Trying new foods is something that intimidates a lot of people. Living in the country and being a hunter allowed me to respect animals and eat what I kill. I recall many times taking a ‘mess’ of squirrels to my grandma for her to season, batter, and deep fry. I remember the fresh pork from family ‘hog killings’ and the fresh venison from the deer my dad and I killed, skinned, and then stewed or deep-fried. Throughout my life, I have become increasingly more open to trying new types of food. Because of that, I have eaten things that would disgust people in many circles. To many, my two favorite food items (sushi and crab legs) are gross; but in reality, they are tame to some of the more obscure gastronomical adventures that I have taken.
Over the years, I have tried everything from fried rattlesnake to grilled black bear steak. From pickled quail eggs to Rocky Mountain oysters (if you don’t know, google it). From fried beaver to crawdads fresh from a muddy creek. From barbequed goat to fried alligator nuggets. Food culture and the obscure things that people eat around the world and nation intrigue me. I envy the jobs of chefs and hosts on Food Network and the Travel Channel who travel to taste food from some of the most amazing places on Earth. Something, from what I am sure was one of the 100 different culinary or travel TV shows that I have watched over the years, stuck with me. I do not know how or where, but I distinctly remember hearing about an elite club in 1950’s New York City whose annual meeting serves the attending members some delicious, albeit exotic, food. One story states that the members of this club ate something that was not just a rarity but something that had been unavailable for a long time.
The club turned out to be an American-based professional society whose goal, since its creation, has been to promote scientific exploration and field study. The Explorers Club was founded in 1904 to help unite explorers to promote, well, scientific exploration. Henry Collins Walsh (literary editor, journalist, historian, and avid explorer) organized a meeting of explorers to have good fellowship with people who shared his passion while also promoting exploration by any means necessary. The organization grew and grew and by 1912 had a headquarters housing books, trophies, and artifacts from the member’s explorations.
The Explorers Club houses astronauts, Presidents, celebrity conservationists, explorers, and everyone in-between as their members. It has continued to prosper (boasting well over 3,000 members representing 60 countries). Besides a 2020 keynote speech from Dr. Jane Goodall and special appearances by singer/songwriter and conservationist Paul Simon, over 100 years, the most famous thing about the Explorers Club’s annual dinner is the menu. The members of the Explorers Club pay a premium price for the weekend-long, yearly event. For the 2020 event, tickets ranged from $550 to $2750, while table reservations ranged from $8500 to $100,000.
Astronaut and former United States Senator John Glenn, Titanic director James Cameron, and many others were the brave souls who fought that uneasy feeling as they sampled 26 exotic at the 109th (you do the math) Annual Dinner. The members are greeted at the door with a glass of Explorers Champagne Delight (garnished with a goat penis dipped in freeze-dried cactus honey powder and a blackberry) to wash down a variety of hors d’oeuvres. The special hors d’oeuvres are canape (small decorative finger foods consisting of savory food or meat on or wrapped around a piece of bread, puff pastry, or cracker) and on that night consisted of prepared scorpions, mealworms, crickets, tarantulas, and earthworms. If champagne was not their thing, they could choose the Explorers Martini featuring a mealworm drizzled with Bashkirian honey and garnished with a calf or goat’s eyeball. If that didn’t fit their need, they could enjoy a steaming cup of the two rarest coffees on planet Earth. They could see the steam rise from a delicious cup of Kopi luwak (or Chon in Vietnam). Kopi luwak is coffee whose grounds are from partially digested coffee cherries eaten, digested, and defecated by the Asian palm civet (a small mammal similar to a raccoon, mongoose, or house cat from South/Southeast Asia). As the meal continues, they tried the Turtle Cassoulet (a slow-cooked stew made with sausage, meat, and white beans), Rattlesnake Sliders on a Pretzel Bun, Applewood Bacon Wrapped Camel Meatloaf or Hoisin Glazed Kangaroo. But all of these delicious rarities pale in comparison to a morsel of meat served at the 47th Annual dinner.
The menu of Pacific Spider Crab (whose leg span can read 12 feet across), bison steaks, and a morsel of 250,000-year-old defrosted and then cooked woolly mammoth meat. The diners in the Grand Ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel on that cold Saturday evening in January of 1951 left telling a story of partaking in a morsel of the woolly mammoth from Reverend Bernard Hubbard’s stock of Woolly Mammoth meat in Woolly Cove on Akutan Island (an island located in Fox Island group of islands of Alaska). One of the members dished on the menu in The Christian Science Monitor, and his assertion has been folklore ever since. Jack Horner (dinosaur paleontologist and the real-life inspiration for the paleontologist in the Jurassic Park book) said, “when I was a new member, they told me about it.” But the biggest question is, how did they find fresh enough ‘meat’ to serve?
While none of the members in attendance that night mentioned how the mammoth tasted, a 1961 article in Science magazine says that of the 39 mammoth carcasses discovered, the meat was not edible, and only “four were reasonably complete.” Though the article claims that mammoth was served at the dinner that night, the original Explorers Club menu claims that the morsel of meat was Megatherium. The claim that they ate extinct ground sloth is still a stretch of the imagination because the last Megatherium died about 12,000 years ago. So how could we ever know for sure? Did they eat defrosted woolly mammoth or 12,000-year-old giant ground sloth? Luckily for us, not all of the members attended the annual dinner that night. Curator/Director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, and gastronomical adventurer Paul Griswold Howes was disappointed that he would not get to taste the food that night. He wrote in his notes that the club is “as well known for its notorious hors d’oeuvres like fried tarantulas and goat eyeballs as it is for its notable members such as Teddy Roosevelt and Neil Armstong.” The dinner’s organizer, theater impresario Wendell Phillips Dodge sent him his portion labeled as ‘Megatherium.’
The contents of the Bruce Museum ended up in the inventory room, collecting dust, and on the top shelf of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Yale graduate student Matt Davis stirred the metaphorical pot when he heard about the ‘sloth meat’ from author Eric Sargis. He recruited fellow graduate student and marine fish genetics expert Jessica R. Glass to assist them in testing the DNA of the ‘mystery meat’ to solve a 70-year mystery. After a plethora of tests, the team determined that the meat was neither mammoth nor sloth. The tests proved that it wasn’t an extinct mammal. The test proved that it wasn’t even a mammal at all. The test proved it was just a chunk of green turtle used to make the turtle soup. The whole ordeal was a joke whom only one person was aware was a joke. Why the elaborate ruse? A PT Barnum obsessed Dodge was known to create larger-than-life stories in his occupation, and he wanted this dinner to be just as grand as his personality. He pushed the idea of partaking in exotic meat even further by eating the flesh of a specimen frozen in time. Dodge did it for the showmanship. He did it for the panache. Dodge hinted in an Explorers Club magazine, ‘just what was that 251,000-year-old mystery meat’? As the scientists who solved the mystery indicate that he “fancifully described the sloth’s fossil history but hinted that he may have discovered ‘a potion by means of which he could change, say, Cheylone mydas Cheuba from the Indian Ocean into Giant sloth.'”
Since the myth continues to live on 70 years later, I guess no one got the joke when he admitted to it being a ruse.
Featured Image – Woolly Mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia, WolfmanSF – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16355327
A Hog Killing takes place in Rutherford, Tennessee in 1914 image by Unknown author – http://tn-roots.com/tngibson/photos/hogkilling.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17169312
Deep fried bovine testicles image by Vincent Diamante from Los Angeles, CA, USA – Rocky Mountain Oysters! Mmmmmm!, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4957365
Sign outside the Explorers Club in New York image by Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70805339
Explorers Club Trophy Room image attributed to the Explorers Club, Fair Use.
Fireplace on the first floor of the Explorers Club in New York image by Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70805340
Fried cockroaches image credited to unknown, Explorers Club dinner photo, Faire Use.
47th Annual Explorers Club dinner cover image credited to the Explorers Club archive, Fair Use.
Wendell Phillips Dodge image credited to the Explorers Club Research Collection, Fair Use.
Sample of the meat served in 1951 at the Explorers Club credited to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Fair Use.