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Fueling Antarctic Appetites Sparks Culinary Creativity

Cooks are put to the ultimate test at Palmer Station, where food supplies arrive every six months and hungry scientists line up for three meals a day

MOST Americans can hardly make it through a week without stopping by the local grocery store to pick up something they either ran out of or forgot to get in the first place.

Necessity dictates that Elsie Gowdy and Patricia Wood take a different approach. These cooks at Palmer Station in Antarctica get a supply of food every six months and a supply of fresh produce whenever the boat happens to make its way down to Palmer Station from southern Chile. Often when ``freshies'' do arrive (after a 10-day journey) they are not in the best shape.

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Palmer Station is the smallest of three United States research stations on Antarctica that are run by the National Science Foundation.

While cooks in other climes may have a hard time getting the respect they deserve, that's not a problem here. The 40 scientists and maintenance workers shower Mrs. Gowdy and Mrs. Wood with gratitude thicker than turkey gravy.

``I'm a people pleaser, and this is a great place for that,'' says Gowdy, the lead cook. ``They do appreciate what we do.''

Wood enthusiastically agrees: ``The really great thing about working down here is that people ... are free with their positive comments.''

The open kitchen and dining room are located at the focal point of most of the scientific and support activity here at Palmer. Gowdy and Wood try to foster a family-like atmosphere. The two have more family on hand than most of Palmer's other workers and scientists: Gowdy's husband is the boating coordinator, and Wood's husband is the base electrician.

Throughout the day, people come and go through the kitchen just like they would in a typical American home. But there are plenty of reminders that nothing here is typical.

When deciding how much to prepare for a given meal, Gowdy and Wood consult a book on cooking for 50. ``But here you have to about double that because people are working outdoors,'' Gowdy says. ``Their appetites match their activities,'' Wood adds. ``They're always going at a trot from one place to another, just full of life and enthusiasm for what they do.''

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What kind of food is eaten here? ``What people really like is home cooking,'' Gowdy says. ``So that's what we do.''

They also spend a lot of time making bread. Every kind of bread consumed at Palmer - including hot-dog buns, cakes, and sliced sandwich bread - has to be produced on site. ``That's one thing we cannot get brought in - the logistics are just impossible,'' Wood says.

At one point this season, it looked like the station was not going to get freshies for three months. So Gowdy and Wood got a chance to exercise their creativity. They made colorful salads of red beans, green peppers, and yellow chickpeas. Gowdy took up the art of bean-sprouting to get something green into the meal for color and nutrition. And Wood took up yogurtmaking when supplies ran low.

Even when you get a resupply, Wood says, ``you always discover that a few things you really need were left off. You have to work around them.''

``To me that's the fun - that's the challenge,'' Gowdy says. ``We find out what we have on hand and work from there.''

Wood relates a story of a friend who cooked in Africa. Anytime she wanted to try an American recipe - as long as she was not missing more than seven ingredients - she would go for it.

``That's pretty close to what we do here,'' Wood says. ``There are ways of getting around problems if you put your mind to it.''

As Gowdy and Wood describe the trials of cooking at the bottom of the world, assistant station manager Kirk Kiyota walks into the room. ``Don't give away our secret recipes,'' he says.

The two cooks claim that their secret holds true in kitchens across the world: ``Learn to have a backup plan,'' they say.

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