Frozen Foodies

Reporter / by Chaz Firestone /

The South Pole may be the most desolate region on Earth. But even at the bottom of the world, people have to eat. Here’s how they do it in Antarctica.

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Antarctic cuisine can vary widely by region, but one principle seems to hold across the continent: The smaller the kitchen, the better the food. It’s no surprise then, that some of the best meals in the continent are fixed by a two-chef tandem at a tiny ice-coring camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide.

WAIS Divide is home to one of the more ambitious coring projects in climate science, aiming for a greenhouse-gas record of unparalleled resolution for the last 100,000 years. The cores contain bubbles of air trapped when the ice fell as snow, offering snapshots of ancient atmospheric conditions to paleoclimatologists.

Drill technicians live by three verbs: Eat, sleep, drill. They drill at -30˚C and sleep blindfolded in thin nylon tents, so head chef Jon Wright makes the former verb the sweetest, feeding the three-dozen or so residents of the camp throughout the drilling season. And he doesn’t skimp on quality. On a recent visit to WAIS, workers were treated to lamb chops, made-to-order pizza, balsamic bleu-cheese salads, and homemade mint chocolate brownies—standard WAIS fare, says dining attendant Benjamin Brumbaugh.

“Anyone who goes to WAIS comes back talking about the food,” Brumbaugh says. A typical day would begin with eggs benedict, break for lunch with enchiladas, and finish with Wright’s famous meatloaf and lasagna.

Brumbaugh says it’s not the quality of the food so much as the quality of the cooking, which is tailored to a smaller clientele. “At WAIS,” Brumbaugh says, “you can be your own chef.”

Brumbaugh has also worked a stint at McMurdo Station, the USAP’s main base and the largest single community on the continent with 1,100 summertime residents. Lodgings at McMurdo are often compared to a college dormitory, and the food there is similar enough to an upscale campus cafeteria. Breakfast at McMurdo includes an omelet bar, fruit, and a selection of cereals, while lunch and dinner will feature a fish—salmon, tilapia, mahi-mahi—and some chicken or beef dish. “On a holiday, we might get filet mignon,” Brumbaugh adds.

A fourth daily meal called “midrats” is an assortment of the day’s three earlier meals and is served at midnight to night-shift workers or anyone lucky enough to have a prized midrats card.

“On the ice, food is so important,” Brumbaugh says. “People are working 60 hours a week and they’re far away from home, and if they can get a meal they really enjoy, everyone is in such a better mood.”

One mood elevator at McMurdo is a much-adored “Frosty Boy” soft-serve ice cream machine, which is popular at all hours of the day. During my stay, the Frosty Boy broke down, so food services workers put up a sign: “The Frosty Boy ice-cream machine is out of service, but will be working again soon.”

Within minutes, the sign was marked up with graffiti: “Please hurry!”

Following the “smaller kitchen, better food” principle inevitably leads one to Marble Point. The rocky cape near the McMurdo Dry Valleys is used as a refueling station by USAP and is home to a tiny cabin with what may be the tiniest kitchen in Antarctica.

The nearby Dry Valleys make up the largest ice-free region on the continent and constitute the driest climate on the planet. They are also the closest approximation on Earth to the Martian surface, a unique asset that lures planetary geologists to the valleys’ slopes. Most of the region is accessible only by helicopter, so when it’s time to refuel, the choppers land at Marble Point. And they always stop by Karen Moore’s cabin.

There is little in the interior of the cabin to suggest its location in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Artwork hangs on the walls, magnets on the fridge, and a few couches and a table dot a small living room. One sign does give it away, though: “No bunny boots on the carpet,” a reference to the oversized wool boots that warm the feet of nearly all Antarctic travelers.

Moore and her modest kitchen of just two stovetops and an oven have become legendary for one signature dish—homemade chili. Accompanied by cornbread and followed by chocolate chip cookies, the chunky meat-and-vegetable chili is not too heavy, and does a good job of warming you up after a day spent in the coldest environment on Earth. It’s also delicious.

Just about every visitor to Marble Point seems to agree. Moore keeps a guestbook for them to sign, and the entry above mine, from a Canadian deputy minister, reads, simply: “The chili is to die for!”

Originally published June 14, 2010

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