If you’re looking for a memoir about exploring, ice and braving the extremities of Antarctica, then Alexa Thomson’s Antarctica on a Plate is not for you. Yes, there’s ice but the focus is on the challenge of cooking large quantities of food on a small stove, and the fact that in Antarctica you never run out of freezer space.
Thomson, completely ‘under-experienced’ as a cook in extreme conditions, scores a job at Blue 1, a seasonal Antarctic base that’s used as a stopover point for research expeditions and tourists. Thomson was living in Sydney and had a successful office-based career but was dissatisfied, so applied for a position in Antarctica (never expecting to actually get a job). Much is made of trading stilettos for snow-boots but the real interest is in the odd details – the fact that in such a cold climate you lose your sense of smell, and that the most time-consuming task of the day is melting ice for water.
There’s not as much in this memoir about cooking as the blurb implies. Novelties, such as the Russians growing tiny pots of tomatoes and cucumbers, are interesting but the focus is on the people Thomson meets during her time in Antarctica and the landscape, notably its “…unknowable simplicity…”. I particularly liked the mention of her reading choice and its context (coincidentally I started War and Peace at the same time I started this book) –
”I am toiling through War and Peace. I am reading it with relish and satisfaction. Tolstoy is so dense and encompassing that Antarctica’s blankness is the perfect place to immerse myself in such Russian intrigue.”
Personally, I detest the cold. And ice and snow? Don’t even go there. The thought of ice-camping for three months and having to crawl into two sleeping bags is completely untenable. Thomson talks about feeling the difference between -30°C and -10°C (both fucking awful IMO) and a particular day when the group traveled from Blue 1, where it was -20°C, to another station, where it was a zero degrees – “…it’s like stepping from a fridge into a pottery kiln.” Positively balmy.
There’s a bit toward the end of the memoir that some reviewers have labelled “morally questionable”. Yeah, whatever. I say don’t judge until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s snow boots. And that it takes two to tango.
3/5 Don’t expect a gritty memoir.
“It’s become a ritual at Blue 1. Whoever mixes the g’n’ts also has to traipse out to the virgin ice and chip away with the ice axe and fill a bowl full of ice shards. The gin is poured over great chunks of it with thick slices of lemon and tonic. Our Antarctic g’n’ts are hands down the best I’ve tasted. The ice pops and spits from air bubbles being released. It’s like putting an ear to a seashell. Some of the air has been trapped in the ice for centuries – throwing it in our drinks seems almost sacrilegious.”
I couldn’t find a picture of gin and tonics complete with shards of Antarctic ice but these gin and tonic icy poles make a good substitute.