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giving thanks- part 2.

eggs, bacon, kumera home fries

pulled pork, cornmeal biscuits, coleslaw

turkey breast braised in red mole, brown rice, zucchini

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The Big Base Heavy-Shop is a wonderland of giant snow going machinery and all the equipment needed to fix them.  A penchant for diesel and over sized wrenches leaves me absolutely enchanted as I follow my guide through the maze of hydraulic lifts, tool carts and half assembled caterpillar tracks.  I have three good friends at the Big Base who truly appreciate my state of isolation at The Oasis and try to show me a good time when I come to visit.  Two of them are Heavy-Shop (heavy equipment) mechanics, ergo my personal after-hours tour of their workplace and, the real prize- an invitation to join them on their annual trip to Cape Evans.  As previously mentioned, trips of the leisurely sort are rare, enough so that even the motley crew of mechanics are a little giddy as we walk up to the shop at 5:30 on Sunday night.  The annual staff photo must be taken, and like bearded, greasy, overall-clad children, the denizens of the Heavy-Shop clamber around the Cat Challenger for their spot in the picture.  My friend drives, and I get the ever-coveted shotgun in one of the Tucker Sno-Cats.  We manage to cram four more people in the back and the convoy of eight, tracked vehicles (caterpillar tracks, like a tank, excellent on snow/ice) heads down the hill and out of town.  For how slow the Tucker goes, it makes a ridiculous amount of noise.  Shaking and lurching, each track takes hold of the compacted snow road, tossing up a continuous volley of ice and snow which bounces like popcorn and collects on the hood of our vehicle.  It’s been warm, and where the snow hasn’t been compacted, on either side of the roadway blue sea ice glows through, a reminder that we are indeed trekking across an ocean.  If everything weren’t frozen solid, Cape Evans would be a point of land protruding into the water up the coastline NNW of the Big Base.  In its present solid state, aside from a few dark islands of rock, the sprawling white ocean before us is nearly indistinguishable from land.  It is on this canvas, appearing like ink spots, that first see the penguins.  Having adjusted to the lack of life on the Antarctic landscape, the dependable stillness of rocks and ice, I feel almost confused to espy the movement of living things on the horizon.  A penguin sighting is quite rare in our immediate part of the continent and despite the waddle of four looking like little more than pin pricks in the distance, our convoy comes to a shaking, lurching halt and we descend the vehicles to get a better view of our aviary counterparts.  Standing by the side of the road it’s cold, but the reprieve from vibrating tracks and a stretch of the legs feels good.  Some pictures are taken, a few icy snow balls are tossed and it’s back to the trucks.  The faster vehicles at the front of the pack have already taken off in a cloud of ice when it becomes apparent that we have been spotted.  Thanks to strict preservationist rules, the birds approach us more as a curiosity than a threat.  Where most animals would turn tail and run, the four dapper Adelie penguins decide to come in close for further inspection.  The vehicles and their promised warmth are forgotten as we turn once again from the road.  In complete silence with cameras poised we hold our collective breath.   Time stands still.  On our knees, in the middle of a frozen ocean, face to face with four flightless birds.

fruit salad, cold pizza

individual chicken pot pies

black bean soup, avocado & white cheddar quesadillas

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The morsels of cantaloupe, mango and pineapple are bright and lively on my tongue.  After months of getting excited over the occasional mushy apple, this is ambrosia. These are not the firm, robust specimens found in the American supermarket. The pitiful lumpy husks which yielded me this indulgence confirm my suspicions that the best fruit often comes in the ugliest package.  I’m standing over my work table eating fruit salad. This is how I eat most of my meals during the day. While many of our visitors view this with some dismay, after years of working in kitchens, eating while standing comes naturally.  This morning it also offers me a view.  A layer of clouds allows me to gaze out the western window; a searing block of light on most days.  Antarctica brings to mind a vast expanse of white, but beyond this window lies a mammoth ridge of black rock, a heavy shadow obscuring the arctic landscape, its dark surface sucking up the frozen sun.  Because transportation on the ice is expensive and labor intensive, few people get to venture beyond their immediate living and work spaces.  Stationed at a field camp, my view of the continent is already more diverse than many of the 1000+ people living at the Big Base.  I was expecting to spend the rest of the season simply imagining the distant landscape that surrounds The Oasis, when, as with many aspects of this adventure, I got lucky.

I was sent to the Big Base for the Thanksgiving weekend.  The Antarctic operation’s need for constant support results in six day work weeks.  A three-day holiday is out of the question so we celebrate Thanksgiving on Saturday, giving the lucky ones who can afford it, two days off in a row.  Despite many accusations from my friends at the Big Base that I came into town to avoid making the big turkey dinner (honestly, I’d rather cook it myself) my real motive was once again, laundry.  It had been nearly a month this time and personally, when faced with putting on that same t-shirt that I’ve been wearing since Halloween, I could care less about turkey.  The logistics of feeding so many people in this environment presents a challenge at the Big Base cafeteria which makes the resulting food palatable when garnished with an appropriate amount of understanding.  However, realizing that they have a captive audience on the food-oriented holidays, the Big Base kitchen staff makes a spectacular effort to stave off homesickness and spread holiday cheer with an unprecedented feast.  It’s still cafeteria style, but the steam tables are overflowing with tray after tray of turkey, stuffing, real mashed potatoes (powdered is the norm) prime rib, crab legs, all manner of sides and relishes and a literal mountain of desserts.  People sign up to eat in shifts so the crowds aren’t too bad and they even put table clothes on the tables.  All in all, for the residents of the Big Base it is one of the highlights of the season.  While I did enjoy it, I can’t lie, industrial cooking isn’t for me.  More than anything, I came away from that meal grateful that my kitchen table back at The Oasis only has six chairs.  And so the highlight of my holiday weekend, the source for this build-up of suspense wasn’t the meal, had nothing to do with Thanksgiving.  It was in fact, a little road-trip to Cape Evans with the Heavy-Shop Mechanics…

traverse.

toasted oatmeal, sausage

leftovers

chili, corn muffins

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It’s ten minutes into tomorrow, but it looks like today.  12:10am and the gray blanket of sky is back-lit and brilliant.  Fat snowflakes appear out of nowhere only to disappear again without ever touching the ground.   In this harsh landscape of rocks and wind, such soft, fleeting precipitation feels unreal.

Tonight we play the waiting game.  The traverse- six giant snow-going vehicles bearing fuel and water, has been driving our way for the last 18 hours.  The route they travel is approx. 70 miles from the Big Base to The Oasis.  Needless to say, the going is slow.  Thanks to snow hills and surprise crevasses, the ETA has degraded from 7:00 to 10:00 to 12:00…. We can see them now, a tiny trail of ants out on the ice.  Visual contact means that in about an hour, ten hungry traverse drivers will squeeze into our kitchen/living/dining room to eat the dinner I have been keeping hot for the last six hours.  I conduct the flame beneath the pot on the stove in a somewhat futile attempt to keep it from burning.  The bottom of my pot is little more than a formality.  Keeping the chili in, but doing nothing in the way of heat dispersion.  I give it a stir and the edge of my wooden spoon hitches on the telltale patch of char.  I think fondly of one particularly well-funded boat I worked on and the Le Creuset stocked galley.  Luckily, good chili is practically indestructible.  Because the arrival of a traverse is always unpredictable, this has become my dish of choice for nights like this.  I take my hundredth taste and confirm that hours on the stove have done nothing but improve my meal.  The beans are more velvety, the meat more tender and the spices more pronounced.  Sadly the corn muffins are no longer fresh-baked, but here on the ice, where foodstuffs with a post-2005 expiration date are cause for excitement, the only scrutiny over hours-old muffins will be my own.

 

Oatmeal on Foodista

q&a.

coconut waffles

broccoli cheddar soup, fresh poppy seed bagels, salmon-caper cream cheese

italian sausage lasagna with spinach and pine nuts, focaccia

—————-

During the past couple months I have received a variety of questions from readers about the finer details of this adventure.  Because I don’t expect everyone to read all of the comments and the insightful  questions contained therein, I have decided to answer all of these questions in one post so that everyone may benefit.  Brilliant?  Yes, and a good way to fill in for an otherwise uneventful week full of- you guessed it, wind, wind,  and more wind.

Does the ice turn yellow and pink like spring blossoms up north?  -Don and Debbie

  • I wish.  The only colors I can see out my windows are black, brown, blue and white.

When can I visit?  -Mom

  • You can’t.  Sorry.  While there are plenty of cruises that will take you around Antarctica and even let you stomp around a bit, there is no mainstream tourism on the continent as it is reserved (according to the Antarctic Treaty) for scientific research.

We need more explanation on what exactly you are doing and how you came across this “opportunity”.  -Doug Mousel

  • Ahh, I remember like it was yesterday… I was somewhere off the coast of California, washing up the lunch dishes in galley of the Schooner Bill of Rights.  My contract was nearing its end and I thought to my self, “ this is fun, but where else can I get paid to cook for people?  Why Antarctica!  Someone must live in Antarctica, and I bet they don’t cook their own food.”  Five years later, here I am.  The sous chef for the Black Island Satellite Earth station.  A metal shoebox with two satellite dishes and the communications headquarters for the U.S. Antarctic operations.

I would have thought there would be many more permanent residents. How often do you receive visiting technicians/scientists?  -Bill Brent

  • It varies, and like most things down here- is highly unpredictable.  This season they are working on a big satellite upgrade and so we will usually have two satellite engineers out here during the week from Nov-Jan.  Other than that- who knows?  But the most we can sleep without putting folks on the floor is ten.

They said that Ant. is considered a desert!! Now think about that for a while. It is because you really don’t get a lot of moisture, but because it is so cold everything stays frozen. What do you think???  -Shirley

  • I’m going to say a little of column A and a little of column B.  Living here makes me wish I knew a lot more about meteorology and geology.

We hope all is well with you, will you cook a turkey on the BBQ since it is summer??  -Michelle, Bill & all

  • We actually do BBQ down here.  There is a converted steel drum that works very well.  You haven’t lived until you’ve barbequed in 24 degrees with 40-knots of wind.  I’m not sure what I’m doing for Thanksgiving yet, but I will keep you posted.

I wonder why “you” don ‘t eat penguins? Shackleton and his crew certainly ate a large amount of them.

-Shirley

  • It’s illegal.  Without the proper scientific permits, there is a massive fine for anyone caught disturbing the wildlife, let alone killing it. I’m sure if it were a survival situation, they would make an exception.

Does McMurdo grow anything? Herbs even? Or is it all imported from stateside?  -Beth

  • There is a greenhouse at McMurdo but I hear it isn’t operating this year.  Something about funding.  Even if it was up and running… its primary function was science, as one small greenhouse would have a hard time producing enough of anything to feed 1100 people.

I was wondering if they outfit you with all the warm weather gear…  -Kim

  • You better believe it.  I am sitting here writing this in a tank top and flip-flops, but as you may have heard, it’s COLD outside.  We are all issued insulated overalls, a set of thin poly pro long underwear, two pairs of fleece pants, two fleece shirts, a hat, neck gaiter, big gloves, two pairs of poly pro socks that make your feet sweat like crazy, ski goggles, “bunny” boots (U.S. Army extreme cold vapor barrier boots.  These bulbous rubber boots have no liner but retain warmth by sandwiching up to one inch of wool and felt insulation between two layers of rubber.  They look like white Mickey Mouse shoes and also make your feet sweat), and one giant red goose-down parka with a million pockets and a fur-lined hood- affectionately known as big red.  There is really no situation where you will need to wear all of this.  Some people try it and they just look dumb.  While being loaned your own outfit of gear is cheap and convenient, one must remember that this is government-issue by proxy.  Thusly, the gear is effective, but not necessarily the cutting edge of technology, comfortable, or efficient.  Many Antarctic veterans own their own, improved versions of this get-up.  You are, however, required to wear at least the overalls, boots, coat, and gloves if you are traveling in a plane, helicopter, or traverse, unless your personal items have been okayed by the United States Antarctic Program.  All issued gear must be returned upon re-deployment in New Zealand, or else…

Do you guys not have a lot of ‘freshies?’  Sounds like you’re cooking some pretty dank meals regardless.

-Katie

  • Again, unpredictable.  When I arrived, I was greeted with the news that due to economic stimulus, we would be blessed with an increase in freshies (fruits, vegetables, cheese, eggs).  So by all standards, yes, we have a lot this year.  Being a field camp, I have a little list I can order off of and for the first month the orders came less than a week after I requested them.  I am currently down to cheese and eggs and am waiting on an order, which I placed over two weeks ago.  That’s pretty much all I can do about it.  Wait.  I can’t complain to anyone about the rate of delivery because I’m lucky to get them at all.  For the time being, I will re-hydrate and defrost my veggies while I dream of apples and the tears of joy I will shed over a real onion.

cupcakes.

pancakes, bacon

reubens on fresh rye, black eyed pea soup

roast pork loin, potato/parsnip mash, beets

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This is the visual manifestation of wind.   Our camp is perpetually in its final descent through an unending layer of clouds.  Please have all seat backs and tray tables in the up-right and locked positions.  The wall behind my head shudders and I look out the window to see the ghosts of the antenna towers and bunk house winking in and out of the snow.  It has been two days.  The monolithic peaks are gone, there is no up or down, just rushing white.  We should be sending the guests back to the Big Base, cleaning up camp, and taking our coveted weekly shower.  Instead the Boss and I are entertaining through the weekend.  My fresh food supply has dwindled to a hand full of wrinkly beets and parsnips.  I have a tablespoon of salt left.  The same helicopter that won’t be coming to pick up the two satellite techs, won’t be bringing me my groceries.  To keep morale up and possibly distract from my waning diversity of food, I make cupcakes.  The unmistakable smell lures Boss away from his desk and I’m down two cakes before I even decide on frosting.  The finished product is four rows of glossy, fudge coated chocolate cupcakes sprinkled with tiny black, brown and white candy cows.  I found the cows in the back of a cupboard behind some cornmeal.  A score from my first day of poking about the new kitchen.  They were out of place and dusty, a stack of little plastic tubs containing a decorette menagerie.  The black, brown and white cows, pink pigs, and inexplicably, bright green and blue dolphins.

le cockroach.

whole grain waffles, sausage

hand-tossed pizza

pumpkin curry, indian rice pilaf, peach-kiwi chutney, raita, naan

—————-

It’s 6:30 am.  This is not my time of day.  Positively unnatural, but breakfast isn’t going to cook itself, so with eyes half shut, I extract myself from my signature tangle of sheets and blankets.  Ducking out, careful not to whack my head on the upper-bunk I recall a childhood desire for bunk beds.  Like store-bought bread and american cheese, something that was once exciting and magical, is now simply a byproduct of industrial living.  Boss is in the habit of making coffee at the unholy hour of 5:30.  Our coffee, while thankfully shipped in its rightful bean form, is still scooped from nameless ten pound bags kept out in the cold room.  To my northwest-grown taste buds, this brew falls somewhere between Folgers and Starbucks.  My (wonderful, awesome, pleasesendmemore) parents shipped me two pounds of Stumptown which are safely kept in an undisclosed location and will not be wasted on this early hour.  I reach for a mug.  White with a blue pinstripe.  And that’s when I wake up.  Resting peacefully in the bottom of my morning coffee mug is a two-inch long, shiny brown cockroach.  I suppress the urge to toss said mug across the kitchen, remove the cockroach and place it in the microwave.  While I could go on all Brave Little Tailor about this, the truth is that our friend the cockroach is solidly made of rubber and has been making his rounds of the kitchen ever since the antenna rigger brought him out last week.  If an interloping species was going to survive down here, my vote would be for the roaches, but I have seen no living creature greater than a mold or lesser than a human since arriving on this continent a month and a half ago.  There are tales of penguins and the assorted sea-bird living on this huge chunk of ice, but they have not set webbed foot nor flipper on the Oasis.  It takes a rubber cockroach to remind me of the deficit of life out here.

” It is a little thing — glass is — until it is absent, then it becomes a big thing.”                                        -Mark Twain,  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

the crud.

fried eggs on toast

patty melts on fresh bread, bell pepper and cucumber salad

eggplant parmesean

—————-

It’s nap time.  After a lunch of thick patty melts smothered in sauted mushrooms, onions, and swiss, it takes little more than the wind beating out its familiar rhythms against the building to get these guys snoring in three-part harmony.  This has been a waiting week.  The wind is relentless, keeping our guests of the week: two antenna riggers safely on solid ground.  Stepping through front door to take out the garbage, I feel like a salmon swimming up-stream.  The wind and I play tug-of-war over the bag of trash while I wrestle the lid of the food waste box open.  This is no weather for people climbing antenna towers.

I’ve been back to The Oasis for a few days now.  One weekend at the Big Base is enough.  Enough time to get two loads of laundry done, say hi to the folks I befriended somewhere between Denver and Christchurch, attend a Halloween party, eat cafeteria food and catch a bit of The Crud.  In every closed community there is a name for that special bug that gets passed around.  Whether it’s the “24hr flu” or “the plague,” there’s no avoiding it.  No matter how many times you wash your hands, it will find you sooner or later.  I have spent my time between meals napping, hoping to sleep through the cruddiest part.  One of the many advantages of living where you work.  While water is mandatory in the recovery from any illness, I have turned to my coveted stash of Stumptown Coffee to clear out the napping cobwebs.  After two days of mostly sleeping I need coffee-power to catch up on batches of cookies (snickerdoodles) and crossword puzzles.