A review of Antarctica’s largest kitchen.
Back in the mists of time, when the United States Government was feared by the better part of the known world and the U.S. Navy manned our small outpost at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, it was determined that the interests of all would be served best if the men at McMurdo were forced into a single facility for their periodic nourishment. The reasons given were many. Candybar hoarding and profiteering would be wiped out. Sugar and caffeine intoxication would be brought under control. Human slugs who were good for little more than obfuscation, paper-shuffling and low-order bullying would find work in this new facility rather than places where they might have access to weapons. Recruits who tested “too dumb to kill” could be made into cooks. The Navy would be a better place.
So the McMurdo galley was ordained. It was organized in a logical manner that really hasn’t been improved upon over the years – the raw materials and their origin, cleanliness, handling and preparation were well hidden from those consuming the end product, galley workers with exotic forms of skin eruption could be kept out of sight, and the consumers were segregated according to their rank in the organization, giving rise to the E-side on the left for the enlisted squids, and the O-side for the officers, NCOs, NSF types and Distinguished Visitors. This had many advantages. Those with dreams of money, sex, power, glory and gold stars were protected from those who might tend to pull them back into the swamp of large, fertile wives, unwashed kids, manual labor, bad teeth and the trailer park lifestyle where your TV is always worth more than your pickup. Those charged with running McMurdo were protected from the people, facts and things that actually made McMurdo run, a tradition still honored today. This segregation also allowed the dispersal of substandard nutritional materials among those least likely to have contact with high-ranking officers or visiting political bigshots. If some of the biscuits were nine years old and maggoty, they could be smothered in gravy and sent to the E-side. The 1955 Civil Defense cheese always went to the left. During Winfly, 1988, there were some meatless chicken bones left over from some chicken-salad project, and they were put out as one of the lunchtime entrees. They were taken, maybe out of duty, maybe as a challenge, or maybe because of the very real possibility that in twenty-four hours, chicken bones would be looking pretty good.
As civilians slowly infiltrated the US Antarctic Program, they distributed themselves between the E-side and the O-side according to rank and other proclivities. Those hoping for promotion to supervisor, those having the compulsion to force their religion on everyone else in the world, or finding themselves even subconsciously limp of wrist did not find any friendly faces on the E-side. Those too exhausted to change out of greasy Carhartts, or wanting to twist the head off the fool who ordered Ford Falcon parts for the Heavy shop and put the seven-year-old beer in the liquor store wouldn’t find anyone to talk to who had the slightest clue on the O-side. Females hoping to be mauled by someone who wasn’t totally shitfaced and had brushed his or her teeth sometime in the last twenty-four hours set up camp on the O-side, usually in tight little groups seething with a volatile mix of mutual defense and cutthroat backstabbing. The peace was kept in a fashion, and all was well in the cold world.
McMurdo Station is one place in the world where you can guarantee that, if something works, it won’t be left alone. The Navy, with all its faults, got the job done, but this wasn’t good enough and the civilians poured in. The galley, as shabby and gloomy and segregated as it was, was the devil we knew, and we were blissfully unaware that a too-cold non-sterilizing dishwasher was as effective as deep-toungue kissing everyone on base in spreading the annual plague known as the Crud. The bureaucrats with glorious but secret dreams took the first timid step by replacing the traditional, workable, paid-for and well-loved trestle tables with incredibly expensive and large round ones that had the effect of limiting the range of your complaints, conspiracies, and dirty jokes to the few in your immediate vicinity in the large circle. This merely multiplied the variations in rumor and smut, and tightened the groups of conspirators, making them doubly difficult to infiltrate, betray and expel.
With time, the table affair was supplanted by newer screwups and faded from the radar, but the Grand Plan was grinding away in some secret off-books Department of Improvements, and one winter an army of workers attacked and destroyed the old galley and replaced it with the wonder we enjoy today. Gone is the segregation, but not quite – the one large dining room is separated into a lower bullpen and a surrounding elevated level with windows to the real world, and there is a small separate dining room that renders some degree of freedom from the prying eyes of everyone on base three times a day as well as from supervisors looking for hiding workers. The presence of windows is a radical departure from the womb-like isolation of the old galley, where the entire contents of T-site could be flying overhead and you wouldn’t have a clue. Now you can look outside, see a little snow blowing around, and come up with a reason why you ought to get another coffee, piece of pie, or cereal bowl full of nutritious soft-serve before fighting your way across the road to your comfy office. The food-serving area is arranged in some sort of random self-service pattern designed to maximize confusion and loaded-tray collisions, and minimize both the number of galley workers and the consumption of the pricier foods like real meat and freshies. This subtle food-selection bias also can be used to lower the cost of shipping garbage to a landfill near Seattle by diverting unpopular, overstocked or slightly spoiled foodstuffs through our intestines into McMurdo Sound.
One hidden Galley feature that affects us all is the new dishwashing machine that actually kills the personal microorganisms with which we all slime our utensils, resulting in the virtual disappearance of the Crud at McMurdo. Before we all breathe a sigh of relief, there is a credible report that a committee has been formed to study the costs of disease-caused loss of worktime against the cost of heating the dishwasher water to sterilizing temperatures, with the intent of adjusting the sterilization process to optimize the disease level among us. The working hypothesis is that workers with a level of illness too low to qualify them for sick time will do their jobs less efficiently, but can be forced to make up for this by working extra unpaid hours, with the savings coming from lower water-heating costs. The United States Antarctic Program has never been short of cleverness.
But the crowning jewel of this edifice is the monster custom-made neon wall clock, which cost either three or thirty thousand dollars, depending on how much alcohol has filtered the information. It hangs high above us all three or four times a day, bathing us all in Obedience Rays, according to informed sources, and controlled by an unknown person with poor personal hygiene in a small dark control room in Denver, whose job it is to make the clock run faster during mealtimes and days off, and slower during work hours. It is assumed that the Control Clock is only one of the thousands of surveillance and control devices installed on base, but it is the large, constant and useful reminder of the fact that all aspects of our lives are monitored and channeled, and that the great mass of data gathered is used both to improve monitoring and to minimize the amount of cash expended for bonuses. As any annual report from the contractor to the NSF will attest, these goals are being met and exceeded every year. A recent example of this is the effective extension of official monitoring to our lives even before we dreamed of entering the Antarctic Program, in the form of exhaustive pre-employment credit and background checks.
So there’s your Galley (or Multipurpose Dining Facility in officialspeak), a truly wondrous and spectacular monument to bureaucratic ingenuity, managerial deviousness, and courageous committee decision-making, combining in one perfect opus the base business of stuffing fuel into our systems with minimal lost work time and expelling the waste, if you can find the right door, with the sublime purpose of bending our every thought, word, motion and gaseous expulsion to the furtherance of Big Science, big budgets, overseers unrestrained by the shackles of reason or decency, and generous incentive payments that, while paid to the contractor, mysteriously disappear before they reach the fingers of those doing the work. But before we all fly into a homicidal rage, let us count our blessings. Let us pray that someone doesn’t work out the savings in jet fuel if we all returned to civilization just as we left, but weighing thirty percent less.