Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Into the Deep Freeze

by Jason Anthony

Photo by author.

October 2012    

About the time that America’s first TV dinner—turkey with dressing, green peas, and mashed potatoes—was produced by Swanson in 1954, forty thousand scientists from sixty-seven nations were gearing up for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Based on previous International Polar Years, the IGY would serve as a cooperative scientific investigation into the geophysical links between Earth and space. In Antarctica, a continent known primarily for its hostility to life, and for the stories of pemmican-eating men who suffered from scurvy and starvation during its exploration, the IGY suddenly introduced fifty-six stations built by twelve nations. Science settled Antarctica. And while this heralded major advances in the study of south polar auroras, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, meteorology, oceanography, seismology, biology, and medicine, it also meant that Antarctica would never again be without hungry human residents.

Still, it is a quiet, desolate place, nowhere more so than in the interior of the continent, where the snowy surface of ice caps one to three miles thick has more in common with the moon than life on Earth. Only a few year-round stations have been built in the middle of Antarctica, the most famous being the American base constructed at the South Pole. The story of the creation of that extraordinary place, like all Antarctic stories, is also by necessity a culinary one. Food as sustenance, food as cargo: That’s Antarctic cuisine.

The road to the Pole began on the coast, with hundreds of Navy personnel establishing a beachhead base on Ross Island, at what would become McMurdo Station. Nearly all Americans in the IGY were military personnel, creating a place for science under the directive of Operation Deep Freeze. (In Antarctica, it takes a village to raise a scientist.) In Deep Freeze I, which began in the pre-IGY summer of 1955/1956 (austral summers start in October and end in February) before the scientists arrived, Navy Seabees (from CB, construction battalion) worked hard to unload ships and build the nascent McMurdo. Still, it was two months before they could eat fresh baked bread in their new mess hall. For the first time, refrigeration was in use in Antarctica; fresh meat and produce bought in New Zealand could stay fresh while frozen meat could thaw slowly and safely. Ice cream became a common Antarctic dessert.

Temporary McMurdo chow hall, 1955. Photo by Ken Meyer.

As Dian Belanger relates in her IGY history, Deep Freeze, U.S. sailors had little faith in the mystique of pemmican, the dense survival food made of dried lean protein ground up and mixed in equal measure with fat. Sigmund Gutenko, veteran cook of Antarctic expeditions led by Admiral Richard Byrd and Finn Ronne, prepared nine thousand bars of 2,600-calorie pemmican, using twenty six ingredients to make it palatable to this new generation. To no avail; one cook noted that “fixed as a stew, soup, or pie,” it was still pemmican. One sailor tried to eat it while camping and called it “oh, God-awful.” He begged the kitchen for cans of tuna instead.

The workload during the first Deep Freeze winter was stressful, not least on a poor second-class Navy cook who had not been psychologically screened for the demands of months of Antarctic darkness. Symptoms of schizophrenia developed within three weeks. He was fond of imitating Liberace, unscrewing all the light bulbs except the one over the piano. When no one could be spared to watch him, he was locked in a mattress-lined room. He escaped once, only to be found in the chapel, naked before the altar and talking to God. Some men found it funny, but the cooks who had to make up for his absence through the winter were less amused. Their task grew harder as other kitchen staffers were pulled to help complete the runway from which South Pole construction flights would depart. As partial recompense, all officers broke protocol to pitch in and wash dishes.

McMurdo Station, winter of 1956. U.S. Navy photo.

As the Deep Freeze II summer of 1956/1957 got underway, McMurdo’s population quickly rose to a nearly-unmanageable 360. Never in Antarctic history had so many people camped together in one place. Men slept everywhere, including in tents and the chapel, and ate their mess hall chow in three crowded shifts. Reveille was at seven a.m. and breakfast at 7:30. Typical American fare was served: eggs, bacon, ham or sausages, fruit juices (or, less often, fruit), and muffins or toast with plenty of butter. The Navy had increased their usual food rations by thirty percent to match Antarctica’s calorie-burning conditions. That increase, though, would still not be enough for the deep cold and high altitude of the South Pole.

Some of the young Seabees bound for the Pole thought of it as just another challenge, not understanding that in all of human history only ten men had set foot there, staying only a few summer days, and that half of them had died of starvation on the way back. Then again, no one knew the first thing about living year-round at the South Pole, much less cooking and eating there. Not even the experts knew, for example, that the average temperature at Pole during the year would be -55°F.

Ready or not, on November 19th, 1956, the Seabee construction crew flew to the Pole on small ski-equipped R4Ds. They landed eight miles from the actual Pole, as close as the plane’s crew could navigate on the wing. Dogs helped to pull gear those eight final miles, but weren’t of much use later on when machines arrived that could haul tons of equipment every day. All the dogs but a pup named Bravo went back to McMurdo by summer’s end.

The men did not eat well during this construction phase, as the blond-bearded Ray “Sperocious” Spiers, their temporary cook, admitted he was more useful as a mechanic and barber. His daily dish of mashed potatoes was “thinnish, anemic and tasteless,” wrote scientific leader Paul Siple, mainly because Spiers didn’t bother to read the instructions on the box. Meanwhile, important things were being mashed outside the new base as well.

South Pole station under construction, 1956. Photo by Don Scott, via www.southpolestation.com.

The occupation of the South Pole required several large U.S. Air Force Globemaster aircraft to airdrop 730 tons of cargo during the brief summer. But “stream-ins,” when airdrops slammed into the snow because parachutes failed to open or disengaged in midair, haunted Pole construction. Sausages were squeezed out of their cans on impact and a year’s supply of tomato juice bloodied the snow. These gastronomic losses weren’t as depressing as the daily high-speed destruction of key items: a tractor, the mechanic’s toolbox, barrels of fuel, construction timbers, science equipment, and a bag of mail, to name a few. Sometimes, Siple said, it seemed as if half the airdrops in a day streamed in. To be fair, the Air Force airdrop riggers handled hundreds of tons of loads in a short period of time, and most of their drops were successful. And as recompense for lost items they sent a few illicit gifts as the last loads reached the Pole: a sexy female mannequin, two boxes of fresh vegetables signed “Stolen, rigged and dropped by four of the most competent thieves of the First Aerial Port Sqdrn,” and fortseven eggs which came down packaged under an Easter-egg-colored parachute. Only one egg was cracked, and when winterover cook Chet Segers lifted it out of the carton, he found a note underneath: “This egg was cracked before we dropped it. (Signed) U.S. Air Force.”

The first Pole winter crew of nine Navy men, nine IGY science staff, and Bravo the dog, replaced the Seabee construction crew, bringing with them the final tons of food and other cargo. Remarkably, of the eighteen winterers, only Paul Siple had Antarctic experience. Four others had spent time in the Arctic. Of the rest, some had been in Antarctica for just five days before flying to Pole. Most were in their twenties; cook Chet Segers was thirty and Siple was forty eight. Siple, a four-time winterover, would call it the “most pleasant and smoothest” experience he’d had during an Antarctic night. “Pleasant” is perhaps misleading, as temperatures would eventually reach a maximum cold of -102.1°F, shattering the previous world record from Siberia.

Chet Segers made the completed galley’s first meal on January 2. Devoted to the job, he was, however, a trained Navy butcher rather than a cook, and hadn’t cooked for two and a half years before arriving at the Pole. Siple praised Segers’s hard work, but as winter set in with the temperature dropping by three degrees per day, Segers had things to learn about cooking in South Pole’s difficult climate. It took him a week to thaw foods frozen at outside temperatures and he had to use a pressure cooker to speed up cooking times slowed by altitude. The South Pole sits at 9,301 feet but atmospheric pressure makes it feel like 10,000 feet; fluctuations in pressure can ratchet up the perceived altitude to almost 12,000 feet.

Segers’s first loaves of bread turned to bricks in South Pole’s near-zero humidity until he learned to protect them in plastic bags. But Segers could not figure out on his own why his cakes kept falling. He finally radioed Pillsbury, the home of Betty Crocker, which he said sent one of their industrial food experts up in a plane to bake a cake at ten thousand feet. More likely, she climbed into a kitchen-equipped pressure chamber, which Pillsbury had purchased from the Air Force several years earlier to create formulas for high-altitude cake mixes. Her advice to Segers was to add more flour to reduce the effect of the baking powder. “Some stir resulted from this private exchange,” Siple punned, because the Navy was embarrassed that it “had simply failed to instruct Segers in the fine art of high-altitude cooking.”

Chet Segers and his bread, 1957. Photo by Cliff Dickey, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

Segers also got occasional help from other staff with mess duty. Even the station leaders—Siple and Navy lieutenant Jack Tuck—pitched in to clean the kitchen and take out the garbage. Segers usually did the dishes himself, he told Dian Belanger fifty years later, because he had “nowhere to go anyhow.” Community members all took turns creating weekly menus. Grilled cheese and tomato soup made a popular lunch, while steaks, burgers, and roasts were usual dinners. Despite plentiful food, these first Polies lost weight, an anomaly among the IGY stations. No doubt this had to do with extra calories burned in the extreme cold.

For Segers’s fresh water, the crew took turns digging a snow mine—snow on the surface had been contaminated during construction—which doubled as a glaciology project. Eventually two hundred seventy feet long and ninety feet deep, the mine was dark and very cold but protected from the weather. A Navy electrician ran a makeshift string of lights down the lengthening shaft.

The sun spiraled down to the flat icy horizon. The crew faced a descent into six months of a cold, dark, unknown, but it could have been worse. Earlier, Segers and several other desperate nicotine-dependent men were facing a winter without tobacco, until a last-minute summer flight brought their lung-choking relief. They had been scavenging cigarette butts from the trash, sometimes holding the smallest nub with needle-nose pliers. Segers even tried a mix of coffee grounds and tea in his pipe before becoming sick after a few puffs.

Paul Siple estimated it cost a million dollars per man just to begin that first South Pole winter. Nearly all of that money was spent on logistics rather than science. The technique pioneered by Admiral Byrd of massive, expensive operations with lots of men to support a few scientists was the new Antarctic reality. But all those millions of dollars could only put them at the Pole; once winter set in, no amount of wealth could have rescued them if things went badly. Out of reach of the rest of humanity, the possibilities for trouble at South Pole were endless. They might as well have been lost in space.

Frostbitten faces and fingertips were commonplace. Frozen pulmonary and nasal capillaries meant that men coughed up blood or dripped it from their noses. Terrified that a midwinter fire would leave them injured and homeless in the coldest place on Earth, they first divided food, fuel, and gear between the two halves of the station in case part of it was damaged in a blaze, and then eventually established a separate emergency shelter in case the whole place burned down.

Otherwise, this was no longer the South Pole of legend. One IGY scientist had arrived in tennis shoes, another in a Hawaiian shirt. Men sat around at the Pole drinking beer, though this was not without its difficulties; they found themselves cutting the tops off frozen beer cans and spooning out the slush. The trappings of religion arrived too; Pole’s four Catholics received permission from the Vatican to forego the Friday food rules since there was no way to properly determine when a Friday occurred while simultaneously living in all of Earth’s time zones.

In the South Pole galley, 1956. Photo by Dick Prescott.

Whatever Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott might have thought about Vatican dispensations and beer slushies at the Pole, their names were formally attached to the station. During that first winter, U.S. authorities had admirably decided upon the un-American official name of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

When telephones were set up for room-to-room calls around the station, Paul Siple felt civilization encroaching too much on the Antarctic silence he had relished for nearly three decades; “Perhaps this was the price we had to pay,” he wrote, “for no longer living on pemmican.”



  Jason Anthony is the author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, a narrative and culinary history of Antarctica (just out from University of Nebraska Press; "Into the Deep Freeze" is an excerpt). Other Antarctic essays have been published in Orion, VQR, The Smart Set, Best American Travel Writing 2007, and listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2006. Contact him at www.albedoimages.com. We here at Alimentum are happy to report that we published the initial essay that led to the publication of Hoosh. Congratulations, Jason!

Photo used under Creative Commons.