Well whaddaya know: it’s Christmas! And hold on to your hats because this is a looooong post.
Here at McMurdo, Christmas is celebrated by two days off over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with a special dinner buffet, along the same lines as Thanksgiving, to be held on Christmas Eve. In order to fully understand the complications this creates for the kitchen staff, I’d better fill you in on some other details.
First off – though somewhat unrelated to anything other than that it’s news – on 12/12/12, we had someone new join the team in the Salad Room. Rebekah comes to us from Colorado and has turned out to be a dynamite prep cook. She will plough through her prep list and immediately come back for more work. Interestingly enough, this has seemed to motivate Liz to step up and become more confident performing her tasks as well and the two of them have entirely taken over all the fresh veg prep (though there’s not much as our Freshies Box is getting very very empty), as well as running the salad bar and making composed salads. This means that I have been able to make my primary focus the vegetarian entrées and Sarah’s been able to focus on her sandwich line – this was exactly as our bosses had intended it to be and we love it because it means we have the time and resources to really get creative with our work.
Back to the issue at hand: Sarah has been running the sandwich line pretty much since she got here – it was always meant to be her primary focus and as such, her day off has always been Sunday because on Sundays, we don’t serve lunch, only brunch, so there’s no sandwich line. On a scant handful of occasions in the past, Sarah’s had to take a second day off when there is a regular lunch service. When that happens, I’ve had to try and prep the vegetarian entrée ahead of time so that I’d be free to take over her sandwich duties. We’ve always managed to pull it off but it makes Russell very anxious.
So, in order for the Town to have their two days off over the 24th and 25th, they were going to keep a regular workday schedule on the 23rd – which would mean lunch would be served on Sunday. Then on the 24th, we would have a late breakfast and the special holiday dinner, with three seatings starting at 3pm. On the 25th, we’d do brunch and dinner. Incidentally, all of us galley kids would be getting two days off as well but not over the holiday – our “Christmas” would come a few weeks later once all the holidays were over.
Thus, turning the 23rd into a regular workday meant I was going to get my butt kicked because Sarah would be off, so I’d be handling her sandwich line, my lunch and dinner vegetarian entrées, and, in between all that, the prep for the vegetarian entrée for Christmas Eve Dinner, as well as a couple of the vegetarian sides. Once Sarah and I realized this was how the schedule was going to shake out, we approached Russell about having her come in on Sunday and take Monday off instead, since by Monday, we’d have everything prepped and would only need to make some finishing touches to things and that could easily be handled without Sarah – after all, during Thanksgiving she came in early and went home early since we were fine without her during the actual meal. However, Russell didn’t agree and he felt he wanted to be fully staffed on Monday so he said no, he wanted the schedule to stay as it was.
So I rolled in at about 0600 on Sunday, the 23rd, fully prepared to really grind it out. I was going to knock out all the sandwich prep and get that assembly line set up, then knock out both my veg entrées before lunch, go out on the floor making sandwiches, then clean up and get back to the kitchen where I’d roll right into prep for the big dinner coming up. But at about 0715 Russell came in and said something along the lines of “What do you mean Sarah’s not coming in today?!” To make a long and unpleasant story very short, he made me call her and have her come in from 0900-1300 just to work the sandwich line. Neither she nor I was very happy.
Other than that snag, things went pretty well and there really was a lot to do. Once I got the lunch entrée done, I started work on my special project for Christmas dinner: Seitan Wellington. The day before, I had made two huge free-standing bowls (we call them contact lenses because of their shape) of seitan, which basically involves mixing wheat gluten with herbs, spices, and aromatics, then hydrating it with vegetable broth until it forms a huge, gluey mass. Then I lined twelve loaf pans with plastic wrap and portioned out the mass between them and covered them with foil. Earlier Sunday morning, Mark (the AM sous chef) had put them in the steamer for three to five hours, so that I could unmold them after lunch. The result was twelve loaves of a dense, firm meat-free “roast”. My job now was to wrap them in mushroom duxelle and puff pastry, brush them with egg wash and put them in the walk-in to be cooked off the next evening for each of the three seatings.
This was actually more time consuming then you would think because each roast had to be cut in half to fit our frozen puff pastry sheets. Additionally, I needed to portion out 30 hotel pans of frozen green beans and toast almonds for the Green Beans Amandine, pick and chop 8 quarts of parsley, fill a large lexan container with roughly chopped bell peppers, and toast off a large lexan of croutons for breadcrumbs.
Fortunately, while Rebekah and Liz were occupied with their own tasks, Roger showed up to lend a hand for a few hours. When he’d had enough “fun”, Rebekah and Liz took over for him but I was still in for a few more solid hours when 1800 rolled around and they went home. At around 1930, I called Roger to let him know not to wait for me as I would probably not be joining the “usual crew” at the bar that night because I still had things to finish; before I had hung up, he’d put the phone down and was in the kitchen, ready to help. Have I mentioned that he is a very good friend to have? Thanks to him, I got everything done and we were out of the kitchen just before 2100 – still plenty of time for us to join our friends at the big holiday party the VMF was hosting.
The VMF stands for the Vehicle Maintenance Facility. They maintain, repair, and service all of the station’s heavy equipment, light vehicles, and outlying generators. This means they basically have a giant garage at their disposal. Their party was advertised to have a bar, photo opportunities with Santa, some kind of costume contest (I think), and a DJ and dance floor. So even though I was dead on my feet, I went along and wound up having a HILARIOUS time.
I stayed far too late, danced too much, fended off several advances from Kiwis, somehow got covered in beer thanks to those two in the picture above, and generally had a raucously good time that I don’t normally associate with Christmas Eve’s Eve but hey, it’s a harsh continent – we can’t ever expect too much normalcy.
Monday morning came way too early but we were all ready to rock and roll. All of us, that is, except Russell. I love our boss, I really do but he HATES Christmas. As in, I walked in that morning and shouted a general “Merry Christmas!” to which he replied, “Go f*ck yourself.” Now, I’ve lived a lot of places and embracing other cultures and traditions comes pretty naturally to me by now. And my feelings about this may have been coloured by the fact that I feel like I went out of my way to help Russell achieve his desire to mark the first night of Hanukah by offering latkes in addition to the scheduled menu. And I like attending Hanukah gatherings and I’ve long ago learned the prayer for lighting the candles so I was thrilled to attend the party they held on the last night of Hanukah (although we’re not allowed to have candles, some of the Dining Attendants had made a menorah out of tin foil with construction paper “candles”). But I guess I do come to expect a little cultural sensitivity in return and while Christmas may not be your cup of tea, maybe don’t try to ruin it for the rest of us?
At any rate, we all rolled up our sleeves and set about the last minute tasks that needed doing.
Then it was pretty much exactly like Thanksgiving with the one exception that I had talked Russell into letting me do a vegetarian carving station for the Seitan Wellington – I figure the vegetarians never get their own carving station and this dish tonight really lent itself to that kind of display. He liked the idea so we set that up along with the other carving stations and cranked through three seatings like you wouldn’t believe.
In addition to the Prime Rib, Duck Breast, Beef Wellington, and Seitan Wellington (or Swellington, as we christened it), we also served roasted potatoes, the green beans amandine, honey glazed carrots, a fennel and apple stuffing, roasted butternut squash soup, stuffed lobster tail, a porcini-encrusted seitan cutlet (for vegans), and roasted butternut squash gnocchi with tofu.
And let’s not forget the treats from our awesome bakers!!
It was interesting to note, however, how different the atmosphere was from Thanksgiving. In general, fewer people were dressed up and I think there was a lot more crankiness, most likely caused by being far from home.
Some of my friends and I had made plans to climb Castle Rock – a local landmark – after Christmas Eve Dinner. It’s about a three hour hike out there and takes about 20 minutes to climb/scramble to the summit so we figured if we left before 2100, we’d just make it by midnight and ring in Christmas from the top…but everyone was so exhausted and maybe a little too blue for such shenanigans, so we wound up just sitting on the floor in someone’s room, sharing a bottle of wine, talking about how we usually celebrate Christmas. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one for whom this was the first Christmas away from family.
The next morning, I had to wake up extra early because I had, as usual for a holiday, signed up to volunteer to wash dishes so that the Midrat DAs (remember them? They’re still good friends even though I’m no longer a Midrat) could get off work an hour early. Then I headed into the kitchen for a pretty quiet day. I figured most people were either subdued because they were homesick or because they’d partied a little too hard at MAAG…
MAAG is the McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery, and it’s hosted by the Carpentry (Carp) Shop every year around the holidays. Part art show, part party, and very high energy, I’ve heard it’s always a lot of fun. This year, it was held on Christmas Eve (and I’ve already told you how I spent that) and the dancing apparently went until about 3am. So yeah, a subdued station was totally expected.
At lunch, I made sure to call home and was treated to the sounds of my mama, daddy, brother bear, and niece all trying to talk over each other, asking questions and not waiting for answers, which was not only frustrating but made me so homesick, I admit to getting a little teary-eyed. So that night, when I got off work, Roger and I packed up some beer and wine and went out to Hut Point where we sat and looked out over the Ross Sea – which is just starting to break up, it’s so exciting to see and hear running water! – and remembered just why it was we left our families to come down to this crazy, amazing, insane, drama-filled, wonderful, and ever-so-slightly dangerous place.
Here’s hoping all your Christmas wishes come true!