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Cooking at the Bottom of the World

You're at the South Pole. You're surrounded by more than a million square miles of ice. The high temperature today will be 56 degrees--below zero. Want a cookie?

July 25, 2001|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Science Writer

S outh Pole; South Pole; South Pole.

The radio call from a remote field camp on the polar plateau crackles on the short wave band across Antarctica.

This is AGO-4 calling for Sally in the galley.

Overheard on the flight deck of a cargo plane flying across the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in January, the radio call could be a distress signal from scientists marooned by blizzard winds. It could be a routine radio check, part of the daily discipline of field work on the world's highest, coldest and most isolated continent.

It is an order for takeout.

In the frigid heart of the Antarctic, the South Pole has the only open kitchen for almost a million square miles--the galley of the U.S. Amundsen-Scott Station.

Sally in the galley is the unofficial call sign for Sally Ayotte, a 36-year-old diminutive dietitian from Denver who oversees the 11 sous-chefs, prep cooks, production cooks and bakers in this kitchen at the end of the world.

The radio call comes again.

The researchers at AGO-4 announce they will be flying into the South Pole at midnight to refuel for the long flight to the main National Science Foundation base at McMurdo on Antarctica's coast. Could they have some dinner brought out to the plane while it idled on the snow runway? And something vegetarian for the field worker who doesn't eat meat?

Oh, yes, and chocolate chip cookies for the pilot, please.

"Treats for the plane; that's essential," says Sally in the galley. "We are famous for our cookies all over the continent. In the summer, we bake 40 dozen cookies a day and they eat them, oh my."

For Ayotte, food service supervisor at the National Science Foundation's South Pole station, a chef's toque blanche is part of the standard government issue of extreme cold weather gear along with a red Snow Goose parka and expedition-weight long underwear.

The Earth may rotate on the axis of the geographic South Pole, where the world's lines of longitude meet. But the South Pole station revolves largely around food.

At the height of the annual research season from November to March, Ayotte cooks for 240 people engaged in research and operations at the world's most remote permanent human outpost.

People here may be allowed to shower for only two minutes twice a week but they are served four meals every 24 hours.

The quality of food in Antarctica can be as variable as the weather, ranging from subsistence fare to the sublime.

In a temporary survival shelter on the sea ice in McMurdo Sound, dinner can be little more than a sludge of freeze-dried rice and beans stirred into snow melted over a tiny whisper-jet camp stove. But not so many miles away, it might be a moist turkey perfectly cooked over a steaming volcanic fumarole in an ice cave near the snowy summit of Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world.

Dinner in the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole might feature Ayotte's homemade peach salsa on delicately grilled whitefish, with six kinds of freshly baked pastry, cakes and pie for dessert. Or it might be 80 pizzas made to order from scratch.

"There is not a lot of recreation here," Ayotte explains. "We eat. We eat all the time. And it has to be good. Food is the most important morale factor. Some people eat four times a day."


The South Pole galley is located under the station's blue geodesic dome at the end of a tunnel in the snow, inside a portable trailer insulated like a meat locker. Other bunkers house living quarters, offices, a sick bay and a library.

Crates of frozen turkey breasts, fish filets, pizza dough, vegetables and other foodstuffs crowd the spaces between the bunkers and the inside wall of the dome.

In the dining room, people eat in shifts. There are seven tables, each seating nine people. A string of Christmas lights runs along one wall. There are wall pegs for parkas and a stainless steel freezer full of leftovers, three kinds of cookies, baklava and fresh cherry turnovers for the taking.

The galley itself is a cramped alley that runs parallel to the dining room. It holds two stoves, two convection ovens and two conventional ovens. There is an electric grill, a deep fryer, a flattop grill and never enough counter space.

"There is not enough elbow room. There is not enough refrigerator space. There is not enough anything," Ayotte says.

There is at least no shortage of freezer space.

Ayotte has the world's largest icecap--an expanse of ice two miles thick and almost half again as large as North America--at her disposal. The mean temperature during the busy research season is 56 degrees below zero.

At the South Pole, the normal air pressure equals an altitude of about 11,600 feet. Water boils at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit--about 12 degrees below normal.

Cooking begins where high altitude cookbooks leave off.

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