its actual position as observed, and its conjectured position since 1600.

I am amused by the quirkiness of the North Magnetic Pole.  First, because it moves AT ALL (due to movements in the earth’s core).  This matters mostly to navigators, orienteers, and anyone else who relies on map and compass to get around places with no obvious landmarks (although GPS has largely replaced such methods, and is more accurate). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the location of the North Magnetic Pole was important for whalers in the region. If you have ever seen an ordnance map you may have noticed in the margin two arrows – one points to geographic north, and the other to magnetic north.  Maps are drawn using cartographic north as the guide, because if you used magnetic north you’d have to redraw them annually.  If all you have is a compass to guide you, you must compensate for the difference between cartographic north and magnetic north.  Second, the needle of a compass is a small magnet with the north pole of the magnet pointing north.  If you know anything about magnetism, a little light bulb will go off in a second.  The poles of magnets attract opposite poles. The north pole of a magnet attracts south poles of other magnets. So if the north pole of your compass needle points towards the North Magnetic Pole, that must mean that the North Magnetic Pole is actually a magnetic SOUTH pole! Cool.

One of the major problems with polar exploration has always been nutrition. Early explorers had precious little understanding of either the calorific needs or the general dietary needs for survival in polar weather.  Working inside a polar station requires about 2,750 kilocalories per day, whereas hauling sleds outside requires 6,500 kilocalories per day (depending on variables such as body mass, temperature, and sex).  Even riding a dog sled requires 5,000 kilocalories per day.  Capt. Scott’s famed 1912 expedition to the South Pole carried 4,500 kilocalories per man per day, which was nowhere near enough when they had to abandon their mechanical transport and ponies, and travel on foot.  Furthermore, the balance of foods was all wrong and they did not compensate for deficiencies such as vitamin C.  As a result several members of the team developed scurvy, including Scott himself. They had too many carbohydrates (almost 50%) and not enough protein and fat. Modern polar workers eat a diet that is 22% carbohydrate, 42% fat, and 36% protein.

Ross’s 4 year ordeal trapped in the arctic would have meant the certain deaths of all the crew of Victory were it not for the fact that the indigenous Netsilik Inuit visited them periodically with food supplies.  Chief of these provisions was pemmican which was about all the Inuit took on long fishing and hunting trips.  It’s a mix of dried and powdered meat, fat, and berries, that was widely used by indigenous hunters in northern and central Canada. Pemmican is actually a Cree word. The Cree are the largest indigenous nation in Canada. I give a modern recipe here which I have modified based on cooking experience, but will confess I have not tried. Closest I’ve come is homemade beef jerky, which is miles better than what you get in stores.  All you need is a rack, a box fan, and a lot of time (several days).  The general consensus is that pemmican is not really yummy, but this recipe seems better than most.  Pemmican is traditionally made with hunted red meat such as deer, moose, or elk, but beef will work. Adjust the fat in the recipe depending on climate, more for colder ones, less for warmer ones.  The simplest way to render suet is to grind it and then heat it on very low heat, stirring occasionally to avoid having the solid bits that remain burn.  Strain the resultant fat through a fine strainer.



4 cups lean meat ground twice
3 cups dried fruit
2 cups rendered suet
½ cup unsalted nuts coarsely chopped
2 tbsps honey


Spread the meat out very thin on a cookie sheet and dry in the oven at 180° F (80°C) for at least 8 hours or until sinewy and crispy. Check periodically to make sure it does not burn (it’s not wise to do this overnight).

Pound the meat into a powdery consistency using a mortar and pestle or food processor.

Grind the dried fruit, but not too fine.

Heat the rendered fat on medium low heat until liquid.

Mix in a bowl the dried meat, dried fruit, and nuts.

Add the fat and honey, and mix everything thoroughly by hand.

Form into balls about the size of large meatballs and let cool.  Store in an airtight tin in a cool place.

Will keep for several years.

Yield: 15 (depending on size)