In a frigid Antarctic kitchen, nine hours by plane from the nearest grocery store, writer Jynne Dilling Martin discovers pad Thai, pear galette and an astonishingly creative Thanksgiving dinner. 

By Jynne Dilling Martin
Updated May 23, 2017

In a frigid Antarctic kitchen, nine hours by plane from the nearest grocery store, writer Jynne Dilling Martin discovers pad Thai, pear galette and an astonishingly creative Thanksgiving dinner.

The worst part of sleeping in a snow cave in Antarctica is not the minus-20° windchill or the midnight sun glaring through every crack. It’s not peeing in a bottle or feeling achingly sore from digging the cave in the first place. The worst part is crawling out the next morning, stiff and starving, fantasizing about a latte, eggs and pancakes, and prying open a box of rations to find a choice between a baggie of frozen raisins or a baggie of frozen nuts. I’ve often opened my pantry at home and groaned at the limited options, but that pales in comparison to the scarcity of food on a remote ice shelf where the nearest grocery store is a nine-hour cargo plane ride away.

I came to Antarctica as a writer-in-residence through a National Science Foundation program. Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with the place, so it was a dream come true to be invited to spend six weeks living in various small encampments around the continent, writing aboutthe scientists who work with its penguins, seals, fish and microbial life. The residency promised helicopter rides over volcanoes, hikes across glaciers, and days spent watching seal pups learn to swim and Adélie penguins pop out of the ocean. But it also meant something dreadful to a locavore vegetarian like myself: six weeks without any fresh food.

Terrified, I packed a few dozen oranges, limes and lemons in my suitcase. I felt proud of my resourcefulness, untilI arrived by cargo plane at the main American base camp, McMurdo Station, and discovered that veteran Antarctica staffers were far better prepared. Squirreled away in their dorm-room mini fridges were hardy vegetables like broccoli and kale; dresser drawers held ginger and pomegranates; and hidden inside closets were unsanctioned yogurt makers and jugs of fermenting kombucha. But even these supplies were limited, so most meals were variations on reheated lentils, beans or casseroles, made either by the cafeteria cooks at McMurdo or over portable stoves at various field camps. They were only slightly improved by the carefully rationed “freshies."

After five weeks of relentless lentil-eating, I was desperately looking forward to my time at Lake Hoare, a collection of tents in a remote valley where 80,000-year-old glacial ice grinds over mountains and melts into turquoise lakes. When scientists learned I was going to spend a week there, many told me it was the most beautiful place in Antarctica. But the most common response was: “You get a week of Rae’s cooking. You are so lucky!” They described Rae Spain to me as “the best chef on the continent.” Her reputation after 16 years of cooking at Lake Hoare has spread far and wide—as have her bags of fresh-baked cookies, tossed to helicopter pilots as they hover to drop their loads.

Even with so much buildup, it was still a shock, after a long helicopter ride over unending, blinding white snow and colossal mountains, to step into a tiny wooden hut filled with the yeasty smell of sourdough bread baking in the oven. Rae, her soft brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and a walkie-talkie on her hip, was discussing dinner plans with her assistant, Erika Neal. “That zucchini would make a great puttanesca,” Rae said. “For dessert, I’m thinking a pear galette!” A pear galette? I glanced out the window to confirm that a glacial cliff still loomed outside.

Cooking dinner is only one of Rae’s responsibilities: She oversees much of the cargo that goes in and out of the camps and troubleshoots the equipment that constantly breaks under extreme conditions. She once was the only person at the camp strong and stubborn enough to drag an enormous drill bit, the length of a telephone pole, out of the icy lake when it got stuck. She radios all day with the helicopter pilots (“Are you doing a ground hook or a hover?”) and trains new arrivals like me on glacier safety and radio protocol. And she also preserves lemons for her Moroccan recipes and ferments sauerkraut in a giant bucket under the coat rack.

This season, there’s been a peanut shortage on the continent, so Erika and I spent the afternoon picking through bags of trail mix to prep one of Rae’s signature dishes, pad Thai—a task I don’t think Andy Ricker has ever faced at his Pok Pok restaurants. While we worked at the kitchen’s single foldout table, amid strands of decorative chile lights, Rae told me that except for the saffron, curries and other spices she brings from Bellingham, Washington—and the lemons, ginger and garlic that visiting scientists buy for her on their way through New Zealand—the bulk of her cooking is dependent on whatever boxed and canned ingredients get dropped by helicopter or survive the winterlong camp freeze. During this year’s load-in, a sudden storm prevented helicopters from coming with supplies for almost a week, so Rae was stuck cooking last year’s leftover frozen cheese. She says this is why she thinks of herself as merely a cook and not a chef: “A chef has the exact ingredients for his or her vision of a dish; I have to deal with whatever is here and make it taste good.”

Thanksgiving at Lake Hoare is a major event: Scientists hike many hours over ice and volcanic scree from camps throughout the valleys to gather for the holiday meal. But two years ago, the oven broke the night before. Rae woke up early to cook the turkey, only to find stove parts and tools scattered all over the kitchen—her assistant had attempted to fix the oven in the middle of the night and failed. Undaunted, Rae fired up the propane grill, tossed on the brined turkey and boiled water on the stovetop to heat her side dishes. The grilled turkey proved so popular that it has become her new Thanksgiving tradition.

Now that I’m back home, I find myself missing the inventiveness of cooking in Antarctica and how I cherished each piece of fresh food—every lime was a precious commodity. It’s nice to be able to walk three blocks and buy anything from oranges to orange flower water, but sometimes I don’t fully appreciate how amazing it is to have all of these ingredients at my immediate disposal. So I hope I will never forget the time I deseeded a pomegranate at McMurdo Station. You better believe that I got on my hands and knees to rescue each stray seed that fell on the floor, and that I drank every last drop of that juice.

Jynne Dilling Martin’s poetry collection about Antarctica, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, comes out in February.