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Eating at the Ends of the Earth

In Antarctica, a homemade meal is the ultimate icebreaker. Here's how to prepare one.

AntarcticaGetting to work at Neko Harbour, on the West Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet.

At New York's East Pole restaurant, where vintage maps cover the walls and a canvas sail soars across the ceiling above a long, candlelit table, writer Carol Devine and chef Wendy Trusler are sharing anecdotes about the Antarctic. For three months, the two women spearheaded a cleanup mission some 3,000 kilometres from the South Pole, managing a team of more than 50 volunteers at a Russian research station on King George Island. "In such unforgiving conditions, food equals survival, pure and simple," Devine tells our small group of scientists, explorers and others gathered for dinner to celebrate the launch of The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning. "But it also serves as a community builder."

AntarcticaTourists from the ship Aurora Australis size up an iceberg

Sure enough, by the time the plates from the first course of steaming braised cabbage pie, a nod to one of the recipes in the book, are cleared from the table, I'm chatting about Inuit driftwood maps with the Scott Polar Research Fellow to my left and the executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition across the table. As we take turns flipping through the collection of Devine and Trusler's journal entries, detailed provisions lists and daily menus, our most obvious question is, How do you whip up meals at the ends of the earth? There may be few ingredients (not to mention supermarkets), yet the continent, designated by the Antarctic Treaty as "a natural reserve devoted to peace and science," is home to more than 100 research stations (and 70 percent of the world's fresh water). On the South Shetland Islands alone you'll find outposts maintained by Uruguay, Argentina, China, South Korea, Russia, Chile and the Czech Republic – a mini-UN in a 3,700-square-kilometre area.

AntarcticaStick-to-your-ribs Ukrainian cabbage rolls topped with pineapple


This constellation of kitchens, explains Trusler as we dig into tapenade-dusted radishes and roasted baby beets, borrows from each other's cuisines like a neighbour would a cup of sugar, creating a mishmash of international dishes. In the book, her caipirinha features whisky and lemon rather than the usual cachaça and lime, as per the instructions of her friend Maxim the Russian glaciologist, who specifies using only Jim Beam or Ballantine's – in a generous three-ounce pour, to boot. The more "local" recipes, like the Sea Cabbage Salad, feature a bare-bones list of ingredients: "clean, fresh water" and "living kelp" (since protected) collected along the shore, mixed with onion, garlic and mayonnaise. In her notes for the Asparagus Pâté, Trusler addresses the challenge of sourcing fresh produce with characteristic spirited pragmatism: Tinned asparagus "is every bit as decadent. No apologies."

AntarcticaPâté unapologetically made with canned asparagus

One thing that's plentiful in the Antarctic is time, with days spilling into one another during summer solstice in December. As we polish off our plates of chorizo-studded mussel stew, one of the many dishes tonight taking inspiration from the expedition, Trusler tells me about her aversion to the 30-minute meal. She's no stranger to cooking for large numbers (having worked in tree-planting camps for years), and her advice is simple: "Make do with what's available" (one of her telemark ski boots from the expedition doubles as a planter on a shelf behind me), "and always have a homemade loaf on hand as the ultimate icebreaker." Trusler's Honey Oatmeal Bread, braided so that it can easily be torn apart and shared, not only got her the Antarctic gig as soon as Devine took a bite – it also gained her a loyal following among the research-station workers. "I wanted to create a sense of home in each recipe," she tells me. "No matter how remote or barren the place, there's nothing warm bread can't fix."

AntarcticaThe beach in front of China’s Great Wall station

The second edition of The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning (HarperDesign) will be available in spring 2015.




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