Pole-ish Food: The Kitchen at the End of the World

Spectrum's Glenn Zorpette reports from Antarctica

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This is part of the series:
Antarctica: Life on the Ice

Transcript: Pole-ish Food: The Kitchen at the End of the World

Glenn Zorpette: The South Pole prompts visions of endless ice sheets, arcane science projects, and heroic explorers from a bygone age. But there’s lots more going on nowadays at the Pole, where the United States operates a new $175 million station. To keep that station going requires mechanics, medics, technicians, electricians, logisticians and many other workers. But it was the cooks that really intrigued me. In summertime they’re cooking for 250 people in a place where there are few sensory pleasures other than eating. Some of those people need five or six thousand calories a day. And these cooks must get by with absolutely no deliveries from March until September. They must provide four meals a day, including one at midnight. And the air pressure at the pole is so low that special techniques are needed to make bread and cakes rise.

Brian Denim: A little bit of onion, some sautéed onions and some butter. Garlic, and of course the parsnips. Potatoes. A hit of cream, if we’ve got some, hopefully we do, but if not we’ll just have to make do with milk.

Glenn Zorpette: That’s Brian Denim, who’s making parsnip mashed potatoes at the South Pole. He’s one of a dozen cooks and bakers who work culinary magic at the end of the earth.

Brian Denim: We’re doing a honey-glazed spiral ham tonight.

Glenn Zorpette: Tonight being midnight.

Brian Denim: Yes.

Glenn Zorpette: So people who stroll in here at midnight will get honey glazed spiral ham and parsnip mashed potatoes with garlic and butter.

Brian Denim: Absolutely.

Glenn Zorpette: Well, I hope I’m here at midnight.

Glenn Zorpette: When Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott raced to the South Pole in 1911, they and their men subsisted for weeks on pemmican, a fairly disgusting mix of dried and powdered meat and fat. Amundsen’s men also ate their sled dogs. Scott’s men spent most of the expedition slowly starving to death. But times have really changed at the South Pole.

James Brown: Every Friday we do steak and once on that five-week rotating menu on a Friday, we’ll do crab legs and filet mignon. Some of the other things that they really like for lunch—they like Reubens, they like jambalaya.

Glenn Zorpette: James Brown is in his ninth season as the head chef at the South Pole.

James Brown: Burger day is really popular. Night meals—they like tamale pie, we have shepherd’s pie, they really like that. Lasagna is really popular. Thanksgiving, we do the turkeys three ways: smoked, deep-fried, and roasted. And then for Christmas we do beef Wellington and lobster tail.

Glenn Zorpette: And they do all that with electricity alone.

James Brown: We don’t use gas at all, because fire is our worst enemy here. We’re the driest place on earth. If something catches on fire, it’s a catastrophe. We use a flat top that’s electric.

Glenn Zorpette: For seven months every year, including the polar winter, there are no flights to the South Pole. So the kitchen crew has to make do with frozen ingredients. Fortunately, storing all that frozen food is easy.

Chris Brazelton: Yeah, everything’s pretty much frozen here. It’s brought down earlier and it’s all stored up and stockpiled.

Glenn Zorpette: Where are the freezers for that?

Chris Brazelton: Outside

Glenn Zorpette: Oh, you just throw the stuff outside?

Chris Brazelton: Right. Yes, we have the best freezer in the world. And there’s no animals or bacteria or insects or anything down here that will contaminate food.

Glenn Zorpette: So how do you become the head chef at the South Pole?

James Brown: I looked in the Denver Post. I liked the West, liked the mountains. I looked at the Denver Post, and it said: ‘You want to work in Antarctica? Call this number.’ The rest is history. Here I am.

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James Brown: I’ve worked a lot of different places: Santa Fe, Maine, D.C., right outside of Philadelphia. None of these places compare to the excitement of being here, the uniqueness.

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James Brown: The coldest temperature I ever experienced was a wind chill of 120 below zero. I don’t know of many other places in the world where I would have been able to experience that. The sun dogs or sun haloes that we see, when we get the fine grains of ice blowing around in the sky, it creates a halo, or a sun dog as they call it, around the sun. Not too many places in the world where you can see it, especially as clear as we see it here.

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