A plate full of muskrat (left) and possum (right). All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted
Last Saturday night in New York City’s northernmost borough was cold, rainy, and desolate. I was wandering around the Bronx with my friend Anna searching for the Andrew Freedman Home, a historic mansion turned hotel where Baron Ambrosia (a culinary video series host and filmmaker whose real name is Justin Fornal) had invited us to dine at his fourth annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner. Siri was doing us a huge fucking disservice, though, bleating out the wrong directions on Anna's smartphone while we walked in endless circles in the driving rain and men disgustingly leered at us. We finally made it to the giant, decrepit mansion that was hosting the game dinner; it's owned by a friend of Baron’s and is a dead ringer for Wayne Manor in its twilight years.
The night’s dress code was described as formal—specifically “black tie, traditional, or warrior,” where you should proudly wear your taxidermy, bones, mojo bags, machetes, and other large blades—so I wore high heels for the first time in years, along with the only garment I owned that could qualify as black tie, my old high school prom dress. As I desperately tried not to fall on my face on the slippery tiled front porch, I couldn’t help wondering if this was a prelude to a ridiculous shitshow of a night. I wasn’t far off.
The night's host, Baron Ambrosia. Photo by Rose Callahan.
Baron’s concept for the night was not just an eccentric shindig but also a way to encourage people to not waste the food resources we have—specifically, small game. “It has a small carbon footprint, it’s in your backyard, and it’s yours to enjoy,” he told the crowd later in the night. As someone who grew up (and loved) the wild venison my father used to bring home, I was already behind his vision. In fact, Baron is taking a break from his award-winning video series, like Bronx Flavor and The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia, to write a game-centric cookbook based off these annual dinners, set to be released at the end of the year. “You may not like squirrel, you may not like porcupine,” Baron said, “but we’re just opening up the discussion that there are protein sources other than beef, pork, or chicken.” It was a valid argument—and a good reason to party.
A typical outfit that night
The mansion’s interior looked retro chic in a very “this place is haunted and will make you murder your family” kind of way. The attendees—mostly Bronx restaurant owners or beloved borough personalities, all of whom were friends or family of Baron—were dressed elaborately: The men wore giant pieces of fur, elaborate velvet togas, capes, and tuxedos, while the women were dressed in little hats and short party dresses. When we walked up to the check-in, we signed a legal waiver in case the meat poisoned us or whatever—We’re off to a fine start, I thought—and wandered down the hallway to a room booming with loud noises. Inside, there was a bar serving Bronx Pop, beer (both in Red Dog cans and from a keg), and a bottle of tequila. I chose the tequila. “Can we mix it with the lemon-lime soda?” Anna asked.
“I haven’t made a mixed drink yet tonight,” said the man behind the bar. He filled the cup halfway with tequila and topped it off with the lurid green soda. It tasted like a melted frozen margarita. The owner of the soda company, Nicky d'Aragona, immediately deemed it "the Lime Ricky" and plugged it on social media. “This is great!” he said. “We’ve been trying to market it with vodka, but this is much better.”
Bill Guiles, a badass trapper
On a table by the bar, I spotted several plates of untouched sushi. I read the labels: crickets with brie, raccoon, and mink. The meat looked a bit suspicious—a little gray and sad—though there thankfully wasn’t any odor. No one was touching it, which I interpreted as a bad sign. I quickly turned away to prevent the possibility of someone trying to offer me some and almost ran straight into a man wearing the craziest fur hat I had ever seen, complete with multiple tails and two little pointy ears on top. I asked if I could steal it. He agreed, but warned me that it might be a bit sweaty. I then learned that this guy—Bill Guiles—had the right to wear such furry headgear because he supplied 99 percent of the night’s game. The 68-year-old and has been hunting for as long as he can remember. He traps for sport, conservation, and fur, and his weapon of choice is a .22 caliber rifle. Four years ago, he met Baron at a Native American powwow when Baron approached Bill’s partner and asked what happens to the meat of the animals they trapped; after offering to buy the meat—which they refused—Baron received an invitation to head upstate to hunt with them, which he does every year. Bill’s contributions of the night included raccoon, fox, coyote, beaver, otter, muskrat, fisher cat, marten, and porcupine.
Jason Engdahl serving beaver tacos
Still wearing Bill’s sweat-laden chapeau, I wandered into the library, which, thanks to its dark wood paneling and ominous-looking portraits on the walls, resembled a room from some cliché made-for-TV murder mystery. Standing beside me was a man wearing a fez who claimed to have popularized the pickleback shot. Another guy was serving up… uh… beaver tacos, which were served on rock-hard crispy tortillas. Baron was flitting from room to room getting everything ready. He looked like his usual over-the-top self, flaunting shotgun shells rolled up in his hair like curlers—he said that he was inspired by distinguished men of yore like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—and sported a pencil-thin goatee.
The "Stabbing of the Beast" ceremony. Photo by Amanda Fornal
Besides the hors d'oeuvres—which also included shredded fox served with corn bread, raw oysters, rare elk, and a Thai porcupine nam tok salad—there was a sit-down dinner, complete with a “Stabbing of the Beast” ceremony officiated by Trapper Bill and Grammy award-winning hip-hop musician Grandmaster Melle Mel. More game dishes came out to the tables: possum cooked in coconut milk and served with sweet plantains, coyote hinds in chipotle sauce served with cactus leaves, sous-vide otter, fisher cat sliders, Malian-style muskrat fakoye, and jerk-style raccoon. Meat like this “has the ability to take a lot of spice,” said one of the night’s chefs, Jason Engdahl. This is true, because while there were a huge range of aggressively flavored dishes—all from a myriad of cuisines—the game ended up soaking up all the flavors and resulted in a surprisingly tame meal. The desserts, by Whoopies Miniature Dessert Co., were made with Georgian white clay to further drive home the "utilize your resources" theme of the night. “Geophagia is always portrayed in the media as a squalorous form of survival, never as a cultural tradition,” said Baron. “That’s why I saw it as a misunderstood food source, much like small game.”
Baron with chefs Tata Magia and Assetou Sy. Photo via Rose Callahan.
The end of the night was, admittedly, a blur. As it went on, I was struck not only by the sense of community that was created at these dinners (many of the chefs and partygoers had excitedly participated for multiple years) but also by the fact that the two tenets on which Baron’s shows were built on—serious culinary discussions amid a crazy, surreal aesthetic—could be translated into a party where we were contemplating serious food issues in a totally ludicrous setting. At one point, I stole someone’s fez and was tending bar for a while. Anna eventually succeeded in dragging me out of the mansion, but the night continued with two party favors of sorts: two feet that felt legitimately broken after being shoved into those torturous shoes and the lingering, complex, feral taste of wild game seeping out of my pores.
Kirsten Stamn doesn’t mess with salads. Follow her on Twitter.