PALMER STATION, Antarctica—
I feel a bit remorseful as a small group of people bundled in reflective red coats, their feet planted on the snowy ground of Antarctica, wave goodbye to me and my crew, our own feet gripping the icy steel deck of their supply ship. As we steam away, the folks onshore are not just bidding farewell to their last physical connection to the rest of the world for three and a half months, they’re parting with something far more precious: fresh food.
I know how they’re feeling quite well; my own nine seagoing voyages to this vast continent have also afforded isolation and self-reliance, particularly when it comes to eating. We can be on the water for more than six weeks at a time. Aside from supporting Palmer Station, our primary purpose is to facilitate science within the U.S. Antarctic Program. For a few months each year, I sail as the marine science technician, helping to deploy science equipment and manage the laboratories onboard. Our ship, the Laurence M. Gould, often rolls 20 degrees from one side to the other. Food is crucial to our collective sanity. The profusion of chopped meats and vegetables on Taco Tuesday can improve the spirits of an entire ship. Hot dog soup? Not so much.
Morale-damaging fare: hot dog soup served on the ship after six weeks of no ‘freshies.’ Photo: Courtesy of Skye Moret
Nearly two dozen people spend the better part of May through October at Palmer Station, an isolated U.S. science base in the Southern Ocean—among them marine scientists, carpenters, electricians, and communications technicians. During this period, called midwinter, everyone dines together in Palmer Station’s comfortable dining hall, or “galley,” sitting next to large windows that look out over sea ice and grounded icebergs beyond. A woodstove stands in the corner with broken-up old pallets burning inside, surrounded by a couple of couches and a coffee table with a stack of New York Times crossword puzzles. A dozen small tables fill the rest of the space, many lined up end to end, and red-checkered tablecloths come out for special occasions.
Buffet line at Palmer Station a couple of months into midwinter with little to no ‘freshies’ left. Photo: Courtesy of Mike Hiller
Mike Hiller is the station chef. Based here for his third winter, he alone is in charge of chopping, cooking, and choreographing the allotment of fresh food—“freshies” down here—as they ripen and discolor with age. For the next 15 weeks, Hiller will have to be beyond resourceful, carefully strategizing which foods are served when in order to ensure proper variety and nutrition in each meal before he receives the next resupply from the Gould.
Hiller, burly, with a thick, red beard, hails from Homer, Alaska. Proud of the fact that he has spent the last seven years working in regions where temperatures never exceed 65 degrees, Hiller honed his culinary talents both in his own kitchens—owning one restaurant and two food trucks—and on remote Alaskan field camps and research vessels. He thrives on the challenge of running a solo kitchen in extreme environments.
“I would challenge you to buy three months of produce at your grocery store … and then not go shopping again for three more months,” he tells me, pointing to 50 large cans of tomatoes stacked in his dry-goods storage room that he’ll transform into roasted tomato bisque, spicy pizza sauce, and black bean chili.