The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey

Carol Devine

Book cover

I picked up this book after reading a post about it on the Brain Pickings blog. It narrates the story of two Canadian women who, in the mid-90s, organized a volunteer trip to clean up junk/debris around a Russian science station in Antarctica. The story is presented in a sort of bricolage format, mixing together contemporaneous journal entries, current essays, recipes (one of the women went primarily to be the cook for the group), contemporaneous photos, and photos from historical Antarctic expeditions. I thought it ended up working pretty well. I ended up copying out two of the recipes (one for cinnamon rolls, the other for a bean and garlic soup), and will try the latter this week.

I especially enjoyed the book because it gave me this nostalgic sense of environmentalism, reminding me of when I was a kid. I feel like the environmental movement has changed so much in the 20 years or so since the expedition recounted in the book, mostly as climate change has taken the role of marquee environmental issue. This book hearkens back to the era of Captain Planet, where “pollution” was the biggest environmental concern. Not that there is anything warm and fuzzy about pollution, but oddly, there is something more human scale about it. The volunteers on the expedition weren’t kidding themselves that they could free even this small area of Antarctica of decades of waste over a few months, but I guess there is a sense of being able to make a small difference in a local area that seems absent with climate change. I remember very vividly being a kid and inventing clubs for cleaning up garbage at the duck pond and such things. (I’m not sure that these clubs ever had more than one member, nor whether that member did more than pick up a Coke can.)

The authors also did a good job of relating the experience of being two of only three women among many male Russian scientists at the base. The only thing I found myself wishing for more of, when reading the book, was description of the interaction with the volunteers. I suppose each was only there for a fairly short time (they came in shifts of maybe a week or so), so the authors didn’t become that close with them, or at any rate not nearly as much as with the other permanent residents of the base. But it is a little odd to read a book about a volunteer trip with only passing mention of the volunteers!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars