It was probably the old-timey packaging that attracted my attention. Nestled in-between the CLIF and LUNA energy bars was a slim, indigo blue wrapper that would not have been out of place on old money, or a commemorative plate. On the back was this legend:
Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake was the first Mint Cake to be successfully carried to the top of MOUNT EVEREST on 29th May 1953 this being the first successful expedition to the summit.
Romney’s were approached by the 1953 expedition to Everest, to see whether they could supply Mint Cake to them within 7 days. Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing ate this Mint Cake on top of Everest as they gazed at the countryside far below them. Since then Kendal Mint Cake has become a firm favourite with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District.
A member of the successful Everest Expedition wrote- “It was easily the most popular item on our high altitude ration – our only criticism was that we did not have enough of it.”
The sixtieth anniversary of Hilary and Tenzing’s successful ascent passed last May, with the requisite press flurry. I am not a mountain climber, much beyond the easiest of the 14ers in Colorado, but Mount Everest has held my interest for years. It is a site of difficult, controversial heritage, and the assemblage that is left on the mountain each year is a fascinating array of technical multicultural detritus and human remains. The narrative around Mount Everest has changed from fearless mountaineering with a heavy overlay of nostalgia to that of egotism, recklessness, and exploitation of the sherpas and the environment.
Each summer there are stories of crowded summits and vainglory; from the 1996 disaster wherein 15 people died while summiting to 2006 when dozens of people passed David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying beside the trail and the previously deceased who had become trail markers, dictated by their distinguishing features. The cold, dry clime of Mt. Everest preserves all of the garbage and corpses, and at one point there were over 200 bodies on the mountain.
Mount Everest has been steeped in colonial overtones since the British access to the mountain was secured in 1904 by Francis Younghusband’s attack on Tibetan peasants, clearing the way. Younghusband was then put in charge of the early mountaineering expeditions, who situated climbing Everest as an extravagantly useless activity. He remarked, “If I am asked what is the use of climbing this highest mountain, I reply, No use at all: no more use than kicking a football about, or dancing, or playing the piano, or writing a poem or painting a picture.” Mountaineering was a patriotic mission to improve British morale.
As Mazzolini writes, an important part of maintaining Britishness at Mount Everest was choosing identity-affirming foods. In the 1920s, meals eaten at high altitudes included quails packed with truffles and champagne, marking the expeditions as a gentlemen’s pursuit. On his 1922 reconnaissance, Mallory noted that there was an abundance of cheese, tinned food of all sorts, and they were “never short of jam and chocolate.”
The shift from luxury to efficacy came between the 1920s and 1930s, when expeditions led by Tilman dined on pemmican (dried beef and fat) with sugar and dried fruit. The climbing body was reconceptualized, says Elizabeth Mazzolini, from an expression of imperialist aesthetics to a machine without excessive concern for pleasure or comfort. This was problematic though, as at altitudes over 22,000 feet eating becomes an unpleasant assignment–diminished appetite, nausea and vomiting are common. Food that was merely monotonous before becomes unimaginable.
In this context, Hilary and Tensing brought Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake along for their successful summit in 1953. Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes are a mixture of glucose, sugar, peppermint oil and water and were issued as rations on several expeditions. I bit off a small corner of the one that I bought and suffered from near immediate sugar-shock. A bit like a hard York peppermint patty, it was easily the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.
The packaging of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake explicitly ties the summiting of Mount Everest to Britishness, equating eating the sweet on the summit with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District in the quote on the back of the package. On the front is an interesting hierarchy that provides the context for Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake–the outer two images feature English natural heritage in the form of Windermere and Derwentwater, the former is the largest natural lake in England and the latter is on of the principal bodies of water in the Lake District. The next two images feature cultural heritage–Romney House Kendal, a listed building that was build in the early to mid 18th century and the Kendal Castle Ruins, a 12th century castle that was the home of the Lancaster family. Finally, in the center, George Romney, a popular English portrait painter (who is indeed related to Mitt Romney). The mint cake came from a company founded by Sam T. Clarke, who merely named his wholesale business after George Romney; the painter did not invent the mint cake.
The Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake website offers an interesting additional note–according to them, Tenzing Norgay left one of the cakes up on top of the summit “to appease his gods.” If true, Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake also has the honor of being one of the first bits of garbage left on the summit. Food of the gods, indeed.
There are efforts to clean up Mount Everest every year, with an average of 50 tons of discarded climbing gear, human excrement, oxygen tanks, and dead bodies coming off the mountain. As Mazzolini notes, the news always lumps the categories together, corpses and discarded mountaineering gear. The failures, the people who did not make it down the mountain, are unimportant–their bodies could not match their hubris.
Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake packaging provides an ideological link to climbing Mount Everest and portrays it as a quintessentially British triumph, one that can be cited on perhaps lesser adventures around the Lake District. Mount Everest remains a contentious place, where dead bodies are discarded like garbage, where $65,000 buys you a place in line to the roof of the world, and crass individualism is indistinguishable from sublime achievement.
Elizabeth Mazzolini (2010). Food, Waste, and Judgment on Mount Everest Cultural Critique, 76, 1-27 : 10.1353/cul.2010.0013