Explorers Gather for Annual Event

By on March 24, 2013


The Explorers Club celebrated their 109th year at the Waldorf Astoria, March 16, 2013, with a celebratory dinner for upwards of 1200 people who plunked down $375. and up to taste exotic foods, hear the key note address by Neil De Grasse Tyson and applaud the accomplishments of countless other explorers for this year.


On a cold, damp spring Saturday at five p.m., a group of well-coiffed women and bespoke-suited men gathered at the summit of New York society, in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, milling about the famous clock, awaiting the signal to make a dash for the peak.

They only had to climb a couple flights of stairs to plant their flags, get their badges and burst through the doors to the large room filled with all manner of exotic hors d’oeuvres and human beings.

Explorers Club Members gather at the Waldorf Astoria

Explorers Club Members gather at the Waldorf Astoria

Sprinkled in the crowd were younger guests, some in desert garb, others in traditional dress from Tibet. There were saris, dresses imprinted with images of Mao, jodphurs, and ghurka shorts, chests impaled with medals marching down to cummerbunded bellies, old explorers,  new explorers,  wanna be explorers.  Now that would be me.

The cocktail hour stretched to two while these competent folk met old friends, created new ones and showed why they had gathered under the umbrella of The Explorers for the 109th annual dinner. There were bear hugs, fist bumps, glad hands, beaming smiles and claps on the back among the great signs of affection within this wordly crowd.

Surveying the more than 38 exotic noshing choices, there were surprisingly few eeeuuwws.  These people think outside the box, take the road less travelled, share their supper with sherpas and bearers, and motley crews from around this world and the next.  Who are they to blink at an eyeball in their martini?

Explorer cocktails with goat eyeballs, mealworms and goat penises

Explorer cocktails with goat eyeballs, mealworms and goat penises

Or a mealworm in the Manhattan, or a goat penis in the glass of champagne?  These folks can toast with the best of them.  Bring it, they say, as they pop crunchy Goat penises.  Yummy.

The man behind the magic, for the last eighteen years is Gene Rurka, whose task it is to find, bring, and deliver the “exotics” for the dinner.  The rattlesnakes, and insects beyond measure, the muskrats and mushrooms,  the honeys, and civet cat coffee.

Say what? Civet cat coffee?  Explain please.  In Sumatra, the civet cats shinny up the trees to eat the most choice bright red coffee beans off the plants.  And, as nature would have it once they are done with those beans they are expelled in what is politely called “scat.”

Now here’s where cuisine gets interesting.  The workers in the coffee bean plantation,  took note of this excrement on the plantation floor,  began picking it up, washing the oompa off the coffee beans and brewing them up.  Voila! Best coffee ever.  And now that coffee is sold worldwide for upwards of $1000. A pound under the moniker – Civet Cat Coffee.

Served March 16, after dinner at the Explorers’ Dinner to 1200 intrigued gourmands.

gene rurka  the man behind the curtain

Gene Rurka, The Man Behind the Curtain, who dips the tarantulas in honey

So what’s the point of all this Fraternity club bacchanalia?

The Explorers’ Club harkens back to Edwardian England when the sons of privilege struck out to explore and document new worlds.  And nothing like the English.  They brought back bugs they pinned onto corkboards.  They brought back treasures they unearthed from Egyptian tombs for the British Museum.  They brought back live “natives” whom they displayed as if they were stuffed.

In that grand world-without-end spirit of adventure and excess, explorers have forever reached up and down to see what’s there.  As Ed Hillary famously said when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, “Because it’s there, old chap.”

The notion of exploring, finding new worlds to conquer reached its zenith in the time the North and South Poles were conquered in the earliest decade of the twentieth century, in that hushed period before World War I which shattered the spirits and pocketbooks of those who would look outwards towards new worlds.

In 1904, when the New York Explorers Club held its first expansive dinner to celebrate the notion of exploration, they began the tradition of serving strange foods, perhaps like ones explorers had shared with indigenous people where ever they had ventured. That night, they served Narwhals (arctic whales), Ptarmigan, Pemmican, and Musk Ox to the startled and thrilled New Yorkers of the day.

whole roast goat looks like an outtake from Jurassic Park

whole roast goat looks like an outtake from Jurassic Park


As James Cameron told The New York Times reporter, Elaine Louie, “I’ve eaten anything indigenous people gave me.”  He went on to explain his take on basic food etiquette, “If they offer you grubs, you eat them.”

Whole roast ostrich head feathers and all 265 pounds of him

Whole roast ostrich head feathers and all 265 pounds of him

And so it is at the Explorers’ Annual Celebration  While those not a part of the cognoscenti might be aghast at the vision of groaning boards of whole roasted animals that sometimes looked like outtakes from Jurassic Park, I say “Here, here.”

tarantulas optimized

Tarantulas at $150. per, are flash frozen, dipped in honey, then deep fried. Yum.

And if you think this excessive nose-to-tail dining ethic is extreme, consider what Gene Rurka told me about the plague of locusts currently decimating drought-ravaged Egypt. “If I could vacuum up those locusts and make them into protein bars, I could feed hungry people a sound, healthy, flavorful food that came from “nothing”.

For one thing you can say about Explorers everywhere and across time.  They venture out from the safety of the upper middle class to the extreme ends of the earth and in so doing expose themselves to cultures most of us might never even imagine.

And a lot of those folks are hungry.  Chronically hungry.  And perhaps there’s one thing that can save them, and that’s advances in basic science and exposure to the outside world.  And therein are contained the basic mission statements of the Explorers Club.

To reach out and offer real support to high school, college, and post graduate students who express and reveal an interest in the basic exploratory sciences.

Explorer climbs into deep sea diving bell from James Cameron's adventure

Explorer climbs into deep sea diving bell from James Cameron’s adventure

And perhaps that’s the bottom line here.  The Explorer’s Dinner shows us what we might eat, were we hungry.  And that’s not a bad thought to consider.

photography by: ©Onur Ozkan








About Linda Eckhardt

Linda West Eckhardt, is an award winning journalist, food writer, and nutritionist. Her more than 20 cookbooks have garnered prizes including the James Beard prize for the best cookbook for a text she wrote with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd, entitled Entertaining 101, Doubleday. Their follow-up book, Stylish One Dish Dinners, Doubleday, was also nominated for a James Beard prize. Their next book, The High Protein Cookbook, Clarkson Potter, remains a best seller after 12 years. That book was designed to accompany low carb diet plans. Her ground-breaking book, Bread in Half The Time, Broadway Books, was named the Best Cookbook in America by the prestigious IACP, The Julia Child award. Her award winning radio work with Jennifer English, for a national show on the Food and Wine radio network, was nominated for a James Beard Prize for a show called, “I Know What You Ate Last Summer.”