Zachary Hedden is a production cook at the U.S.’s McMurdo Research Station, located at the tip of Ross Island in Antarctica. He has spent the entirety of each year since 2009 working at McMurdo and discusses with Food Republic the challenges and rewards of working, eating and gardening in one of the most isolated regions of the world.
Where are you located in Antarctica and how long do you spend there each year?
I’m at McMurdo. It’s mostly comprised of Americans but we also have people who travel through McMurdo on their way to the South Pole each year. Since we’re the biggest station on the continent, we will help out other countries because they just don’t have the logistics to handle everything they need to survive. I stay the entire year and my season starts in January and ends in October. During the winter we have around 150 people and in the summer we have around 1,100 people who live here.
What are some of the biggest health issues people face who are stationed at McMurdo?
It’s tough to get through the winter. In the summer, you’re used to having the sun shine 24 hours a day, but then it tapers off very quickly. The last week of sunset is very disconcerting because you know that soon you’ll have no sun and be in total darkness. It freaks a lot of people out and they develop this thing called Polar T3 Syndrome, which is basically a result of not having any sunlight and living in extreme temperatures and isolation. Your body diverts your thyroid’s hormones from your brain to your muscles and it makes you forgetful, moody, tired and other side effects. In 2011, I really had a hard time with it. I couldn’t be in large social groups, noises really freaked me out, and I was really sensitive to light. You can take vitamin D3 every day to counter its effects and we have a light room here that has 10,000 lumen bulbs that helps too. I also volunteered at our greenhouse, which helped quite a bit. It helps to be around living things or go outdoors, even in the dark.
Do people suffer with mental health issues as a result of the isolation of the station?
For some reason that primarily happens in the summer. Almost everyone that winters spends the summers here too. You have to take a psychological test to stay here in the winter and they weed out those who can’t handle it. In the summer they don’t.
What do you grow in your greenhouse?
Typically we grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and a variety of herbs and lettuces. The greenhouse is about 450 square feet. It’s pretty tiny but it’s the biggest one in Antarctica. We rely very heavily on what it grows and look forward to a salad about every ten days from what we grow there. Due to government cutbacks this winter they closed the greenhouse indefinitely.
What else do you eat throughout the year?
Everything else is brought into Antarctica. We have a vessel that brings in all of our dried and frozen goods. It comes every year in January and it has to last us for a full year. During the summer we also get weekly flights of dairy, fresh vegetables and eggs. In the winter we stock up, especially during the last few flights. Eggs last through around July and vegetables until around June. All of our fresh stuff is then gone for the season.
How do people cope as the supplies start to decrease?
When you think about things dwindling it’s psychologically very hard. Some people are very aware of it and try to eat as much fresh stuff as they can. Some people, actually a lot of people, become hoarders. They’ll take as much as they can and freeze it and use it slowly throughout the season. At first the chefs set everything out and anyone can take what they want because it’s an eat it or leave it type of thing. We have a five-week cyclical menu so everyone knows in advance what food we’re going to have and I think that helps them mentally prepare for what’s coming…and what isn’t.
Who prepares the meals at the station ?
During the winter we have a staff of three cooks, a baker, and that’s it. During the summer we have 20 cooks and four bakers. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station only has a handful of cooks. We have another station on the other side of the continent and there they have one or two cooks in the winter, but most of the time it’s usually just one. Most of the cooks have a culinary background when they arrive here.
Are you able to source anything from Antarctica itself?
We are not allowed to source anything from the continent. It’s a violation of an international treaty to do so. We cannot fish or disturb any of the wildlife. There’s nothing we can forage because there’s nothing alive here.
What do you crave the most?
I start to miss fresh fruit. I dream about strawberries and pears.
Is there any alcohol?
In the winter we have one bar and in the summer we have two bars and a coffee house. We can also go to the store and buy beer and wine. It’s a very tiny store with a little bit of candy and potato chips and sometimes there’s milk and there’s also beer and wine. There are a lot of souvenirs there and it’s also where people rent videos.
When you leave Antarctica, where’s the first place that you want to eat?
We all start talking about this subject weeks ahead of time. We start dreaming about our favorite restaurants. I just want to go somewhere that’s wonderfully fresh. The funny thing is that most everyone wants pizza. The pizza here is terrible. We don’t have anything fresh and so most of the time we have frozen pizza shells and it’s just not the same no matter how creative you try to be.
Do you celebrate special occasions with food?
On Saturday evenings we’re allowed beer and wine at dinner which feels celebratory. In the winter, we used to only celebrate mid-winter in June. It’s what the old explorers used to celebrate instead of Christmas. We just look at it as a halfway mark; it’s comforting to know that the sun is coming. We also celebrate the final sunset and then we celebrate full sunrise. Our holidays revolve around the sun, or lack thereof.
What do you enjoy most about working at McMurdo?
In the summers, there’s a lot of energy and you get to meet a lot of interesting people at the station. There’s a lot to see, believe it or not. In the winter, the social aspect is really different but just as rewarding. It’s a small, tight-knit community and you get to know everyone. We become like a family. There’s actually a really high return rate in the winter. The food is somehow better in the winter too because there are fewer people and the cooks can get creative. Our kitchen only has a capacity for 600 people and we have 1,100 people here in the summer. It puts a lot of stress on our supplies and the people who work with them.
What type of work is being done at McMurdo?
We’re all here to support science. The whole point with all of the nations here is to support science. In the winter our mission is to maintain the station. We have one scientist during the winter season but in the summer we have about 200 and they’re studying absolutely everything.
What type of fuel do you use at the station?
Everything is electric, no gas. The whole station runs on diesel generators but we also have a small wind farm that supplements some of our energy needs.
Do you do a lot of preserving and what are your proteins like?
That’s the first thing we do with many of the fresh products that are delivered. We make jams and a few pickles to preserve things. Herbs like basil and cilantro, along with citrus rinds we will freeze to use throughout the winter. We try to get as creative as we can to keep it interesting throughout the winter. As for proteins, we regularly have chicken, beef and pork and on special occasions we’ll have steak, duck breast, or crab legs. We have fish available nearly all the time.
What type of wildlife do you see?
I’ve seen two different species of penguins. The Emperor penguins and the Adelie penguins. We also have tons of Weddell seals. They don’t do much but it’s nice to have them around. In January, we sometimes see minke whales and orcas. We also have two bird varieties which are the skua and a white petrel. They’re very rare. In our science lab we also have creatures that they’ve brought up from the ocean depths. There’s some really weird things living down there.
What’s the most challenging part of living and working at McMurdo?
In the winter it’s knowing that you’re not going to get mail or anything fresh for a long time. It’s knowing that you’re stuck on the Ice for 6 months.