On the Antarctic Ice With Anthony Bourdain
In February 2017, I was nearing the end of four months at a remote outpost in Antarctica, gathering data for my Ph.D. thesis. Donald Trump had been inaugurated a month earlier and already the words “climate change” had been purged from the White House website. The mood among the scientists at the bottom of the world had changed drastically. We had been the forefront of studying climate change and suddenly we were being shunted aside.
Around the last week of our expedition to Lake Hoare, a barren, Martian-like region of the continent, the National Science Foundation, our sponsor, told us that Anthony Bourdain would be arriving to interview us at our field camp for his CNN show “Parts Unknown.” A lot of us knew Mr. Bourdain as a chef and foodie, but Antarctica isn’t known for its local cuisine. There are no Michelin-starred restaurants there (or any restaurants for that matter) and so amid the excitement, there was also a bit of confusion about his visit.
After a long, painfully cold day of sampling glacial meltwater to analyze its biological and chemical components, we all huddled around a laptop to prep for his arrival. We watched a clip of his earlier show “No Reservations” in which Mr. Bourdain eats a still-beating cobra heart.
“I hope he doesn’t want to try the penguin,” said Rae Spain, the field camp manager. She is known across the continent for her ability to take frozen chicken from 2012 and canned vegetables from an undetermined year and make it into a five-star Indian dish. She would be in charge of the food we would share with Mr. Bourdain and his crew.
There was plenty of worry that a celebrity like him would have a hard time in Antarctica. It is, after all, the coldest, driest, windiest place on earth. Would he be O.K. sleeping in a tent? Could he endure the food? Water was so scarce at our field camp that we showered only once a week. Would he be cool with that?
After binge-watching more episodes of his show, we put our fears to rest. This man had floated down the Congo River while trying to kill and cook a chicken in the dark. He and his crew had been trapped in a hotel in Lebanon in 2006 during fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. He’d gratefully accepted and consumed uncooked warthog anus in Namibia. He’d be perfectly fine in Antarctica.
Mr. Bourdain, who died a year ago this month, arrived with a calming smile. “Hi, I’m Tony,” he said, reaching out for introductions. Most of the initial attempts to socialize on our side involved chats about food. We asked him about eating eyeballs and his best and worst meals. “I can tell you the worst dish by far has been the McNugget,” he said. He was easy to talk to. He was curious about us.
Rae Spain made an exceptional dinner that night. Mr. Bourdain discovered how she managed to make ridiculously tasty stuff out of very limited ingredients (her secret: an extensive personal collection of spices) but he was more interested in her story. What kept her going down to the ice for 34 years?
Mr. Bourdain told us he would not be focusing on the behavioral quirks of penguins. Instead he wanted to know about the projects we were working on and why scientists pursue research in such a forbidding place. He was well aware that science and climate research were under threat from the new Trump administration.
“The beginning of the 20th century, when scientists and explorers were national heroes, there was a hunger for knowledge and discovery.” Mr. Bourdain told us, then added: “Not a good climate for facts, though, we live in today. It’s a world that is increasingly hostile to basically everything you’re all about.”
During the day, we ran around a polar desert recording information on warming, glacial melt and flooding to add to a 25-year collection of data that helps us identify trend lines. At night, we heard reports via email of colleagues frantically working to save their data because they feared it would be deleted from government websites. And there at our foldable camp table was Anthony Bourdain, giving us a platform to discuss our research on a highly rated television program. He turned his spotlight on our efforts to collect and analyze data critical to understanding the changing climate.
“This is sort of the last place on Earth where science seems to be celebrated at every level of society. Where people are making great personal sacrifices in pursuit of knowledge. That sounds quaint where I come from. It’s quite wonderful,” Mr. Bourdain said to us. “All you need is better press.”
His show would give us that. Watching “Parts Unknown: Antarctica” was a very hopeful moment for all of us because our painstaking work was being celebrated at a time when climate research was under assault in Washington (and, where, unfortunately, it continues to be).
At the end of dinner, we convinced Mr. Bourdain to join us out for a walk to a frozen lake and its sandy beach for a game of Frisbee. We handed him a pair of crampons to put over his shoes. “These would be great for getting out of bars,” he said as we stumbled our way across the ice. We all sat together on the beach watching the midnight sun go behind a mountain and talking about science and our travels.
By the end of his weekend visit to our camp, we had offered to hire him as part of the biology sampling team. He replied that he was sure he’d be fired “for sampling too much of the bacon.”
He hadn’t come to Antarctica for the food. When you look back on his shows, you see that he rarely went anywhere just for the food. Food was a common ground. It was a means to conversation. The conversation that weekend was about science, and Anthony Bourdain, who would have turned 63 on Tuesday, was our champion, as he was for so many others.
Angela Zoumplis is a polar biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
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