What began as a mysterious evening held in the abandoned, derelict Bronx Courthouse found its proper home this year at the Grand Concourse's Andrew Freeman Home. This is where Baron Ambrosia held his Bronx Pipe Smoking Society's Third Annual Small Game Dinner, an night of unusual gustatory delights. The event was hosted by Mid-Bronx Society's Walter Puryear . It is unlikely that Mr. Freeman ever envisioned that skunk would be served in the Home, originally built for high class senior living.
Last year, we dined on bear salami and squirrel pot pie. This year? Mealworms, meaty possum, and potted raccoon.
Whereas last year's dinner at the Latvian Society's Daugavas Vanagi house, a place of shadowy corners and creaky stairs, felt like a summit of super villians, the sprawling palatial feel of the Freeman Home gave this year's dinner a regal wash. It was as if the Baron had summoned the most esoteric members of the world's aristocracy.
"I think we've found our home," the Baron told me. And, wearing a necklace of skulls fit for a tribal warlord, he looked like he had come down from his parlor.
The gracefully orchestrated evening was colored with that zest for life and love for preposterous theater that is all the Baron's own. Guests arrived to a light snowfall, greeted at the door by a guard adorned with a black mask and a flowing gold cape. Our evening began in a candelit bar, reached by a long hallway, where drinks such as craft cider and raccoon bacon infused rye were served alongside such casual bar snacks as sautéed mealworms.
The rye was smoky and slightly musky, but it was the mealworms that left the biggest impression on me. At first bite, they crunch as the shells crack, but then they unexpectedly pop: the sensation is almost gushing, a release of buttery flavor. The flavor of the worms was much stronger than last year's katydids, not all that unlike something fermented and recently turned.
As last year, the bugs were supplied by David Gracer. An advocate for entomophagy, Gracer is a Providence-based entrepreneur of all things creepy and crawly. (While Gracer is pushing for raising bugs for food, he did provide some reassurance when he admitted that he loved eating pigs and cows, too.) Much of our conversation centered on the virtues of bug eating, and the possibility that humanity will become uncomfortably dependent on creatures like mealworms and centipedes for food in the future.
Appetizers followed in the dimly lit library, where guests were treated to beaver dumplings and bobcat cassoulet in a room with bookcases 24 feet high. But each course introduced us to a larger space, and when the Baron called for entrees we were shuffled into an expansive ballroom overlooking the Concourse.
Taking a moment to welcome his guests, Ambrosia began an extended convocation. Master of Ceremonies Mathew Piazzi took over, and trapper Bill Guiles, who caught all of the food we ate that evening, was tapped to make a statement.
"I hope you all have as much fun eating them as we did catching them," Guiles said. "And understand the fact that you are taking a life every time you eat: every leek, every onion, every animal."
Piazzi then introduced the chefs one by one, the Baron requesting that each give a statement about their dishes. Rafael Mata of Xochimilco talked about the experience of growing up in Mexico and the profound unlikeliness of him landing at this dinner; Michael Max Knobbe of Bronxnet, a borough native, waxed poetic about his beloved home.
"Here we are in the birthplace of hip hop, with legends of hip hop in our midst," Knobbe said, introducing DJ Kool Herc to the crowd.
Completing the introductions, the Baron stepped in once more to introduce his friend Callita Diego. Originally from Honduras, Diego is a member of the Bronx's Garifuna community, ethnically West African Central Americans. For the evening, she produced a traditional beer-like drink of fermented rice and corn.
Speeches finished, guests were invited to come forward to fetch their feast, filling their plates with fox cooked in chipotle sauce, raccoon prepared according to the Jamaican yard style, bobcat, and smoked venison from chef Terry French.
The dishes prepared this evening exhibited an increasing sophistication from previous dinners, and I'd be happy to have some of my favorites on my dinner table more often. Of particular note were the possum a la Shane, rich and hearty like you'd never expect it to be, Mata's fox, and a subtle smoked trout. The latter was produced by Lenny B., who has been smoking trout according to Berkshire tradition for almost 47 years.
A dessert course followed our entrees, presented in a more ceremonious fashion than last year. Offal and ants made their way in, and guests were given such delicacies as beef blood whipped with chocolate, brown sugar and foie gras ice cream pops prepared by John Denizard, and a tray of chocolates prepared by Fritz Knipschildt.
As I wrote last year, there is no one in New York who so completely captures the uninhibited and unabashed love of flavor as the Baron. In his presence, eating these creatures feels completely normal and joyous. There is nothing self congratulatory about the evening, no wink and nod.
That above all was what this evening was about: not shocking us with strange flavors, but warming up to and welcoming unknown tastes. What may come off to some at first glance as an an evening of the bizarre is really celebration of life and living, of welcoming the voluminous bounty of experiences life has to offer with passionate abandon.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.