Third Prize Winner of the 2015-16 Writing Contest
EATING IN THE POLAR NIGHT BY JULIAN SPERGEL
I wake up to the chiming of my alarm clock. The sun hasn’t risen, and it hasn’t risen for over a month now. The night-time darkness never changes and the snow on the mountains is always the same color as the sky. Unceasing darkness seems like a horror movie nightmare to some, but in the world’s most northernmost town, far north of the Arctic circle, it is a yearly phenomena. In Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world at 78ºN, the sun sets on October 26th and does not rise again at all until February 16th. Twenty-four hour darkness and twenty-four hour light are very different experiences. People have asked me if time loses its meaning in perpetual day or night. That isn’t quite true. Clocks still tick. Stores open and close and you eat food at culturally appropriate times, for the most part. When the sun never goes down, it feels like you can keep partying forever. When the sun never comes up, it is always too late to work, to have fun, or to eat.
What can you eat anyway in the world’s northernmost town? This question lurked in the back of my mind all last summer. I had wanted to go to the Arctic regions since first getting interested in polar geoscience. I would get to look up at the aurora, see reindeer, and climb glacier-capped mountains. But what would I eat? I have always been a foodie: since I was little, I enjoyed cooking elaborate meals from every food culture and enjoyed scouting around for specialty food stores that sold exotic ingredients. Longyearbyen, a former coal-company town of only 2500 people situated in the center of a remote Arctic island, did not seem like the place where a wide assortment of gourmet ingredients could be found. In my mind, I saw a run-down corrugated metal general store with salted fish and canned meats. I lamented to my friends and family that I would not see a fresh vegetable for five months.
After my long journey across the Atlantic, the Barents Sea, then flying between the cloud-shrouded mountains, I touched down in Longyearbyen. It is a motley assortment of gaudily-painted corrugated metal buildings and wooden cabins, an Arctic coal-mining town trying to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. I remember walking into the only supermarket in town and being absolutely shocked. Right by the entrance was a display of fresh fruits, pineapples, mangos, bananas, avocados. I nearly fell to my knees in tearful joy. And as I walked through the store, I saw sections devoted to Asian and Mexican food, a large baking section, basically everything that I could need. It was a nice moment of relief in the stressful time of settling in to a very foreign country.
I soon realized that not everything was as simple as it seemed. While there were ethnic food aisles, they were nearly all just starches and spices. The Mexican food section was just salsa, chips, and many types of tortillas. Of course, these things were all very expensive. The fresh fruit was (as you might have guessed) prohibitively expensive, a small, sickly-looking pineapple costing nearly ten dollars. Fresh vegetables, cheese, and meat were the same way. It became clear very quickly that it was very possible to spend sixty dollars in a single shopping trip and walk away with only enough food for a day or two. What everyone did instead of buying this expensive produce was to regularly check the small cooler in the back corner by the sausages, where the store clerks would put nearly expired fruits and vegetables for a fraction of the cost. Every day, starving student grabbed whatever discount produce was available. I had a large bag of turnips one week, a bag of mushy pears the next, and then nothing but a decrepit basil plant. Meals were often planned around this haphazard accumulation of ingredients.
Soon, I got into the rhythm of food shopping. Food became a matter of translation, comparison and substitution. The labels on the food were in Norwegian, so each shopping trip was spent typing into my phone’s translation app. Mistakes were common: Cans of crushed tomato turned out to be cans of whole tomatoes, corn meal turned out to be corn starch. Substitutions were also a necessity. Lime juice in a dessert was replaced with lemon juice and capers in a puttanesca sauce were replaced with Vegemite. Surprisingly, because there is a large Thai population in Longyearbyen, there is a specialty Thai grocery store, so coconut milk and curry paste were readily available. But food was also now translated into weight carried. With no means of transporting my groceries uphill three kilometers to my apartment except in my backpack, each item was bought with its weight in the back of my mind. Milk and juice were bought sparingly, and alcohol bought even less regularly, not because I became a teetotaler, but because liquids were equivalent to hundreds of calories spent carrying up a hill. The ideal solution would be to buy dried grains, but one of the greatest mysteries about Svalbard, up there with the strange rocks with faces painted on them that are hidden around town, is why the supermarket refused to stock cheap bags of dried beans. Nearly everything was canned, which meant that I was often trekking through snow in heavy winter gear with a backpack full of cans. My cooking plans needed to include the time spent lying on my bed to recover from grocery trips. The various food cultures of the world have had thousands of years to develop delicious meals made from what scanty foodstuffs were available during a pre-Industrial winter, and I reaped the benefits of their centuries of experience. A large bag of apples became milosoupa, Greek curried apple soup. A few chicken breasts, sour cream, onions, and garlic became Georgian sour cream stew, which I highly recommend for a cold winter’s night. There were few things that I could not make from scratch. I made fancy cakes, delicious stews, and even a large Chicago-style pizza.
During our weeklong field excursion, many of our meals consisted of dehydrated ready-make meals. After spending hours in the Arctic cold, they are the most delicious meal you have ever had. It’s funny how in extreme conditions, the pains and joys of the day become intrinsically connected with the body. Shivering in wet clothes, digging holes to stay warm, and then eating hot rehydrated pasta at the foot of a glacier is an experience that I would not trade for anything. I would perhaps trade standing watch for polar bears at three in the morning with a very whiny dog named Troll, but it’s all part of the experience.
Food in Longyearbyen stopped being a matter of dread, but even my inventiveness and perseverance had limits, and in the polar night, grocery shopping and cooking became a constant struggle. Walking the ice and snow-covered road to get groceries was like taking a space-walk. First you need to get dressed, layers of wool and fleece on every extremity. If it was windy, I would put micro-spikes on my boots to prevent myself from sliding off the road. By a month into the polar night, I had stopped looking up into the sky: it was more often than not a featureless blackness. Occasionally, the Northern Lights would spill like phosphorescent milk across the sky, but Svalbard is actually too far north for strong auroras. Looking up into the void only gave me a sense of floating upwards into inky space. I dug my boots into the snow and kept walking along the thin strip of streetlamp-lit road.
In the absence of sunlight, the body tries to replace sun-derived serotonin by craving sugar. When my parents sent me a box of trail mix, I ate nuts and M&Ms as my midday meal for days. When they sent a pumpkin across the Atlantic to carve for Halloween, I chopped it up, baked it and ate it. Kitchen preparation disappeared: food was unwrapped or spread on crisp-bread and shoveled into my mouth. Norwegian foodstuffs seemed to be well adapted to this, with the grocery store stocked with a wide assortment of food in toothpaste tubes. There were at least twenty types of tube cheese in flavors such as jalapeño, chicken, and shrimp, as well as a number of fish pastes (mackerel and tomato was my favorite). The national cheese of Norway is a goat milk product called brunost that has a flavor between caramel and cheddar. At the beginning of my stay, I hated it, but as the sunless days wore on, I began to crave it intensely.
Around four weeks into the polar night, I began to have sun dreams, of staring up into a warm light. It was apparently a common occurrence: everyone in my dorm had at least one. My time in Svalbard was nearly up, and the final month and a half in darkness seemed to stretch on before me like a punishment. I am not being hyperbolic when I say I was living for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays, I love feasting with friends and family. The opportunity to show my European friends a bit of American culture gave me the drive to cook for an entire day. I was so overjoyed to see frozen turkeys in the grocery store, and it was worth it even when I was pushing it up in a little sled. I was considering leaving it outside for storage, but it would not have thawed and it may have attracted polar bears. I made stuffing and mashed sweet potatoes, and stuffed the turkey with oranges. My parents had sent me canned cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin for pie. Despite my remoteness, I was able to put together a delicious Thanksgiving meal. My Swedish friends brought lingonberry jam, the Norwegians brought what they called a salad, and we had enough wine and beer to last us late into the—well, late. The Scandinavians had never had cranberries, and laughed at the way it slid out of the can like a perfect cylinder of red gelatin. Everyone liked the pumpkin pie though. We went around the table and said what we were thankful for. Everyone was so happy to have a celebration to break up the monotony of working in the darkness day after day.
The experiences I had while in Svalbard were intense, and the darkness caused my diet to suffer the most it ever has, but the beauty of nature I saw there and the friends I made were well worth the struggle.
The first time I saw the sun was in the parking lot of Newark International Airport. I looked up, stared directly into the warm light, and could not stop smiling.
Read more of Julian Spergel’s writing on his travel blog Long Days in Longyearbyen.