Being on The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning shoot has perks.
What I ate today in Wendy’s kitchen: Cook’s bread, Wendy’s bread, Russian tea, cinnamon buns, chocolate ganache icing with a special ingredient and chocolate cake. You eat what you can get during the long days and depending on what is on hand. This is her kitchen in Peterborough, not Bellingshausen but the reality is the same. I ate a few more greens in Antarctica – this was a food shoot.
We arrive early morning from Toronto to Wendy’s house. She’s set up a beautiful old door as a table that runs through her kitchen entrance. It undulates with mounds of plates, mugs, cutlery, napkins, pots and a few original cups and pieces of wood from Antarctica on which she served food. The shoot overtakes the whole first floor of Wendy (and Cam & Fin’s) house. I am the lucky helper on a two-day near-final ABCC food testing and styling shoot with her and Sandy. They’ve been doing these food shoots together since a test one last March and have a nice groove going. I am chief dishwasher, reflector holder and assistant everything. I am allowed to lick spoons etc. Wendy’s been cooking for a day and is still at it.
We transform objects from that long table into the sets or little stories for the food shoots: “The Russian Lesson” (tea and cinnamon buns, with Wendy’s original Cyrillic alphabet flash cards) and “Picnic of fish chowder” for the volunteers working at Stoney Bay. They are recreated true-to life vignettes from our time with the Russian Antarctic Expedition, helping to clean up Bellingshausen scientific base as part of the VIEW Foundation’s Project Antarctica.
Sandy has filled the sun-filled back room with camera bags, the tripod and reflectors. As Wendy styles the set, he shoots, asking questions that help tease out the stories. We laugh a lot. I get in trouble too. Sandy urges me to stop moving the glasses around from the top of the glass in case I leave fingerprints. We teach him a bit of the Russian alphabet during the Russian tea shoot. The Russian letter like a snowflake or star that makes a “‘z” like in pleasure,” it reads on the back of the card.
Wendy’s dining room table has a slab of marble with pie pans of cinnamon buns and fresh bread loaves that no one is allowed to eat until the shoot is over. It’s torture, Wendy’s partner Cam and I concur. Prepared and set aside are four chocolate cake circles. The kitchen counters and stove get a work out as Wendy makes the Stoney Bay Chowder, while in the oven the cabbage roll sauce bubbles over the ivory-coloured bake ware. In the big mixer and in a pot she makes two kinds of chocolate icing. As soon as one shot is wrapped Wendy’s onto the next.
She is “the collector and user”, especially of kitchen implements and unusual found objects. She cuts the cinnamon buns with a cool family wooden-handled cutter that her mother had at the cottage and never used. It makes me think of a Pioneer Village kitchen I visited in Thunder Bay. When I suggest we need a salt and pepper shaker Wendy produces three perfectly different sets to choose from. For one of my favourite outdoor shoots– chocolate cake–Wendy procures awesome rusted metal drawers from her studio she’d used for an art project. The icing has to cool so Wendy brings it outside onto the snow and finishes icing the cake there.
When she says, ‘drink some Russian tea, the glass is too full” or “take a bite of that cake”, I comply. I also am obsessed with incorporating this flowery cloth I got at the Goodwill on Roncesvalles that reminds me of Russian material. I also want to incorporate an ashtray in a shot, even if it gets the cut. Wendy and Sandy indulge me. Being an active part of this aspect of our book-making up close rather than afar has been important because I witness their hard work to make the food and pictures come together, Wendy and I reminisce of experiences and meals we shared and I get to hear stories of the meals she cooked and recipes she collected after I left. Tasting Wendy’s bread again also conjures fond memories.
I asked Wendy where she learned about making cabbage rolls. A dear Ukrainian-Canadian family friend taught her when she was growing up. As for the Stoney Bay Chowder, it was a recipe Wendy adapted to use the fish the Russians caught (and she caught too—cod jigging—you’ll hear more of it in the book). I suggest you’re going to want to cook from the book, not just read it. The food is diverse and delicious, I can attest and I heard it all the time from the volunteers, the Russians and neighbours.
We had a good discussion on if we will include the story of catching fish even though this has been prohibited since 1998 (when the Madrid Protocol-Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty of 1991-came into force), except for scientific study with a permit. While it was against the rules, there is much to say about why the Russians fished from time to time. And it was not like they were doing large-scale commercial trawling for krill.
Wendy told me that at one stage she had to say to the friendly Russian scientists who came to her kitchen with a catch, ‘Please don’t bring me more fish’. We assure ourselves it is important to tell also the stories that are more complicated.
Wendy observed that the Russians, away from loved ones for a year or more, liked to have someone to care for. We saw the Russians did a few things that broke the Madrid Protocol such as open burning, and they were trying to catch up to be ready to comply, more successfully in some ways vs. others.
There is some debate today if the Russians should be touching Lake Vostok by drilling down to the “mysterious body of water sealed two miles beneath the polar ice cap.” Dr. Valery Lukin, Director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition recently said about the drilling in this subglacial ancient lake, “For me, the discovery of this lake is comparable with the first flight into space.” Many keenly await the findings of the drilling. “This is a technological achievement. The scientific pay-off is still many years away,” says Mahlon Kennicutt, president of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.” (Nature, 14 Feb, 2012)
I met with the previous director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition in St. Petersburg when I went to negotiate the terms of the VIEW Foundation’s project with them. One of the agreements was we had to bring our own cook. On Bellingshausen while we were there, the team of 16 was working on meteorology, biology, atmospheric science, glaciology and more. We had to live on the base with due respect for the scientists at work, not interfering with their routines. It was awesome to find Wendy – she worked super hard over that three month project and also gained the respect of the Russians.
At Bellingshausen, the most accessible of Russia’s seven scientific bases, the scientists worked long hours and how much tea we drank and the vodka shots for occasions such as at Christmas and at a meeting with the base commander, Sergey. I also remember the smell of stale and fresh cigarette smoke in several places where we ate. A memory that floats above most others is of delicious satiating food and the generous people we met and collaborated with on the cleanup project.
During these busy days I’m taken back there but I also feel the movement forward. By reflecting we learn, experience anew and note what has changed. The book’s getting done. These stories we want to get out of us have universal themes, one of which is international cooperation. Another of course, is food. Thank you Wendy, Cam & Fin for your hospitality, shared meals and everything else (and of course, Shackleton, the enduring fifteen year old cat–a “her”.)