Head chef Darby Butts fries crab cakes for the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Along with a team of three, Butts put together the evening's menu.

Head chef Darby Butts fries crab cakes for the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Butts, along with a team of three, put together the evening’s menu.

It is dusk. The sun has set. Each day is slightly darker than the one that preceded it, but it is still too light to see stars or aurora. Most days have been overcast, with dark clouds climbing from the horizon to the sky.

Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

Occasionally, there is a break in the grey and what is left of the sunset becomes visible again —   dark red and orange, spying out from behind a thick curtain of clouds, beckoning you forward with long wispy yellow fingers and a purple stare. Like a moth to a candle, you can’t help but move towards it. If you are standing by a window, you press your face against the glass until your nose and forehead become numb and your desire for warmth outweighs your need for vitamin D.

We don’t observe many holidays at the South Pole. Two-day weekends are a rarity and, apart from New Years and the odd birthday party, things remain pretty calm on station. One of the few exceptions to this is the Annual Sunset Dinner, our celebration of winter’s arrival.

An elaborate menu executed perfectly by the talented galley crew.

An elaborate menu executed perfectly by the talented galley crew.

Saturday was the day of the big event. The galley had been rearranged, transformed from its typical mess-deck-self into an eloquent banquet setting. The rectangular six tops are pushed together, end to end, into 24-seat arrangements with ironed white tablecloths spread over them; 12 piece table settings are laid out in front of 50 chairs, complete with white starched cloth napkins folded into little pyramids, precariously balanced in the middle of each entrée plate.

People in the galley were busy at work dicing root vegetables, rolling bread dough, and icing cakes. It had been an early morning for them and would, most likely, be a late evening. They’d been planning the menu for several weeks and tonight would represent the culmination of their efforts searching out unique ingredients and planning a menu composed largely of frozen and dried foods.

Above the sound of simmering sauces and popping oil, and in between the knock, knock, knock of onions being diced, you could hear their focus — a quiet, even, breathless hum. Only the occasional phrase, “Behind you,” “Pull that”, “Where are you?” broke the illusion of what otherwise seemed to be telepathic communication between three men in aprons.

The "sunset" photo of the 2016 winter over crew.  It's a rare event for everyone on station to be in the same room at the same time.

The “sunset” photo of the 2016 winter over crew. It’s a rare event for everyone on station to be in the same room at the same time.

Earlier in the week, the chef had posted a volunteer sheet looking for stewards and dishwashers to assist throughout the meal. Having always been curious about what it would be like to be a waiter working the “front of the house”, I and two others — a weather forecaster and our lead tradesmen — volunteered to pour drinks, bus plates and serve appetizers.

The meal began at 4:00 pm with a cocktail hour in the foyer of our galley banquet hall. Beer and wine had been donated by those with ample reserves, and platters of cured meat and aged hard cheeses were laid out on circular tables. While my two fellow stewards assisted the galley in last-minute arrangements of tables and chairs and plating side salads, I ran hot Chilean Rock-Crab cakes from the galley to the hungry imbibers and pushed glasses of Barefoot red wine whose label promised “of a fine year”, “burnt oak”, and “exceptionally under rated.”

Some of the many treats prepared for the station's  celebration of the South Pole sunset. The jury is still out on whether sugar helps one cope with total darkness.

Some of the many treats prepared for the station’s celebration of the South Pole sunset. The jury is still out on whether sugar helps one cope with total darkness.

After an hour of casual conversation and nibbles, the community was ushered into the galley.

A fine dinner awaited them. Steam and rich scents rolled off the buffet line, pulling people to the edge of their seats. In keeping with tradition, the winter site manager gave a brief speech and then, with an uncharacteristic flourish of his hand, bade everyone a fine winter and an enjoyable meal.

A reserved table had been set aside for the stewards and, as volunteers, we’d been given the special privilege of filling our plates first. I walked to the head of the line and was instantly overwhelmed. What to grab first? How to maximize the limited surface area of my 12-inch round ceramic plate?

I started with protein, a healthy helping of Chinese 5-spice seared duck breast, cooked medium rare with a blackberry foie gras glaze. The scent emanating from it was so exotic and tantalizing, I couldn’t help but fork an extra piece directly off the wooden cutting board and straight into my mouth. It was borderline unsanitary, but entirely delicious.

From the duck, I moved on to roasted maple glazed New Zealand root vegetables, an alluring medley of potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots and my personal favorite—celeriac. The earthy flavors would pair well with the duck. I scooped up two heaping servings, enough for three people, knowing that this might be the last time I would see fresh vegetables for several months. My stomach would have to stretch for the occasion.

Ahead I pushed. My plate grew heavier. A polenta cake, topped with fresh beets and porcini mushrooms and… avocado. Avocado? Where did we find one of those? Shocked, I was nearly frozen with delight, but the excitement and energy of those behind me kept me moving forward like a man trapped on a DC Metro escalator. I wanted to grab another, but the next person in line, clearly a ravenous beast, had grabbed the tongs and was spooning polenta onto their plate with the eagerness of a puppy on speed.

By this point, my plate was quite full and I was beginning to doubt my ability to digest any more calories, let alone walk back to my chair without spilling a colossus of grub onto the floor. Yet, a final siren remained — a green salad, harvested locally from our hydroponics facility on station. Beautiful green and red buttercup lettuces, kale, cucumber and tomatoes. How could one say no? I didn’t, grabbing a tong-full, which I carefully placed into the small valley between Duck Mountain and Root Vegetable Spire.

With the grace of a ballerina and the strength of a power lifter, I delicately balanced my 5-pound cornucopia between my hands, at chest level, and walked with careful purpose back to my chair. Staring at my food, I waited for my fellow stewards, mustering years of patience and restraint, sitting on my hands, trying my hardest not to pluck another perfectly seared medallion of duck breast off my plate.

It was a trying three minutes, but my table-mates eventually arrived — plates filled high, though not as high as mine, and eyes wide and absent like bloodhounds who’ve scented a fox. They sat and we ate in silence, not speaking a word, oblivious to the surrounding laughter and flashing cameras, until our plates were empty and all that remained was a faint aura of comradery and the scratch, scratch, scratch of toothpicks at work.


More South Pole Diaries
Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months
Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits