Far below the Antarctic circle, I watch a woman cry real tears because she can’t get gluten-free toast.
Mary is a plummy old English lady traveling alone, an Agatha Christie figure who I expected would spend her time solving mysteries on the ship. When people started disappearing in the Ross Sea, Mary would work the case and gather everyone in the ship’s saloon for the spectacular reveal.
Unfortunately, Mary turned out to be a bit of a shipboard bully, bad-talking the other passengers instead of helping to solve their murders. But I am still not ready to see her go to pieces over toast.
Conor, our juvenile delinquent chef, emerges from the galley and drapes himself across the table to soothe her.
“What can I get you, love?” he coos, “Can I get you an egg?”
“I don’t want an egg.”
“Can I get you some bacon?”
“I don’t want bacon. What I want is a second piece of toast.”
“I’m so sorry, but we don’t have enough for all the gluten-free passengers.”
Her face darkens. “I know for a fact that there are some people who were not gluten-free before they got on this ship.”
The accusation hangs in the air, unanswerable, and Mary starts to cry. These are angry tears, tears that demand gluten-free justice. The single piece of corn toast she has been allotted for breakfast lies mute on her plate, an affront to God and man.
Rodney convenes a summit in the ship’s auditorium to address the gluten crisis. Only passengers with dietary restrictions are invited. The rest of us must huddle around the open hatch one deck above, straining to hear. We are deep in the Ross Sea, five hundred miles from the nearest human being, and this is the most exciting thing that has happened on the ship in weeks.
There are tears of laughter on the bridge when I tell the Russian crew about the Great Antarctic Glutiny.
“You mean if this woman eats bread, she will die?“
“Not really. She just gets sick.“
“Yuri, come here! You have to hear this. If she eats bread, the woman will die.”
“She won’t die. Gluten causes digestive problems for some people. But it’s also become a sort of health fad.”
“What is ‘gluten’? Is that even a Russian word?”
Here they’ve got me. Tolstoy never wrote about gluten (kleikovina), and the ship’s dictionary is strictly nautical. Trying to paraphrase the concept only exposes the holes in my own understanding of this mysterious, flavorful substance.
“It’s some kind of a protein in grain. I think it makes things taste good.”
Yuri makes a skeptical face.
“It doesn’t kill anyone,” I insist. “But people can get digestive… unpleasantness.”
“So bread will make her sick?”
“Can she eat potatoes?”
“Yes. And corn.”
Any hope of sympathy from the Russians evaporates.
“Then let her eat potatoes. Let her eat corn. Or let them all stay home and eat whatever the fuck they want.”
The Russians are seasick, homesick, and lacking in sympathy for the unique challenges that confront the Antarctic tourist. Repeated trips to the Ross Sea have brought them no closer to understanding why people would pay money—tens of thousands of American dollars!—to stare at ice when they could instead be visiting the big duty-free shops at Busan, or spending a pleasant two weeks fishing off the coast of Sakhalin Island, where the fish practically jump into your net and you can sometimes see bears right on the shore.
No one has asked the crew if they have nut allergies, gluten sensitivity, hypertension, lactose intolerance, or any other kind of dietary restriction. Their culinary options are to stay home in Vladivostok earning nothing, or get on the ship and eat what they are given. The closest the Russians come to a dietary preference is the battery of hot sauce and condiment bottles that crowds the center of their table at each meal, along with trays of raw onion, garlic, and weapons-grade mustard.
The conversation on the bridge soon turns to fish and the best ways of preparing them, and I leave the crew to go lie in my bunk for a while, sliding back and forth in time with the motion of the sea, thinking about gluten.
We have been at sea for a very long time.
The best place to eat in Antarctica is probably Zuchelli, the Italian research station in Terra Nova Bay (open seasonally, but good luck getting a reservation). Word on the ship on our voyage south was that the Italians have a custom-made espresso machine and pasta maker. They enjoy fresh pasta with little cups of black gold every night. Some on our ship have even dared to whisper of gelato.
How profound our heartbreak, then, when we enter the Ross Sea to hear that the Italians are just leaving, their base closed for the winter. We watch the small blip of their supply vessel move north on our radar screen with undisguised sorrow.
If you believe the rumors about American scuba divers, there is excellent sashimi to be had on the bottom of McMurdo sound. It's very fresh.
The best wine cellar on the continent, of course, is at the French Dumont d'Urville station in Adélie Land. It's a little out of the way, but never crowded. The station's pastry chef (!) keeps the fresh eggs covered with a layer of wax to prolong their life, so the crew can enjoy religieuses and gâteaux St. Honoré all winter long.
The worst place to be hungry is probably at one of the Russian bases, either Vostok Station on the polar plateau (with its slowly dwindling pyramid of frozen potatoes), or Bellinghausen Station on King George Island. The Shokalsiky's crew remembers docking at Bellinghausen during a period of severe budget cuts in the 2000's. Forgotten by Moscow, the group of wild-eyed scientists who emerged blinking into the light had been living for months on a diet of canned peas and cabbage. The crew took pity, trading their stores with the beleaguered marine biologists, and then had to subsist on cabbage and peas themselves all the way back up to Vladivostok.
Everyone has their limits. The Shokalskiy offers gluten-free meals, but the brochure warns us they can’t accomodate kosher or vegan diners. (Keeping meat and milk separate in the tiny galley is impossible, and no one could endure five weeks at sea with a vegan.)
Antarctica, the only continent without a Michelin star, has never been a destination for fine dining. We've all been to the historic huts and seen the ghastly parade of canned Edwardian organ meats, probably no less indedible after a hundred winters on the ice than they were back in 1907. The culinary history of the continent (entertainingly laid out in a book called Hoosh) is one of suffering and deprivation.
But with passengers paying $20,000 a berth for the voyage, a diet of ship's biscuit and pemmican is not going to cut it. The situation requires a certain degree of finesse.
Like in any institutional setting, life on the ship starts to revolve around mealtimes. Every day at lunch, Julia, our Russian cruise director, hands out printed table tents announcing the evening's entrees (on one memorable occasion we are promised ‘pork lion’), and anticipation among the passengers starts to build. Will they have the chicken? Or will they have the fish? And what will others be having?
At five thirty, Julia comes on the PA to announce the cocktail hour, and the highly trained naturalists and historians on the Heritage Expeditions staff assemble behind the bar to mix gin and tonics. This is the one hour of the day when you can buy alcohol on the ship, and for the less sociable, it's a Sophie's choice. Do you come out and spend an extra hour with the people who are driving you to drink in the first place? Or do you abstain so you can hide in your bunk until the last minute?
The ship has a small wine list, which the passengers scrutinize into the waning days of the voyage as if this were La Tour d’Argent rather than an aging Soviet oceanographic vessel. There is a system where you can buy a bottle of wine that gets labeled with your cabin number and brought down for you at dinner by the lecturer on cetacean biology, or more satisfyingly (since he’s French) the ship’s expert on birds.
The ship has two dining rooms, laid out to port and starboard like the wings of a butterfly, with a narrow galley in the thorax. Each dining room has four tables with stools bolted to the floor. The tables are covered with a grippy plastic mesh that loses its hold, one quickly learns, when the ship rolls past forty degrees. We become adept at judging the angle of the water in the transparent pitchers to know when it’s time to grab our plates.
The galley is shared between the two New Zealand chefs and Annabel, the Russian cook, who is old enough to be their mother. Early in the voyage, Conor attempts to tease Annabel by drawing a cock and balls in the water droplets on one of her saucepan lids. Annabel breaks into tears and locks herself in her cabin. The Russians are scandalized. That evening, the Chief Mate materializes in the galley, a space barely large enough to contain him, and holds his large fist in front of Conor's nose, turning it like a ham on a spit, until the language barrier is overcome. There are no further pranks.
Meals are served by our two Russian waitresses, Tatyana and Lyudmila, or Tatty Anna and Lewd Meala to the New Zealanders. Lyudmila is an almost inaudibly bashful young woman of 20 with extravagantly long black hair, who has a secret identity as a second-year merchant marine cadet, qualifying to become Third Mate on the ship. She serves potato consomme and then goes up to help avoid icebergs on the bridge.
Tanya is a tiny and not at all bashful Siberian woman in her thirties who is pitiless with those who waste her time, which is every passenger on this dawdling ship.
My relationship with Tanya has warmed since I procured a Zippo lighter for her at McMurdo station. In compliance with the terms of our pact, she now brings me two slices of the delicious Russian bread every morning at breakfast. (When the other passengers ask about it, I tell them it’s a special dietary bread, with added gluten.)
Mealtimes drag on. The kind of people interested enough in Antarctic history to spend five weeks at sea are not what you would call easy mixers. Within the first few days we have exhausted our share of small talk and origin stories. There is no news from the outside world. All we can discuss is what's on our plates.
New Zealanders seem to have an almost pathological fear of flavor. There is no dish so bland that Conor can’t find a way to tone it down. At one point he serves us a tikka masala that I am pretty certain is just a blend of yogurt and ketchup. I watch disbelieving as the passengers around me fan their mouths. “That’s got a bit of a kick, yeah?”
On another occasion I sit across from Danting, our lone Chinese passenger, and watch him entomb a microwaved fish fillet in a sarcophagus of black pepper. I think back to the Sichuan fish I used to eat in China, brought out sizzling in a tub full of red oil and chilies, the fish's head bobbing among a riot of green onions and peppercorns. Danting just wants to feel something, anything, approaching flavor.
The most enjoyable meal on the ship, when the wind is up, is the buffet breakfast. I like to come down early to watch the carnage. You can’t tell just by looking at an elderly person who will have good balance—they will surprise you. Ken is in his eighties and has bad knees, but I have never seen him tip a plate or lose a drop of tea as he slaloms towards his seat in the rolling waves. The fit American couple in their fifties, on the other hand, can't keep their feet even in a mild gale, and will fling their eggs into the porthole every time.
Seasickness thins our ranks. About a third of the passengers elect to stay in their cabins on the bad days, eating crackers in their bunk if they can keep them down. The Ross Sea is docile, but the Southern Ocean—a week in both directions—is not. The travel brochure plays down this aspect of the voyage, but I think this is a mistake. It should be a selling point: “Eat all you want and still lose weight!” When I make the suggestion to Rodney, he gives me another one of those looks that makes me suspect this will be my last voyage on a Heritage Expeditions vessel.
My favorite breakfast passenger is Bill, who has been married for 50 years and is a man of habit. His wife sits at the furthest table and waits for him to bring the tea. He fills both mugs to the rim, times his run so the ship is just level, and then shuffles forward, screaming, as the boiling liquid scalds his hands. Every morning.
There is a strict culinary apartheid on the ship. On other ships on the polar circuit, there will sometimes be a mixer where passengers and crew have a chance to eat together, to lessen the awkwardness of sharing a confined space for a prolonged period of time across a language barrier. A popular favorite for these mixers is pelmeni, which are labor intensive and fun to make together. But on this ship, we do not mix, and there is no fun, and no pelmeni.
The Russians eat before we do. They sit according to rank, with the captain and officers at one table, the midshipmen and engineers at the second, and regular sailors at the third. Each table has its big tureen of soup, steadied by a cork ring. For the main course, Annabel serves out some variation on meat, cabbage, and potatoes. The real action is in the condiments, whose cosmopolitan diversity tells the story of the ship's many equatorial crossings. There is off-brand sriracha, soy sauce, fish sauce from Thailand, and a number of mystery bottles labeled in Thai, Chinese or Arabic.
Every table also has a pitcher of fruit compote, the signature beverage of the Russian sailor, whose other signature beverage is strictly forbidden by order of the captain.
Meals for the crew are brief and silent, except for the ritual “priyatnovo appetita” when someone new comes in and sits down. Sailors arrive, eat their meal, and move on, all within a half-hour window. It's dreamy.
One day Conor catches me having supper with the Russians, my mouth full of herring.
“You don’t like my cooking, do you?”
“This is the stuff I grew up on. It’s comfort food.”
He accepts this and leans towards me in a confiding way.
“Can I ask you something? How come the Russians never smile? I’ve never seen them smiling.”
“They’re at work. They're Russians.”
"Is it normal for them to eat without talking to one another?”
“This is their job. They get 20 minutes to eat.”
“Yeah, but they never smile. Are they happy?”
Are the Russians happy? Is anyone happy? Can one ever truly be said to be happy?
I am tempted to go full Slav on Conor, to explain to him how we are all just grains of dust suspended in the howling void, searching for meaning in the fleeting moments before we are yanked back to the oblivion from whence we emerged, naked and screaming. But for all his faults he's just a kid stuck spending his summer microwaving Yorkshire puddings for difficult people. I take pity.
“Russians are formal. It would be weird of them to act relaxed on duty. They are all smiling on the inside.”
One evening, after I have spent my dinner hour on the bridge talking to the Chief Mate, he invites me down to the secret snack room in the back of the ship. This is the ship’s culinary el dorado, the fabled place where Russian and New Zealand leftovers co-exist side by side. We know this place exists, but until now, no passenger has entered it. I spy my uneaten dinner in a big aluminum tray on the table.
A television in the corner plays Russian cartoons, and there’s an urn of boiling water for tea strapped to the wall. It is a peaceful, happy place, a refuge for sailors who are on watch during regular mealtimes and have to eat at odd hours. In the ship's former life, this room served as its laboratory.
“Come here whenever you want,” the Chief Mate says, “but don’t let Rodney catch you.”
I take the warning to heart. Rodney roams the ship like a hungry ghost, appearing in unexpected places, foraging for snacks. As the owner of the company, no part of the ship is off limits to him. While he has not said anything about my fraternizing with the crew, a tranquil, fatherly joy is conspicuously absent from his face whenever he sees me. I have no desire to provoke him.
Rodney has an odd, adversarial relationship with food. He eats with a joyless intensity, as if it had done him a personal wrong. Conor has begun to perform experiments on him at dinner, seeing how big a plate of food he can get the great man to eat without comment. Every night the staff watches rapt as a more and more comical portion is set at the head of the table, and every night they watch it disappear into Rodney's beard. So far they have found no limit.
One wall of the snack room is hung with an enormous, menacing map of the far south Atlantic labeled in Cyrillic. Across from it there is a corkboard tiled with faxed messages of support from an episode I’ve been obsessed with since I learned the name of the ship we would be sailing on.
The captain of the Xue Long.
Thank you thank you thank you for your help to evacuate us from the ship.
I felt safe, protected, and cared for by your crew. Thank you for your strength, kindness, and bravery to help us.
Love Judy S.
Captain, Akademik Shokalskiy
Thank you very much for the care and competence of you and all your crew during our stay on your ship. We are very grateful for the degree of technical skills and professionalism displayed.
To the crew of the Xue Long. Many thanks for your efforts in extracting us from the beset Shokalskiy. I was very impressed with your professionalism and efficiency. Hope you are able to get free soon.
My thoughts are with you.
To Captain Igor and the most amazing crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy, I cannot thank you enough for your dedication, committment and professionalism. You made our brief stay on the ship feel like home and we will miss you like family. We hope for your safe and speedy return.
You are all heroes to me. Thank you for taking risks for me. Good luck for a quick rescue.
This note is to express my heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation to your entire ship's company for your tireless and selfless efforts to facilitate our successful rescue which was achieved only with your wonderful KA32 helicopter and professional crew
Wishing you West Winds and swift release,
from Elizabeth W.
The notes date from an episode in the austral winter of 2013-14 when the Akademik Shokalskiy, chartered by an Australian scientist, got stuck in the ice off the coast of East Antarctica. The stranding made international headlines and set off an expensive rescue effort, which in turn led to a lot of debate about the role of adventure travel in the Antarctic.
The passengers, a mix of scientists and tourists, were evacuated by helicopter without incident. The crew were left behind on the ship. While no one was hurt, the expensive rescue not only jeopardized the winter's scientific program at the Australian research station, whose resupply ship had to put to sea to answer the distress call, but it left the Australians without any booze for their New Year's party. There are some wounds that can never heal.
The story of this stranding is like Rashomon, except that no one disagrees on the facts, just their interpretation. The stranded passengers seemed to be having a pretty good time, posting YouTube videos of sing-alongs, bikini selfies, and holding a writers' workshop on the ice. To the skeptical and involuntarily sober eyes of the research community, this scientific expedition looked a lot like a party ship. The organizer blamed the misadventure on a freak weather event, but many questioned his judgement in making such a hazardous landing, and in bringing his two young children with him. No one could seem to agree just how much danger the ship had been in, or how close East Antarctica had come to a major oil spill had the ship been crushed.
While the fiasco got international press attention, including live updates from the three reporters on the ship, no one besides the Russian press seems to have asked the crew about it. Many of the sailors on my voyage were on the Shokalskiy during that curious episode and I am dying to hear their side of the story.
With Mary, the most obvious candidate for a shipboard detective, now sidelined by l’affaire gluten, I feel the investigative burden has fallen on my own shoulders. So like a spy, I photograph the corkboard, fill my pockets with leftovers, and (after peeking out to see if Rodney is coming) step out manfully into the corridor in search of the truth.