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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEntertainment | Restaurants & Dining | December 2008 

The Irreverent Chef: Cooking in the Coldest Place on Earth
email this pageprint this pageemail usLiana Turner - PVNN


Liana meeting with an Emperor (Penguin) during the six months she spent working on "The Ice" in Antarctica.
This week I was planning to write about induction cook tops, which is, to me anyway, a fascinating subject, but that project has been put on hold for now. This happened because when I should have been working/writing I instead decided to take the afternoon off and treat myself to a movie.

The 5th Puerto Vallarta Film Festival had just begun, and a movie about Antarctica caught my eye and my attention. Since I spent six months working there, I am attracted to all things Antarctic. The film was Encounters at the End of the World, directed by Werner Herzog.

There is something about Herzog's films that I really appreciate. It is easy to see and feel that there is a real human behind the camera at all times. We aren't just looking through the lens of the camera, but through his eyes into the camera. It gives another dimension to the subjects.

In this case there were a few interviews with some characters who were working on "The Ice," as we called it, when he was there with his film crew. I saw many familiar sights and the nostalgia came vivid and strong.

Even though I was there a hundred years ago (well, almost... it was 1984-85) it all looked pretty much the same, except that the main American base, McMurdo, has sprouted several new buildings since I saw it last. That is the way of "civilization."

As far as the natural scenery, it would be difficult to change that. It is so grand, so white, and so amazingly beautiful. I hope it never does change. It has some pretty good defense mechanisms in its favor, being isolated from the rest of the world and being nearly completely inhospitable to practically every living creature. Hopefully that will keep us from ruining it.

The only thing missing from this film was information about the food. Obviously Werner is not a big "Foodie," or he would have gone into the kitchens of Antarctica and found the real heart of the place. There was one short vignette with one of the cooks talking about how much everyone loves the "Frosty Boy" fake ice cream machine and that if it ever breaks down, there are a whole lot of unhappy people.

So all this got me reminiscing and dredging up old memories about cooking on "The Ice" for six months. I was in four different places while I was there. I was stationed first at Williams Field, where all the planes landed. It was also known as "Willie 2." The airfield was actually on the sea ice, and as the ice moves out to the ocean, the airfield has to be moved back. It just happened to be one of those moving years when I was there.

Then I was stationed at "Willie 3." Since I was the only woman at that camp, I was put in a portable building waaaay at the other end of the camp. It was nice to have my own little house, but scary when there were white outs and I was totally cut off and all alone without a radio to communicate with the camp, and the bathroom 20 feet away, it could get a little scary. Luckily, I lived through all the dangers.

After Willie 3 I was in limbo in McMurdo for a few weeks, while I waited for my crew to gather and preliminary missions to be completed so we could head out to our remote camp at Black Island, where my co-workers would be installing a satellite tracking station. Finally, we were ready to go, after one crew had set out and failed after their Sno-Cat tipped into a crevasse and they had to turn around.

Several members of that group declined to participate in the next attempt to reach the island. I was ready to go, though, being young and dumb believing that no harm could ever come to me. We spent seven weeks there, living in a "jamesway hut", which was like a Quonset hut but with insulated walls and floor. We also had the interesting feature of an outhouse. It only had a bucket underneath, as we wouldn't be allowed to dig a hole, so we had to take a bag with us to put in the bucket and then carry the bag to the dump for disposal. The bags were, of course, clear plastic. Our Black Island motto was, "We came, We saw, We @#&* in a plastic bag."

Food in Antarctica was, of course, mostly frozen. A freezer there didn't need any electricity. It could just be a room outside, or a kind of an ice cave with boxes in it. There was no danger of anything thawing. We also had plenty of canned goods, but we didn't use much of them, except for tomato products, which are one of the few foods that don't lose too much in the canning process.

We had plenty of meats of all kinds. We seemed to have an endless supply of beef tenderloin, which we used for outdoor barbecues when the weather became a sultry 30 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be shorts and T-shirt weather as long as there was no wind.

We had several special occasion outdoor events, like the Thanksgiving Day football game and the Chili Cook-off. The chilies were like none I had ever seen. One of the entries in the contest had little green army men as its secret ingredient. The year I was there, the chili cook-off ended in a cloud of dust, as several of us discovered wrestling as a group activity.

We wrestled all over the base... indoors, outdoors, in bars and dorm rooms, at all hours. All it took to start was two people touching and that would create a mass pile up of bodies. I suppose it was a way of having human contact in a place where people in their 20's lived very close together but with very little privacy.

It was fun, but it was soon to become only a legend. After two weeks or so, all wrestling was banned by management, for safety reasons, even though no one was ever seriously injured. However, many people experienced soreness and muscle fatigue. Maybe that was cutting into job efficiency.

Fresh vegetables were a rare and much anticipated event. Sometimes they would come on the regular (but not frequent) flights from Christchurch, New Zealand, and sometimes they would be airdropped, if landing wasn't possible due to weather. We would always hope to see black boxes, because the black color was designated for things that could not be frozen, like fresh vegetable matter. I do remember we had Christmas trees airdropped that year. They were nice, but I think most of us would have rather had veggies.

Possibly the best part of receiving a shipment of fresh fruits and vegetables was seeing the colors. In a land where the natural landscape consists only of white and some black and varying shades in between, with no plant matter, except for a few lichens here and there, or the blood of a seal being attacked by an Orca whale, there were no natural colors to be seen.

It is an odd thing to comprehend, but when it happens, color becomes very important. Sure, we had our red National Science Foundation parkas and there were red and green flags marking the road from the airfield to "town," but natural colors were severely lacking. It was an indescribable joy to experience the deep purple of an eggplant or the orangeness of an orange, or the glorious red of a crispy apple. And then to be able to taste them too was like icing on the cake.

Food is very important to people in a camp situation. It is the highlight of the day. Everyone worked six days a week, and meals were breaks and entertainment, as well as social time. A cook in that situation has to be many things... sometimes mother/father, therapist, nutritional counselor, song and dance performer, comedian, etc... That pressure is not easy for anyone, and it can be unbearable for some, but I enjoyed it most of the time.

The only thing that really annoyed me was being asked by 30 people every single day, "What's for dinner?" I understood them wanting to have something to look forward to, but it was still annoying, and if I had it to do all over again I would have posted the dinner menu at breakfast to avoid that. That is one of the benefits that age can bring... the knowledge to escape from people who annoy us.

The film, Encounters at the End of the World, directed by Werner Herzog, is playing Saturday at 4 pm, and Sunday at 6 pm, along with all of the environmentally themed films of this year's Puerto Vallarta Film Festival at Cinemark in Plaza Caracol. Even though it lacks Antarctic kitchen scenes, it is still highly recommended. The Sunday showings of the environmental films are FREE. What a deal!

The Irreverent Chef, a.k.a. Liana Turner, is the chef and owner of Paradise Bakery and Catering. Serving the "Best Cinnamon Rolls in Vallarta," along with delicious sandwiches, salads, main dishes and yummy sweet treats every day but Sunday, and providing all styles of catering services, from pre-prepared meals to-go for informal gatherings to full service elegance for dinners, cocktail parties, wedding receptions and special events, Paradise Bakery & Catering is located at Sierra Aconcagua 299, Prolongacion Brasil, Colonia Lazaro Cardenas, Puerto Vallarta. For more information, call (322) 222-5133 or visit VallartaCatering.com.

Click HERE for more articles by The Irreverent Chef



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