I have heard it several times: “the most important person on station is the cook.” Although in a station as small as ours, everyone is pretty important to making the station run smoothly, there is truth to this statement. Food is important- we need to eat every day. The chefs are very central to the morale of a community like ours.
It isn’t easy being a cook here. With so little fresh food, the cooks have to be really creative. They are kept on their toes by other events as well. Due to the earthquake in Chile this past February, an entire container - the kind 18-wheel trucks tow - of frozen food thawed when power was lost at a quake damaged Chilean port, and the cooks had no choice but to roll with the punches.
So let me introduce our cooks. During the summer there were two cooks, Diane Curran and Stacie Murray. Stacie left with the summer crew and we miss her a lot. Diane, who came in with Stacie last September will be leaving on the LMG with us. She has been cooking in Antarctica since 2000, beginning with 2 seasons as a cook at South Pole Station, and still sometimes considers herself a “Polie” first and foremost.
She then worked a season at McMurdo serving the Midnight Rations, or “Midrats” meal. This is the meal served in the middle of the night for those on the night shift. It was also the most personal of meals at McMurdo, serving between 1 AM -3 AM rather than 800-1100 during the day.
This is her third season and first summer at Palmer. She says that because Palmer Station is so much smaller and more intimate than the others, the cook’ position suits her much better. Not only is she and fellow Plamer cooks always trying to find out what we like and dislike, but the fresh food goes much further between 40 people than between 1000.
Diane has been cooking all her life. In fact, she grew up in a restaurant. She worked at her parents’ fresh fast food restaurant in the South Side of Chicago until she was 16. Her favorite thing to make is really good bread, pies or other pastries. She has baked at several family-owned bakeries and even opened her own in Maine between stints in Antarctica.
Keith Reimink is the winter chef. Since station population is so small during the winter months, he will be the one and only. His favorite food both to make and to eat is chicken cordon bleu.
Keith grew up in Michigan but began his cooking career as a chef at an elder hostel in Alaska. He then began to take jobs cooking on cruise ships sailing up and down the East and West coasts of the United States and to places like the Virgin Islands and Mexico.
He is not new to Antarctica either. He spent 3 summers cooking at McMurdo Station and one year cooking at South Pole Station before taking this winter job at Palmer. He discussed the good and bad aspects of cooking at each of his former stations. There are so many people are McMurdo, for instance, - the summer population reaches 1,000 – that it is a huge task to feed so many cold and hungry people. But now he knows how to cook a meal for 1,000 people.
While Palmer Station only holds around 40 in the summer and 18 in the winter, the fact that the cooks are part of such a small intimate group creates a completely different sort of pressure. They are always trying to please, and they succeed every day.
The way to the heart of a community living in extreme isolation and often extreme cold and weather, really is through food. This is not only because hard work in cold weather drives a very hearty appetite, but because eating is a social activity; a medium for conversation and memories, a chance to take a break and relax with friends.
Eating is not only a necessity but a ritual here. We look forward to Waffle Wednesday, Mexican Friday, and Swedish pancakes on Tuesdays. Monday lunch is leftovers, and every day there are fresh cookies. People sneak to the back of the kitchen to steal them off the cooling racks while they are still so soft they fall apart in your hands. Employees meet in the galley during morning and afternoon break to have cookies and a hot drink, and the scientists are often drawn up from the labs by the cookie smells that waft down at some point during the afternoon.
Food brings everyone on station together every day. It brings the sailors over as well. Every time the ship docks, the people on the boat come over for a “crosstown” dinner, usually pizza. And we share meals in another way as well; we all take turns cleaning up afterwards.
There are no janitors here, as you know from Chuck’s post about House Mouse. Once a week after dinner, each station member will work with a team to do GASH (Galley and Scullery Help- it’s a US Navy term), which basically involves putting away leftovers, washing dishes, sweeping and mopping while listening to loud music and joking around with each other.
It never ceases to amaze me that Diane knows what everyone likes to eat for breakfast, and even though the buffet is completely full of delicious food - eggs, sausage, French toast, pancakes, potatoes, oatmeal, yogurt - she cooks omelets, breakfast burritos, and eggs to order.
Keith gives the personal touch too. He has been re-creating a dessert that research associate Neal’s grandmother used to make. On Cinco de Mayo, he made a huge Mexican feast that we ate in the lounge. If there is going to be an event in the bar or the lounge, the cooks will often go completely out of their way and make appetizers or snacks like nachos and pizza.
The first thing I heard about Palmer Station was: “You will never eat as well as you do at Palmer.” I guarantee it will be one of the first things anyone who has been to Palmer mentions about the station. As my friends and family can attest, it was one of the first things I told them about - before the penguins, the diving, and the icebergs, I told them how amazing the food is.