"How is it with the ponzu sauce?" one distraught journalist asked another. He had just managed to choke down a bite of the meatball being served, but was wholly transfixed by the uncooked, five-foot-long iguana regally resting atop a decorative bed of kale. "It's… chewy," the second journalist responded, before eyeing his surroundings and quietly conceding, "Iguana's pretty nasty. Why'd they serve it cold?"
Not exactly the urbane whirlwind of pomp and whimsy I had in mind when I was invited to attend a press-only tasting event held in advance of New York's fabled Explorers Club 112th Annual Dinner earlier this month. The Explorers Club is housed in an Upper East Side landmark building and was founded in 1904 by Henry Collins Walsh and a bunch of other famed adventurers. Among its illustrious members are the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Walter Cronkite, and Peter Freuchen—the Danish explorer of the Arctic, who amputated his own damn toes after they become frostbitten and walked around the rest of his life with an actual peg leg. Supposedly, a Roosevelt is still a member of the club to this day.
The Club's famous dinner is reputed to be like something out of Andrew Bergman's The Freshman, with a hearty dash of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure. Instead, what I found inside the stately townhouse that serves as the Club's headquarters was a highly orchestrated publicity event with some not-too-enthused journalists and a pretty minuscule sampling of the exotics to be at the actual event.
Yes, I ate the iguana and some lionfish, which, btw, is venomous. I also indulged in a taste or two of Asian carp sashimi, an invasive species currently threatening the Great Lakes. And they weren't actually the worst things I'd ever eaten in life. Nor were they the best. But I did learn a few things, one being that the Explorers Club dinner is no longer—if it ever was—simply a place where intrepid and wealthy eaters eat weird and wacky shit just so they can tell their grandkids about it. Club member Gene Rurka took over as chef for the event in 1991, and he is intent not only on keeping the dinners exciting, but also educating diners about sustainability and preservation of the environment.
The theme of this year's event was "Oceans: Current of Life." Rurka told me that about 1,300 plus people showed up for the dinner, which was held at the iconic Waldorf Astoria. They were served a much more extensive menu than we journalists got to taste. The dinner was made up of a range of invasive species, insects, plant life from the sea, and organ meats—all to make a point: We humans are eating in a way that is artificially limited and, instead, we should be eating animals and plant life that will help maintain and promote the life of our planet.
At the dinner, Rurka told me, he served lionfish, Asian carp, iguana, and blue catfish—all species that have been brought into places where they are not native and are choking our waterways. He also served a selection of insects, including, "cockroaches, tarantulas, scorpions—all that."
What else did the elites eat? "We had feral hogs and feral goats. We did a lot with organ meats. We had bull rod testicles and we had some of our fancy drinks with goat penis swivel sticks, and it went on with eyeballs stuffed with olives and onions. We had kimchi and lotus chips and then we had desserts sprinkled with insect material or seaweed or kelp. We had a great pretzel too, a nice soft pretzel. And we had a mustard that incorporated seaweed finely ground into it."
Rurka feels strongly about using the dinner to teach his diners: "We have so many invasive species right now that we are losing hundreds of millions of dollars—every state in the Union including Alaska has invasives—and we need to spend tremendous resources to stop them. They're here—if we can eat them, maybe we can defeat them."
But don't do this at home without knowing what you are eating. Rurka told me, "Of course, all things are not edible—some are dangerous. Your readers should know you do not just go outside and pick up a beetle, a cockroach, a bug, a worm. You don't do that!"
Still, Rurka says, he'd like to see diners have an open mind. "The iguana is taking over Florida agriculture, Puerto Rico, and the entire South. And they came from pet markets and were released, often by accident. We're not putting blame on a person. Many were released because of storms, a hurricane, a tornado. Invasives don't start out as invasives but certainly there's a problem with them now."
Turning to the subject of entomophagy, Rurka says, "You've got to look at the numbers. We've got nine and a half billion people showing up on the earth in the next couple of decades. Our agriculture, I don't want to say it's at max, but it's getting there. So the insects—we're not going to get a nice juicy steak, rare, out of insect matter, but today I can give you a beautiful meatball that tastes really good. I can give you meatloaf or a well-done hamburger out of insects and it's gonna be delicious."
Judging from the tasting I attended, I'm not really convinced that the masses will find it to be particularly delicious, but I appreciate Rurka's passion. The world is changing and he wants to show people that eating "exotic" and invasive species can indeed help us sustain our planet.
"Twenty years ago, people laughed and said it was a Fear Factor kind of concept. Now they're not saying that—there are cricket farms coming in, maggot facilities used for animal feed, and other things coming up. It's becoming bigger and bigger business."
Rurka wants the Explorers Club to lead the way and he's using its famed annual dinner to show us how. One iguana meatball, cockroach, and invasive, venomous fish at a time.