The Russians are coming – to dinner

by ABCCmain on May 03, 2012

Bob Payne, a wonderful, funny, clever, hardworking person and writer (including contributing editor Condé Nast Traveler) joined our expedition to pick up debris at Bellingshausen station. He wrote this story in Real Eatsa magazine app for those with iPads  ($.99). Real Eats editor is Barbara Fairchild, former editor of Bon Appétit.

Here’s a story link with visuals, a sneak peak of Wendy’s recipes and a snippet of the story:

the researchers and volunteers on a base in Antarctica brings a whole new meaning to the term frozen food


…Collecting the trash was memorable, as it included everything from rusty nails to an abandoned personnel carrier, all of which would be shipped to South America for recycling. But even more memorable was the time we spent together when not working, much of it around a table where we shared meals and stories.

With our group were two Canadian women, Carol Devine, the project leader, and Wendy Trusler, who did the cooking not only during the few days I was there but for the entire three-month program. I have not seen them since, but in the way travelers often do who share intense experiences for however brief a time, I’ve continued to consider these women my friends. So I was delighted, all these years later, to learn that after having gone on to such endeavors as pursuing an interest in the visual arts (Wendy), working in Rwanda, Sudan, and East Timor for Doctors Without Borders (Carol), and having children (both), they are again collaborating on a project, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.

The book, which they hope to publish later this year, will be based on Wendy’s adventures as a chef on the White Continent. But it will also compare her culinary experiences with those of early Antarctic explorers, when, for instance, one expedition member, Frederick A. Cook, observed:

“It took us about two hours to thaw out some penguin steak, and two more to make a soup. In this latter we managed to mix a liberal supply of reindeer hair [it came from their reindeer-skin sleeping bags], penguin grease and other flavoring material. The soup was a failure — but not quite so much so as the chocolate prepared shortly after.”

Once the food hit the table —and the vodka — all the pressures went away

I spoke to Carol and Wendy again recently, and according to them, their challenges began even before they left Toronto for Ushuaia, the Argentine city at the tip of South America from which the majority of ships to Antarctica depart.

“When we were negotiating with the Russians to make use of their station, one of their terms was that we had to have our own kitchen, and we had to supply and feed the VIEW volunteers ourselves,” Carol says “Exactly what we would need was one of the unknowns, but we were sure we would have to bring it all.”

In Ushuaia, they bought three months’ worth of provisions from a supplier they communicated with largely through hand gestures. Which is why, when the provisions finally arrived, Wendy received not the few lamb chops she thought she had ordered, but an entire, still-on-the-hoof, lamb.

“Great, now I’m a butcher, too,” she remembers thinking.

They brought all of their own cooking gear, including a small gas stove that produced soot all season, but were provided with a battered shed that served as the volunteers’ kitchen and dining area. Most interesting about the shed, which the Russians dubbed Canada House, was that one of the walls, lined with a rack containing empty vodka bottles, rolled back to reveal a wire-filled hideaway that had apparently once been a KGB radio room. The room made an excellent pantry, and the empty vodka bottles served admirably as spice containers.

The biggest challenge, at least in the beginning, was trying to figure out the relationship between the volunteers and the Russians.

“At first, it was awkward, because we were all trying to determine how we fit in,” Carol says “But once the food hit the table — “And the drink, of course,” interrupted Wendy — all the pressures went away.”

Food, it soon became apparent, was the common language of Antarctica, and not just between the Russians and the VIEW volunteers. The station was on King George Island, just off the finger-like projection of the Antarctic Peninsula, and because of its relative proximity to South America (admittedly, across the stormy Drake Channel, where the Southern Ocean seas routinely topped 20 feet or more) the island was also home to nearby bases belonging to Chile, Uruguay and China.

“We visited the kitchens of each base, and every time we did we were instantly transported to that country,” Wendy says.

She remembers the thick stew-like cazuela of the Chileans, and the Uruguayan’s pollo relleno, stuffed chicken baked and flattened under bricks, dubbed by one volunteer “road kill chicken.” But her most vivid memory was of a visit to the Chinese kitchen. “I got a dumpling-making lesson from the Chinese cook, and it was like stepping into China, giant woks and all.”

Most of the recipes Wendy experimented with were of course Russian — roasted beet salad, cabbage rolls, borscht — and some of the experiments had unexpected results. “Are you sure this is borscht?” one of the Russians said of an early attempt at the classic Eastern European beet soup. Ultimately, though, it was a success, as was her bread; that recipe, and the use of the oven, she got from the Russian chef, Valodia, although she never had the courage to exactly follow his proportions, which called for 100 cups of flour.

The VIEW volunteers saw Antarctica at its most benign, during the December-to-February “summer” months, when temperatures were seldom more than a few degrees above or below the freezing point. Still, because going to a favorite shop for a missing item was not an option, innovation, and resourcefulness, played a necessary role in just about every effort.