Waiter, There’s A Bug In My Appetizer

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mealworm sushi from a past Explorers Club annual dinner.

If python, larvae, scorpion, jellyfish and yak were on the dinner menu, one may assume a night camping in an Amazonian jungle was in store. But don’t start stuffing your pack with teepee and GORP just yet, because this dinner is taking place in New York City — and you’ll need a tuxedo.

On March 17th the 1904-founded Explorers Club (whose members run the gamut from the late mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary to astronaut Buzz Aldrin to marine biologist Sylvia Earle) will hold its annual black-tie member dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. As tradition dictates, the cocktail hour prior to the main dinner will feature an array of peculiar culinary curiosities.

Gene Rurka, 64, dubbed the culinary curiosities curator of the club, has been spearheading the dinner for over a decade. “We’re getting a little soft with our eating habits,” he said in an interview. “The rest of the world has a larger variation of proteins. Americans primarily eat factory-raised chicken, beef, and pork. I hope these unusual appetizers will broaden people’s minds.”

Explorers Club members are no strangers to roughing it in subpar conditions. For example, Danish explorer and club member Peter Freuchen (1886-1957), whose portrait hangs on the sixth floor in the club’s renowned Trophy Room (vegans stay far away — this room is lined with vintage taxidermies) was once trapped by ice in Baffin Island, Canada. Finding himself with no means of escape, legend has it that Freuchen ingeniously pooped (yes, you read that right) in his hand, waited until his fecal matter was rock-hard frozen, and used his homegrown “shit knife” to chip his way to freedom.

As reported by ExpeditionNews.com, Freuchen later wrote, “Repulsive as the thought was, I decided to try the experiment. I moved my bowels and from the excrement I managed to fashion a chesellike instrument which I left to freeze. This time I was patient, I did not want to risk breaking my new tool by using it too soon.  At last I decided to try my chisel, and it worked! Very gently and slowly I worked on the hole.”

So it’s only natural that the most crusty men and women on the planet should feel right at home during the gala dinner.

mealworm appetizerWhat can members look forward to this year? “I source animals that are normally considered inedible or pests,” Rurka explains. “This is an experiment in sustainable, alternative forms of food.” For example, Python Patties and Stir-Fried Jellyfish will make an appearance at the party.

“The python population is out of control in Florida — it has nearly wiped out the raccoons. And jellyfish normally aren’t thought of as a food source, even though they are overabundant on the East and West Coasts.” Jellyfish can also be dehydrated, shipped to hunger-stricken third world countries, and re-hydrated for sustenance, says Rurka. “Here, the shipping carbon footprint would be pretty low.”

Rurka plans on soaking the jellyfish in a marinade of white soy sauce (a dark soy sauce would splatter and stain the ladies’ evening gowns, he thoughtfully explains), sesame oil and vinegar. “It will look like a small, flat noodle.” Scorpions, earthworms and cockroaches will also be made into appetizers.

While these ingredients may sound downright disgusting in their original state (although with their low-fat content and sustainable farming, bugs are projected to be the super-protein of the future [we have a lot to look forward to folks!]), many say they are delicious. “Part of the fun is walking around to each station, and seeing people actually like the food, despite its foreignness,” says Rurka. What is he particularly excited about this year? Tasmanian leatherwood honey. “This a great ingredient, it has a distinct flavor — I’m infusing big, juicy Madagascar hissing cockroaches with it. I raised these guys myself.” For the majority of the year, Rurka runs a farm 45 minutes outside of Manhattan.

While it’s fun to imagine people in fancy clothes eating bugs, the culinary curiosities table has a more complex rhetoric at play. With Earth’s 7 billion-plus population, the unusual appetizers are actually a commentary on world hunger. Our current methods of factory farming and genetically engineered crops (whose very nature promotes massive increases in herbicides and pesticides) are not only unsustainable, but also detrimental to our well-being and to the health of our planet.

At the dinner this Saturday, as black-tie- and-gown-clad men and women mill about, it won’t be a surprise that what were once considered throwaway parts will now be coveted components of the appetizer list. Food sources that were common 50 years ago are now exotic, if not extinct. Rurka explains even organ meats are foreign now. “You used to be able to get a good tongue sandwich in New York. Now a tongue sandwich is 30 dollars!”

 [Photo by Jeff Blumenfeld/ExpeditionNews.com]

By Jenna Blumenfeld


About the Author

Jenna Blumenfeld, (Jenna Ogden Blumenfeld when she’s in really big trouble) hails from the wee state of Connecticut. Although her childhood dream of becoming a bug doctor — with a specialization in ladybugs — has gone unfulfilled, she is content writing about travel, cuisine and culture. A vegetarian, she currently resides in the food hub of Boulder, Colorado. Read more of her food-centric writing at NewHope360.com.

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