A server gasps when she comes into the kitchen and sees the iguana. Curled onto a sheet pan and surrounded by kale garnishes, the muscular reptile is very much dead. But its lifelike appearance is, frankly, freaking everyone out. “I keep thinking I see him blink,” says one of the cooks.
This particular animal is just for display, but one of its peers has become a nearby platter of pale meatballs on toothpicks. The iguana balls—and the other appetizers getting their finishing touches in the kitchen—are the creations of the chef Gene Rurka. Since 1991, he’s been creating exotic menus for the annual gala dinner of the Explorers Club in New York. The theme for this year’s March 12 event was “Oceans: Current of Life.” I was invited to the club a few days earlier, on March 9, for a preview and (if I dared) a tasting.
The Explorers Club was founded by a group of Arctic explorers in 1904; the tradition of eating exotic foods began as a way for explorers to share items they’d collected on their expeditions. Now in a stately townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, the club’s walls are decorated with flags that members have carried to the poles, mountaintops, and even the moon. A “trophy room” on the fifth floor holds narwhal, elephant, and woolly-mammoth tusks, along with a menagerie of taxidermied animals, including some collected by Teddy Roosevelt. The club’s curator, Lacey Flint, rattles off facts about the animals, but says the trophy room doesn’t represent what the club does today: “We no longer accept taxidermy.”
These days, taxidermy isn’t the only thing that has changed at the club. Women are allowed, for one thing. The explorers are now called “scientists.” There are laws about carrying produce or live animals out of a country. But the tradition of exotic foods continues.
Rurka has a master’s degree in environmental science and a passion for sustainable foods—like, for example, iguanas. The reptiles are native to Central and South America, but now run rampant in southern Florida, destroying vegetation and defecating in swimming pools. And to judge by the one on this tray, iguanas have a lot of meat on them. Sustainable insects are on the menu, too, along with fruits, fungi, and python (an invasive predator in Florida).
And in honor of this year’s oceans theme, Rurka is also cooking up some invasive sea creatures. In the kitchen, he shows me an intact Asian carp. It’s a bruiser of a fish, overflowing its sheet pan. This is a silver carp, one of four Eurasian species that we call “Asian carp.” Collectively, those four have entered nearly every U.S. state.
A cook is slicing the carp’s meaty, pink filets into delicate pieces for sushi and sashimi. Rurka points out that stocks of tuna, a popular sushi fish, are seriously depleted. If consumers would substitute some Asian carp instead, the tuna could recover while the invaders’ numbers were reduced.
“The idea is to educate people that there are other protein sources,” Rurka says. Traditionally, people have considered the Asian carp a garbage fish. But he hopes preparations like his sashimi with soy dipping sauce will change some minds.
Rurka has also prepared lionfish. Native to the Western Pacific, these fish landed in the Atlantic thanks to the pet market and are now flourishing in the coastal Southeast and Caribbean. With venomous spines, rapid-fire reproductive cycles, and no predators, the fish are threatening native reef species. Eating them would be a convenient way to fight back. Rurka found less meat inside the lionfish, but has stuffed whole fish with citrus slices and baked them in butter. (Although cooking neutralizes the venom, it hasn’t done much for the fishes’ appearance.)
At the buffet, guests dip into the appetizers cautiously. A mostly-vegetarian, I’m willing to try some insects, but none are available tonight. So I poll a few other attendees and hear positive reviews of the raw carp. People tell me it has a mild flavor and a meaty texture; they sound pleasantly surprised. The iguana balls, I hear, are “chewy.” Over the course of the night, the reptile on display slumps sideways and looks more convincingly dead.
Gaelin Rosenwaks, an oceanographer and filmmaker who’s one of the dinner co-chairs, isn’t trying the sushi or iguana balls. She’s vegetarian, except for fish she catches herself. But she’s enthusiastic about the dinner’s message of ocean conservation. The oceans are Earth’s last frontier, she says—a place where true exploration of the unknown, like the old Arctic adventurers’ journeys, can still happen.
“Every time I’m at sea, I see something new,” she says.
David Gruber, a marine biologist and the keynote speaker for Saturday’s dinner, echoes the sentiment. At the bottom of the ocean, “almost everything you see is a new species,” he says. He’s working with Harvard University engineer Robert Wood to develop squishy robotic fingers and arms, so that underwater vehicles can collect fragile samples. “We want to be as gentle as possible as we start to explore the deep frontiers,” he says.
Gruber points out that humans have only been exploring beneath the ocean for about a century. Today’s exploration should be less about conquering, he tells me, and more about observation and empathy with other species.
He hesitates, then gestures upstairs and adds, “Rather than hanging trophies.”