Waiter, is that yak Wellington on my plate?

Jessica Craig-Martin

Saturday, March 15, New York City

For the past 104 years the Explorers Club has been in the stirring, if somewhat hard to pin down, business of promoting the human instinct to explore. And for the past half century, Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel has hosted the club’s annual dinner—a sort of Oscars for explorers—and the cocktail party that always precedes it. As this is my first club event, nothing quite prepares me for the frisson of running into travel impresario Cherri Briggs, just back from leading a club expedition to the highlands of Cameroon and turned out for this occasion in a postmodern variation on the safari theme: tight leopard-print pants, silk-and-taffeta jacket, pith helmet. “In one village there was a drum that could be beaten only with the severed arm of the enemy,” Briggs reports. “But they don’t do that anymore.” She wanders off to find her guest for the evening, Gloria Steinem.

The invitation to the party provides the first clue that different rules apply here. Attendees are asked to wear black tie, decoration (i.e., medals), or “native dress.” Surveying the field of some 1,200 club members and guests densely circulating through four party rooms, I notice that significant numbers have opted for clothes that make a statement. The military men wear their uniforms and the men of Scottish ancestry their kilts, but after that it’s a free-for-all: The turbans, saris, and djellabas speak of ethnic affiliations sometimes real, sometimes imagined. “It’s like Disneyland for grown-ups,” says former club president Richard Wiese, who two years ago arrived at the event astride a camel, à la T. E. Lawrence. Husband-and-wife doctors Jim Edwards and Michele Mass show me their traditional Kashmiri finery. “A few years ago I worked with someone from Kashmir whose brother was getting married there. So we invited ourselves, and these are our wedding outfits,” Edwards explains. “Although at the wedding, all the other men wore suits.”

The Explorers Club has been a refuge for quite a few of the world’s greatest adventurers and field scientists, among them Buzz Aldrin (here tonight), Sir Edmund Hillary, and Thor Heyerdahl. But at a cocktail party in Midtown, where the real estate has been pretty well picked over, the romance of exploration is a state of mind to be heightened not only with dress but also with food. “You’re not going to be able to get back in this room in a half hour,” club board member and underwater photographer Anne Doubilet warns me. “They’re like vultures. The food will be demolished.”

Since the club’s founding, this cocktail party has been enlivened by a groaning buffet of exotics—animals and organ meats, insects and arthropods that rarely grace a Manhattan menu. In the early years the unconventional hors d’oeuvres had a sort of rationale: to expose members to the fare that their more daring peers might partake of on some far-flung expedition. In the current freeze-dried era, exotics boosters concede the food is mostly for fun. There’s an unamused minority, however, that is tired of the cocktail party’s being “the tail that wags the dog,” says Sylvia Earle, the distinguished oceanographer. She is chairing this year’s dinner, which is designed to raise awareness about the state of the world’s oceans. Last year, she says, “it was a cause of consternation and even a few resignations that while the little black bear was being celebrated at the dinner, a big black bear was being served at the cocktail party.”

Even with the appropriate concessions made to the environment—no fish, reptiles, or amphibians—the Waldorf chefs have been busy: pancetta-wrapped ostrich, yak Wellington in black-truffle sauce, scorpion bruschetta, earthworm canapés. Large cockroaches (of the Madagascar hissing variety, according to the handy information card) have been skewered and arranged with orchids and pineapples. The consensus is that the insects are perfectly edible, if not always what you would call good. “The cockroaches are a little juicier than you might expect,” one guest notes. But even the tarantulas, glazed or battered, have their fans. I retire after one too-chewy leg, but Christopher Baker, from Rolex, one of the event’s corporate underwriters, devours his with what looks like pleasure. “I hear the hairs are bad for you,” he says.

In the vicinity of the buffet table, retired U.S. Navy submarine captain Alfred McLaren spots his Russian submariner counterpart and fellow club member Anatoly Sagalevitch, and the two men embrace in a classic Slavic bear hug. They are old diving comrades, having shared a cramped Mir—the Russian submersible of Sagalevitch’s design—to explore the wrecks of the Titanic, at a depth of 12,418 feet, and the Bismarck, at 14,928 feet. Tonight McLaren has more on his mind than food. (Though he later notes that nothing here can compete with the thawed mammoth meat at the 1951 party. “I heard it was like putting a handful of mud in your mouth,” he says.) Although he bears no personal grudge against his friend Sagalevitch, McLaren is still fuming about the outcome of last summer’s Mir mission to the sea floor directly beneath the North Pole. An international endeavor, it doubled as an Explorers Club flag expedition, and McLaren himself had at one point been deeply involved in the research and planning. Yet when the Russian crew members reached their destination, they planted the Russian flag there. McLaren regards this de facto land grab as an “in your face” maneuver that “smacks of the Cold War, which I spent many, many years fighting.”

In this way, the club has come full circle: Two of its presidents, Frederick A. Cook and Admiral Robert E. Peary, were preeminent American polar explorers at the turn of the last century, and each was desperate to claim the North Pole for himself. (Cook may have lied about his polar whereabouts; in recent decades Peary’s claim has also aroused suspicion.) “Rumor has it that Cook used to have fistfights with Admiral Peary at board meetings,” ex-president Wiese says. “Explorers tend to be competitive, so there’s a lot of jealousy and rivalries.” Himself a past club president, McLaren will concede that point proudly: “I used to say I presided over three thousand of the world’s greatest egos, including my own.”

Gene Rurka, the club’s exotics point person, cuts a similarly commanding figure in the trenches of the Waldorf kitchen. Earlier in the day, overseeing the preparation of the cocktail buffet, he strides from station to station in the warren of interlocking rooms (“the longest kitchen in the world!”), checking on progress and praising the small army of hotel chefs and sous-chefs: “They’re the geniuses!” he says.

The rangy, voluble Rurka is a New Jersey farmer, a big game hunter, and a self-taught edible exotics expert who has twice shown off his creepy-crawly treats on The Late Show with David Letterman. “My prediction,” he announces, “is that housefly maggots will become one of the best, cleanest, and healthiest protein sources for human consumption. Magnificent creatures. And cockroaches—imagine if we could make a cockroach three times its size. It grows in one tenth the time of beef!”

Under the reproachful eyes of several roasting feral hogs and goats slowly rotating in a see-through oven, Rurka consults with chef Peter Andino about some of the more challenging organ meats. Even though the bull penis has been blanched and cooked for five hours, it still has a chewy, gelatinous texture that takes some getting used to. The cooks have gone to even more heroic lengths to make the pig anus, which will be labeled “pork bung,” appetizing. It tastes like sweetbreads, only somehow more so. “Is there any culture that has a tradition of preparing and eating anus?” I wonder aloud. “Not that I’m aware of,” Andino says. And then turning to Rurka: “When you have a minute, I want to show you the eyeballs.”

The star attraction is the tarantulas. Chefs and sous-chefs gather around with pocket cameras when the time comes to offer up these furry, rather handsome arthropods to their culinary fate. Rurka admits that the price, driven up by the pet market, is absurd—as much as $175 a throw—and there is no futuristic, environmentally correct rationale for eating them. Unlike houseflies and earthworms, they’re carnivores and can’t be raised en masse in any economical way. But the Explorers Club loves its tarantulas, and this year Rurka ordered up 300, taking a major bite out of his budget.

A scrambling lot of them are dumped into a metal mixing bowl and doused with brandy. Gas flames quickly and fatally ignite their black hairs. Then they are arrayed on a pan and slid under a broiler. “This year we’re trying to go Old World,” Rurka says, remarking on the fact that he’s purchased mostly the cobalt-blue and Thai tiger varietals from Asia. Seven years ago he had a situation on his hands when hairs from New World tarantulas provoked an allergic reaction in several guests. The New York Times reported that it resulted in an investigation by the New York City Health Department (see “A host’s worst nightmare: when dinner bites back”). “You miss a couple of hairs,” he says, “and whoa, you have around a dozen people with tingly lips.” Like any military commander, he’s prepared to accept some casualties: “If you don’t know what you’re eating, maybe you shouldn’t have it. Don’t be stupid. We’ve got fifty-eight or sixty other choices.”

Back at the cocktail party I catch up with Ann McGovern, who two decades ago was among the first group of Americans to dive off the coast of China. She’s still most famous as the author of the children’s classic Stone Soup. It strikes me that the Waldorf chefs are engaged in a similar enterprise, going to heroic lengths to enliven an unpromising original ingredient—stone or pork bung, take your pick.

McGovern introduces me to the silver-haired Augie Brown, one of the orig-inal ruggedly handsome Marlboro Men from the late fifties. “One of the guys, he sued because he got lung cancer,” Brown says. “I never smoked, thank God.” Brown later established his Explorers Club bona fides by pioneering free dives between Montauk, Long Island, and the Connecticut coast, swimming with the masses of big ocean fish that are carried in on deep-water currents. “It was like Valhalla,” he says.

Later in the evening we will hear from Earle just how imperiled Valhalla is, how parlous the state of the world’s oceans. It might appear that, among this community of scientists and explorers, Earle is preaching to the converted. But a club founded on the principle of fierce individualism can’t expect consensus. “So we’re in a warming cycle, and we don’t like Mideast oil,” Buzz Aldrin tells me. “Does that mean the CO2 is causing it?” I dutifully inform Earle that the second man to walk on the moon thinks global warming is a myth. “Well, he’s wrong,” she says. “And I love Buzz; we’re diving buddies.”

When a bagpiper walks through the cocktail party keening the dinner hour, I decide it’s time to take the measure of Rurka’s most ambitious creations. He has set up a bar serving martinis garnished with “pearls”: translucent globules of either whipped bull testicles (green) or a mushroom-maggot blend (brown), prepared by a chef versed in fashionable molecular gastronomy.

“The housefly maggot pearls make you angry,” the bartender says, “and the testicular pearls make you mellow.” For the record, the green ones were fat and greasy—I passed on the brown.

Finally, there is the art piece, formed by pouring clear molten sugar over an obligingly dead scorpion and tarantula. Something like an early Renaissance terracotta, it’s a cross between still-life sculpture and prehistoric insects captured in amber. Rurka is happy. “If Michelangelo were here, he’d paint that image on the Sistine Chapel,” he exults. “Bugs were around then.”