Wayne White is spending his third winter at the South Pole.
How’s the weather, Wayne?
“It’s warm here,” the site leader at the Amundsen-Scott South scientific research station tells me when I call him in mid-October. His degree of warmth is relative: “Sixty below.”
The explorer, one of an estimated 1,600 people to ever winter at the South Pole, knows dark as well as he knows cold. The season runs from mid-February to early November at the bottom of the world, where he has experienced temperatures as low as 105 degrees below zero and where even summer finds averages in the negatives. White says there’s no place on Earth to compare to the “high, dry, coldest place on the planet,” which hasn’t stopped him from walking 4,000 miles during his three tours of duty. “I haven’t missed a day outside,” says the Department of Defense contractor. And he sees freezing temperatures as an appetite stimulant. “Eat cold!” he preaches.
I reached out (down?) to White because winter is coming and I am determined to eat outside for as long as I can bear it, and as long as health experts are encouraging outdoor over indoor dining. I’m not counting solely on my Minnesota roots to buoy me. In anticipation of a significant drop in temperature, my significant other bought a fire pit and two tall heaters, assurance that friends in our bubble will continue to accept invitations to our backyard for my reviews of takeout fare if not home-cooked dinners.
I’m hardly alone in my desire to sip and sup outside for the foreseeable future. One of the great takeaways from Election Day, when I spent the evening with a few socially distanced pals on a terrace outfitted with a big-screen TV, was a welcome from the host that included individual electric blankets. As winter approaches, the restaurant greeting for outdoor dining enthusiasts has flipped from “Let me tell you about tonight’s specials” to “Can I adjust your heater?”
At a time when the company typically wraps up al fresco dining, the Washington, D.C.-based ThinkFoodGroup has set up tents and secured 20 combination warmer-blowers for Zaytinya, Oyamel and two branches of Jaleo, where customers are offered hot chocolate as an amuse bouche when the temperature reads 45 degrees or less. “We warm them up from the inside out,” jokes Eric Martino, the group’s COO. Servers are taken care of, too, with insulated vests.
People’s willingness to brave the elements is not new. But the pandemic has made it essential. So I called around the world for inspiration and found plenty of people like White who see the coming months as something to embrace rather than endure.
Meet Laura Cole, chef at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. She looks forward to this time of year as a chance to collect ingredients, including spruce tips and juniper berries, from “the store outside my door” - an entrance fronted with hitches for sled dogs.
The chef, who keeps her own herd of reindeer, does everything she can think of to take advantage of the cold, from tossing a pot of boiled crabs into snowbanks to quickly chill it to creating a bowling alley from her frozen pond at home. (Lanes are formed with the help of snow blowers.) “We’re a heartier bunch,” says the Detroit native, who sets up a champagne bar near the makeshift bowling alley and welcomes neighbors with dishes designed for eating with gloved hands, including parsnip chips and lamb chops. Pro tip: Plates made from Alaska birch can go directly into a bonfire.
“Winter is so magical. This is an opportunity to embrace a whole different kind of dining,” says Cole. “Not that this would ever be a chosen environment, but it does allow for” richer foods, including fondue, and even “picnics in the back country, albeit quick.” Practicing what she preaches, Cole recently picnicked outside when it was 30 degrees below zero.
The unspoken message is either “you can do it” or “buck up, eaters!”
In frigid Minnesota, the Twin Cities celebrate the approaching season with an annual festival called the Great Northern. When life gives you the cold shoulder, “we need to invigorate mind, body and soul,” says Kate Nordstrum, the organization’s executive and artistic director. “This is going to be a harsh season for our restaurant community.” She sees the cold as a way for diners to get as creative as the industry and come up with different ways to promote camaraderie outside. On her wish list is creating the world’s longest ice bar, although tighter restrictions for gatherings in the state might push the idea into 2022.
One of this year’s featured speakers at Great Northern is chef and caterer Sean Sherman, author of the well-received “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” and, like Cole in Alaska, quick to see the good in the cold. “We don’t mind it,” says Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. “Winter is very calming, especially in the woods, which are nice and silent.”
While he advocates preserving things from other seasons to last through the cold times, winter provides a singular pantry, including highbush cranberries, a member of the honeysuckle family. Sumac fronds and rose hips, he says, “are better as they get colder.” Tea can be coaxed from conifers - cedar, pine, spruce - and tree bark is added to braises for “a flavor of the woods” that creates “food that tastes like where we are.”
Icehotel in in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, owes its very existence to extreme temperatures. Like snowflakes, no two of the destination’s 55 cold rooms are alike; each is designed by a different artist every year. The base for the beds is ice covered with a reindeer skin topped with a sleeping bag. The sleeping rooms are pitch dark and so quiet, “you can hear your heart pounding,” says the hotel’s publicist, Josefin Lindberg.
Opened in 1989, the venue also has 72 warm rooms for visitors who don’t want to sleep like polar bears and ice production facilities for designing customized dishware. “We use what nature gives us,” says Linn Fjärdbo, food and beverage manager. Cue Arctic char and reindeer on the menu and ice glasses in the ice bar. (Don’t bother asking for an Irish coffee.) The material for the cups comes from the pristine Torne River. In summer, says Fjärdbo, the custom is to throw your ice glass in the water and make a wish.
Not convinced you want to want to eat pasta in a parka? You have sympathy in high places.
“After four years as the ambassador to Spain, I’m not partial to the cold anymore,” says Lone Dencker Wisborg, the Danish ambassador to the United States. Still, she has a soft spot for hygge (say hoo-guh), Denmark’s national preoccupation with getting cozy. “Winters in Denmark are long and cold and wet and dark,” a predicament the diplomat says can be addressed by slipping on sweatpants, sharing a blanket on a couch, pouring hot chocolate or something stronger and illuminating the scene. When it comes to hygge, she adds, “candles are very important.”
The ambassador from Finland agrees. “Darkness is much more of a problem than the cold,” says the recently arrived Mikko Hautala, whose last post in Russia should prepare him for any unexpected variable Washington might throw at him. “If it’s cold and white, then OK.” Finnish children are encouraged to play outside, no matter the temperature, he says, and among the country’s greatest concepts is the pleasure-pain experience of the sauna, where a spell of intense indoor heat is followed by plunges into cold water outside. Hautala, who says saunas “harden the body” against colds and flu, has three saunas at his disposal, one at the embassy and two in his residence, where invitations to become a member of the Diplomatic Sauna Society are billed as the “hottest ticket in town.” (Heat seems to be a fetish for the Finns. The diplomat says his people drink more coffee than any other country, around 26 1/2 pounds per capita a year. “Hot and refreshing. It tells you something.”)
Masters of winter say the key to comfort is layered clothing. Explorer White relies on native Inuit ingenuity, keeping warm with a custom-made anorak using the fur of Siberian wolves, along with a canvas-and-flannel number that’s a replica of what Roald Amundsen wore at the South Pole in 1911. Fjärdbo advises wearing your warmest garments close to the body. “The warmth from the food will help to keep you warm,” too.
“In Finland, we think that there is no bad weather,” says Hautala. “Wear too many layers than too few. You can always remove the extra ones if you get too hot.” The essentials include woolen socks, hats and mittens. “If you’ll be stationary for an extended period of time,” he says, “the cold starts to creep up in your bones.”
These days, I go through a mental check list before heading to restaurants: Credit card? Mask? Blanket? Some places have introduced wraps to ward off any chill, but I prefer bringing my own. Ashish Alfred, chef-owner of Duck Duck Goose in Bethesda, Md., encourages customers to BYOB - bring your own blanket - partly to make outdoor dining more bearable for diners but also to keep his business going through winter.
Even people who revel in the cold see the value in balance and moderation. Living in the extremes requires protection from the elements, but also working with what you’ve got, like the Vitamin C-rich lingonberry tea guests awake to at Icehotel in Sweden.
Sometimes, the best option is to hunker down inside. Weekends at the southernmost place on Earth feature “Adventure Movie Night with Wayne,” where White follows introductory screenings of say, “Race for the Poles,” with films set in the tropics. Hygge is something you tend to savor indoors, and so is the very Finnish notion of kalsarikannit, which sounds like the perfect accompaniment to a pandemic and which Hautala spelled out succinctly via text:
“A drink. At home. In your underwear.”
Huh. Kalsarikannit sounds like a recipe some of us have been following since March.