Sunday, January 28, 2001

Bottom of the food chain

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Every meal. Every break. Every glass, plate, fork, knife, spoon, pot, pan, sandwich, juice container…. Every time a dining room attendant (DA) turns around at McMurdo, there’s more to do.

But too often to diners on station they’re just the blue-clad bodies moving a rack of glasses right in front of you or the faces at the dishroom window.

Most of the time, the DAs are smiling, and that’s a tribute to their resilience. "It’s the most difficult job on station, and they probably work harder than anybody else," said Jan Jasperson, the winterover food service supervisor, who said that if he could do anything for them, it would
be getting DAs paid more than the $350 a week they earn.

The DAs play a role in every part of the galley operation, except one. "We don’t cook food," said lead DA Ginger Alferos.

The DAs clean and restock dishes, prep food and salads, make sandwiches and flight lunches, make sure the food lines are stocked, and clean the whole place when the meals are done.

"I do different jobs: deli, floating, pot room, dishroom, it all depends on your mood," said DA Amanda Dow.

The pot room is really where the legends of DA-dom are made. While sitting in on their "family meal," at a strange time like 9:30 a.m. for lunch, the stories come out. Many of them involve the cramped rectangular space called the pot room.

The din in there can be deafening. With big, metal pots and pans resounding while they are moved through stainless steel sinks, the shift starts out loud. Add the music, the singing along and the joketelling and it’s a big party, albeit crusty food in abundant attendance.

In the background is a periodic rumble of the disposal, a giant one, almost the size of a five-gallon bucket. And, as one story goes, a DA once dumped a big pot of mashed potatoes into it instead of scraping the pot into food waste first. As if it were karmic retribution, the disposal exploded, spraying ground-up food everywhere and covering the operator’s face with a big white cloud of potato glop.

It seems gross. It is gross. But then the DAs think it’s funny, which gives insight into how they survive.

"The people make it fun," Dow said. Some of their on-the-job entertainment comes from people who pass through the galley. The DAs keep tallies, like how many people lick their fingers before touching serving utensils. At times they’ll take surveys, asking questions through the dishroom
windows as people stack their plates. It’s a good way to keep their minds active while working a mindless job.

Their presence is appreciated. "There’s no way we could do what we do without them," Jasperson said. In the rest of the world, Jasperson said, the jobs akin to the DAs are held by high school students. But in their lives back home, these DAs are food-service workers, teachers, outdoor guides and other professionals, including a nurse and a geologist.

It can be a good leg up for future jobs in the U.S. Antarctic Program, though. DAs can prove their ability to endure hardship and show their skills with the community.

"They’re our front-line defense," Jasperson said, explaining that the DAs are the first to hear feedback from the community and take the most heat for problems in the galley.

They put up with it because they want to get to Antarctica and they stay because they’re here. There is some appreciation from the community, the DAs say, but there’s no such thing as too much. The folks in the galley, though, know the value of the grunt work.

"We love our DAs," Jasperson said.