a box with 48 cans of cabbage soup
August 21, 2019 3:30 PM   Subscribe

The Quest to Find a Lost Arctic Explorer’s Buried Soup An "Arctic mystery" may lead to a future of food under the permafrost. [Atlas Obscura]
posted by readinghippo (9 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Do Not Eat canned soup from long-ago arctic explorers. The lost crew of the Franklin expedition may have been killed by their own canned soup. That was 1845, and this one is 1900, but still.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:20 PM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

It depends on the vintage of the canned soup. Stuff from the era when cans were individually soldered shut (with delicious lead solder), probably not that great.

I can't find a date more precise than "by the early 20th century" for modern can sealing technology, which just crimps the lid on, no lead solder.

Basically, as with sarcophagus juice, avoid ancient liquids. The rye bread might be okay (at least, compared to how much lead a nice acidic shchi would have leached out).
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 5:48 PM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Franklin crew were probably not killed by their tinned soup. All the known remains have high levels of lead, but so do an awful lot of pre-modern remains - lead pipes, pewter tableware, sugar of lead as a sweetener, mean that lead exposures were high for a lot of people. Similar lead-sealed tins were taken on other British Arctic and Antarctic expeditions which came home safely - in one case, Sir John Ross' expedition survived because they were able to use a cache of food (mainly tins) that had been left by an expedition four years previously. That means four additional years for the lead to leach into the food. In a marginal survival situation, any thing which tips the balance is important so I'm not saying that lead should be ignored. But scurvy is likely to have been a far more serious issue (none of their supplies would have actually prevented it - not understanding the mechanism of scurvy, they had switched to citrus cordials for prevention, not realising that the preparation destroys almost all the vitamin C). Some other commanders of Arctic expeditions used non-navy issue "antiscorbutics" - some of which (pickled whale skin, sauerkraut) were actually effective.

This project is fascinating, but the oldest tinned food tasted was a 137 year old tin of veal, cautiously nibbled (it had already been analysed and found to have high levels of tin and lead) in 1960. It had a "pronounced bitter taste" because of the metals, but had been effectively preserved. This was a tin brought home by the above-mentioned Sir John Ross, and had only had the benefits of Arctic climate for a few years; it had spent at least a century in Edinburgh, latterly being used as a doorstop.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:18 PM on August 21, 2019 [9 favorites]

Sugar of lead. Huh. Weird.
posted by verschollen at 9:58 AM on August 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is fascinating. As is Vortisaur's link and learning about sugar of lead. Thanks!

Leaving some cans behind with plans for specific retrieval dates extending 77 years is delightful. I wonder if the 1980 retrieval happened. The seven plates seem like they might not be the best set of tools with which to eat tea and oatmeal. (Assuming a plate is what I think it is.) But, I guess I'd take advantage of the opportunity to carry fewer plates too.

I've eaten dried meat that was frozen in polar ice for 24 years. The label said it was "pre-fried bacon, diced & pressed." It was unbelievably awful. Black, brittle bits of charred meat with all the fats congealed on the surface. For all I know, might have started out that way, but my guess is the plastic packaging wasn't an adequate seal. It sure wasn't as good as those biscuits.

I didn't eat the 36 year old glass jar of frozen pineapple cream. There was only one, so it seemed worth saving for the future.
posted by eotvos at 2:41 PM on August 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

So strange not to note that the permafrost is melting at an ever-increasing rate due to climate change. By 2050, the cache isn’t going to be frozen year-round anymore.
posted by rockindata at 4:10 AM on August 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

eotvos, can you tell us more about the situation that led to you eating that bacon? Otherwise I'm just going to be making up the story in my head. :D
posted by daisyk at 3:49 AM on August 25, 2019

Daisyk, I'm afraid it may not live up to your expectations. I was working at the south pole at the time. The food is shipped in pallets in multi-year quantities and stored outside. (The temperature rarely gets up to -20C in summer and never approaches 0, so outside is a pretty reliable deep freezer.) Items are pulled as needed from the pallets, brought inside for a few days to thaw, and turned into meals. But, sometimes things get overlooked, dropped behind other things, buried in snow drifts, etc.

One day the food hauler brought in a box of weird bacon bars they'd found that wasn't on the index and looked dated. The box was opened and offered to anyone who wanted to try one as a novelty. There was no obvious sell-by date, but a web search showed that the company had ceased to exist twenty years previously. We concluded that the seemingly random 6 digit number stamped on the packages was actually a MMDDYY date.

Knowing that there were two medical professionals on call one hundred feet away, I figured it was worth a try. I didn't get sick, but it sure was vile. More or less what I imagine licking the filter on the vent above a burger joint's grill would taste like. I'm guessing welded metal cans might have done a better job - at least in preserving taste - than plastic packaging from '80s.
posted by eotvos at 7:59 AM on August 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

This story was totally worth reading. Thank you. :)
posted by daisyk at 1:07 PM on August 25, 2019

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