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The Truth About Food in Antarctica

Antarctica food on expeditions is straight gourmet – but for scientists only. Get the scoop about food in Antarctica from world traveler Jennifer Billock who recently embarked on an Antarctica expedition. She learned about Antarctica food during that expedition… when she wasn’t photographing penguins.

A group of emperor penguins pal around in Antarctica
Photo/Jennifer Billock

For cruise passengers heading into Antarctica – like me on my recent trip on the Viking Polaris – there are very strict rules about food. Mainly, you can’t bring any.

Nothing goes to shore. You need to eat a good meal first (and trust me, if you’re on a cruise ship, you’ll be eating well) if you’ll be out for a while because, as cute as penguins are, they may not react well to that granola you want to stash in your expedition jacket pocket.

The only food allowed on passenger cruise excursions comes from stranding bags brought out by the cruise line. Those don’t get opened except for in the most dire of circumstances. They contain freeze-dried survival packs and you probably won’t want to eat any of it. If you do, that means something has gone terribly wrong.

Antarctica Food History

Homemade Pemmican Bars
Pemmican Bars | istock.com/anamariategzes

As for explorers of the past, they ate whatever they could.

Shackleton and his men often dined on a concoction called pemmican, which was a mix of dried, pounded beef and a fat source, most often beef fat. It was smashed together with crushed crackers and melted snow to create a stew.

Other explorers brought military biscuits and canned fish, bacon and animal tongue, and lots and lots of booze. As their expeditions went on and supplies ran out, they began to eat penguins, seals, and any animals they brought with them. Amundsen ate his dogs, and Scott ate his ponies.

Sometimes the men were afforded special treats, assuming someone managed to get them into Antarctica without anyone else on their expedition team knowing. Shackleton, for example, once brought out a Christmas pudding that he’d been hiding among his socks.

Food in Antarctica Today

Penguins march in front of ice floes in Antarctica
Photo/Jennifer Billock

It’s a bit different for modern-day Antarctica residents. The scientists at every major research station have chefs prepare their food, and most of it sounds delicious.

“We have a five-week menu cycle at the larger stations, which encompasses all types of offerings from taco Tuesdays to Friday steak night to a huge Sunday buffet with a carving station,” says Tom Senty, the culinary manager at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station. McMurdo has a pizza station as well, and Senty reports that they cook up to 18,000 pizzas annually. Residents there also enjoy a burger bar, a burrito bar and a stir-fry station. “The smaller field camps start to have more limited options, all the way down to dehydrated meals only.”

The field camps, where modern-day expeditionists go for scientific research, don’t suffer from a lack of cuisine though, depending on who comes with them. Senty notes that some expedition teams have a chef with them, and some of the camps have auxiliary food supply rooms.

“It all depends on the size of the camp and the duration of time they will be there,” he says, which determines how much of a food supply they’ll bring along and what it contains.

Ultimately, there are no restrictions on what food can be brought to the research stations, aside from logistical ones. There’s not an option to refrigerate things thanks to the extremely long supply chain, so the food is always something that’s already frozen, something that can be frozen or something that can’t freeze. And at McMurdo’s two facilities on the Ross Ice Shelf, raw poultry isn’t allowed — they don’t want to risk any of the penguins catching Avian Flu.

All the food coming into McMurdo must be approved and inspected, as well.

A penguin wanders up a hill in antarctica
Photo/Jennifer Billock

“All our food must be from a Department of Defense approved source,” Senty says. “This will sometimes limit our options. We have Army Food Safety officers help with inspections during the packing and crating evolution, which happens once a year for McMurdo and South Pole station resupplies and twice a year for the Palmer Station resupply.”

And, just like tourists can’t leave food bits around, neither can any expedition members or people at the research stations.

“Food waste must always make its way back off the continent,” Senty says. “Mostly it will make its way back to McMurdo Station and will leave on the same vessel that drops off our annual resupply, which includes the food resupply.”

Antarctica Food FAQs

What do people eat in Antarctica?

While explorers historically ate foods like pemmican and seafood, modern-day residents eat a variety of dishes that are thoughtfully prepared at research station. These stations source and import ingredients from other continents.

What is the national dish in Antarctica?

This is a trick question. Antarctica doesn’t have a national dish.

Where do people eat in Antarctica?

People eat on research stations. There are no restaurants in Antarctica.

Is McDonalds in Antarctica?

No. McDonalds is in every continent except Antarctica.

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Original Publication Date: November 19, 2022