Far up in the bow of the Palmer, past the cold rooms, beyond the dry labs, and five stories below the bridge, two people are at work in a gleaming steel room. They mix compounds in metal bowls, sprinkle in precisely measured powders, and then arrange their mixtures on trays to put into calibrated heating devices.
Forty-five minutes later, the scientists and crew file in to check on the results: fresh breadsticks. This is the galley, one of my favorite rooms on the ship. Just two staff, a cook and a galley hand, make meals for the ship’s 70 inhabitants. They turn out three entrees per meal (one of them vegetarian), plus vegetables, rice, a couple of soups, a salad bar, and two or three desserts.
Keeping up that kind of variety is a challenge when the nearest grocery store is 2,000 miles north of us. Each time the ship stops in McMurdo it takes on more food, but even McMurdo gets only limited amounts of fresh food brought in on C-17 aircraft. The avocados and kiwi fruit that I looked forward to at the beginning of the voyage are now just a pale green memory, and cabbage has replaced lettuce in the salad bar. Read on through the slideshow to see how the cooks keep the hungry crew satisfied:
First Cook Alejandra Monje checks the pot of white beans she’s cooking for lunch. Ale has been a cook on the Palmer for 10 years. She’s a native of Punta Arenas, Chile, and went to culinary school in the capital of Santiago. She worked on a fishing boat before coming to this ship, and she said she prefers cooking at sea to cooking at home. ‘Because you have the tiniest kitchen at home. The oven is small, everything is small. Here there’s so much room.’
Ale cooks a 3-egg ham and cheese omelette—one of many she’ll make to order this morning. A typical breakfast hour involves cracking 3 trays of eggs (108 in all). Once they’re on the griddle it can be a challenge in rough weather just to keep them there—in the high seas this morning the yolks ran in 3 directions at once.
Second Cook Dave Trotter slides up the galley doors for supper. Before coming to the Palmer, he ran a restaurant in Costa Rica, worked on dive boats in the Gulf of Mexico, was a chef in Las Vegas, and once owned a coffee farm in western Panama. Cooking at sea is a lot like cooking on land, he said, except you need to have locks on the ovens and refrigerators. In a storm years ago, he watched a big glass jar of French’s mustard come flying across the room and smash against the wall, along with everything else that had been in the fridge. On the Palmer, even the dishwasher door is held shut with a bungee cord.
The galley’s storerooms are tucked away in odd-shaped rooms squeezed into the V-shapes of the Palmer’s bow and hull. A pantry adjoining the galley holds condiments ranging from apple butter to teriyaki sauce. In the bow storeroom I saw half a ton of wheat flour, 950 pounds of rice, and 9 big sacks of potatoes that were thinking about leafing out. When the ship is fresh out of port, every freezer and storeroom is packed full. Three months ago Dave said that to get into the freezer he had to climb across the tops of boxes stacked almost to the ceiling.
Now the ship isn’t so full. The fresh vegetables we picked up at McMurdo have been gone for two weeks. That means no more of everyone’s favorite meal: Mexican night. ‘I could do it,’ said Dave, who is from Los Angeles, ‘but we don’t have any lettuce or tomatoes or fresh salsa, and that’s just wrong.’ But the biggest worry is the yeast shortage, because Dave can’t make fresh bagels for midrats as often as we want him to. On the last voyage they were so popular he held cooking classes to let people in on his secret. Now he has to ration them so there will be enough yeast for bread on the way back to Chile.
A few readers have been curious about what midrats is. It stands for ‘midnight rations,’ and it’s a meal served at midnight. Ships’ crews are at work 24 hours per day, and many shifts start or end at midnight. So midrats has to be breakfast for some people and dinner for the rest. (Chris and I stay up late, so it’s usually lunch for us.) That’s why Dave’s serving pancakes and barbecued chicken here.
Galley hand Lorenzo Sandoval carries out a fresh batch of homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Sandoval is from Manila, Philippines, and has worked on the Palmer for 13 years. He says he misses the meals that his wife and his mother cook for him when he’s home. We’ve had chocolate-chip, oatmeal, ginger-molasses, walnut-chocolate-chip, and my favorite, peanut butter. Word spreads quickly through the ship when a new batch comes out—see the video after the slideshow.
As good a job as the galley does, it can’t cater to everyone’s favorites. I brought a dark, shade-grown coffee for when I sit down to write. Dr. Chris Measures, an Englishman who now works at the University of Hawaii, starts each day with marmalade on toast. Dr. Mariko Hatta brought a rice cooker on board. It’s a versatile device—she knows how to make a cake in one.
Graduate student Xiao Liu drinks chrysanthemum tea she brought from China. Electronics technician George Aukon carries ‘kvas,’ a fizzy root-beer-like drink from Russia. The marine technicians stock up on cheeses and salami before they board, as well as a New Zealand cookie called a Tim Tam. Apparently, if you bite off both ends you can drink your milk through it.
For most of us, the galley’s cookies are our comfort food. Watch this reenactment to see some of the different styles of cookie-grabbing. In order, these are George Aukon, Bruce Huber, Eli Hunter, Dr. Phoebe Lam, Elizabeth Halliday, Max Grand, me, and Chris Linder.
Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.