On January 29, I ate beaver. And muskrat. And otter. And a curious beast called a fisher cat, which looks like a wolverine and tastes like Garfield. I also consumed possum, deer, squirrel, giant water bugs, silkworm pupae and the alluringly named Colombian big-butt ants that were gently pan-fried till they were as crisp as potato chips.
The wild delicacies of the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society's first Small Game Dinner, intended to be an annual event, were not served at a restaurant or from a food truck. Instead, on this snowy winter's eve, the setting was the deserted Bronx Borough Courthouse, a Beaux Arts beauty typically padlocked tight. But not tonight. Tonight, this former hall of justice had been transformed into a curious culinary playground for the very curious, very hungry Baron Ambrosia, a man who rarely meets an animal he has hasn't wanted to eat.
Baron Ambrosia is the alter ego of Justin Fornal, 33, the star of BronxNet's deliciously campy television show Bronx Flavor. In each episode, the fancifully attired Baron cruises through the Bronx in the gaudy Purplesaurus Rex, a replica 1923 Mercedes convertible painted purple and pink, in search of the borough's edible treasures. In each madcap half-hour tale, the lascivious Baron often stumbles into sticky situations before saving himself—while wooing a woman, too—by devouring delicious ethnic foodstuffs. Perhaps he must munch the Mistress of Fire's deadly hot jerk chicken. Or, while eating Mo Gridder's BBQ, he'll discover a pirate ghost is haunting Hunt's Point. Each episode highlights the Bronx's homespun ethnic restaurants, encompassing West African, Trinidadian, Mexican and Italian fare.
"For the better part of my life, I have been on an insatiable quest for all the great edible fleshes of our beautiful planet," the Baron wrote me in an email. "Finding new consumable creatures has brought me some of my most pleasurable moments," added the Baron, whose love of curious cuisines began as a kid in rural Killingworth, Conn. Though the Baron has savored countless feasts, certain sustenance has proved out of reach—in particular, wild game. It's a peculiar conundrum. Chefs have the guts to offer offal, and elk, venison and wild boar often crawl onto menus. But otters, possums and their furry ilk? They're only found in dated hillbilly jokes. There's a line at the dinner table that most diners won't—or can't—cross. But it could also be seen as a form of extreme locavorism: the animals that are hunted and trapped from nearby woods.
"The goal is not to have something unusual. It's to have something unavailable," the Baron explains of his decision to orchestrate a wild-game dinner. "I want to know what they taste like."
To source the mammals, the Baron turned to serendipity.
While at a Native American powwow in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., last year, he met New Jersey's Jim DeStephano, a trapper helping a friend sell jewelry and pelts. The Baron inquired about acquiring the flesh beneath that fur. "Meat is meat," says the grandfatherly DeStephano, a retired truck driver who has caught critters since he was 13 and has wolfed down muskrat, beaver and raccoon. However, he'd never nibbled a fisher cat, one of many critters that stumbled into the traps he set with his hunting partner, Bill Guiles—the flesh became bait. What did it taste like, he wondered. The Baron's request was so unusual, the trapping twosome couldn't resist. They'd skin and gut the creatures they captured during their three-week fall hunting season. "We can never say what we're going to catch," says Guiles, whose goatee and dangling silver earring recall a latter-day Dennis Hopper.
Around Thanksgiving, the Baron and his dad, John Fornal, trekked to the northern New York town of Watson, near the Adirondacks. When they arrived at Guiles' camp— Camp Red Dog, for all the Red Dog–brand beer consumed— and saw the bounty of muskrats, otters and beavers, "the Baron was like a kid at a candy store, deciding what cut of meat he wanted to cook," DeStephano recalls, laughing.
The Baron and his dad stacked the animals in their truck, brought them to the Bronx, bought a chest freezer and sent the animals into a deep, frozen sleep. The total haul: two large beavers, two large river otters, one squirrel, one possum, two raccoons, one fisher cat, one beaver liver, one beaver heart and too many muskrats to count. Now it was time to find willing cooks.
Since cooking more than a dozen head-on, tails-on, paws-on woodland creatures is too daunting for even a man of Baron Ambrosia's ample talents, the call went out to create a potluck feast. My up-for-anything artist friend Jason Engdahl—a member of art collective Madagascar Institute who is equally willing to dance around in an enormous self-created rabbit costume, ferment kombucha and venture to Flushing to feast on oddball eats—was called on to collaborate. Ground rules were set for the preparation of the animals: "I would like for at least a few of them to be roasted whole to preserve the appearance," the Baron instructed. "All cooking styles are welcome as long as they don't mask the natural taste of the meat too heavily."
Much quicker than you'd expect, the animals were allocated to the duo's combined network of professional chefs, amateur cooks and curious gourmands. Still, several creatures proved less appealing. Engdahl emailed me, wondering if I'd like to test my culinary acumen. "There is a fisher cat and an otter," he wrote. "They are about 24 to 30 inches long (head and body) and weigh about 15 pounds each. They are skinned, gutted and stripped of fat but otherwise intact (heads, tails). Would you be interested in getting jiggy with one of these fine creatures? There is also a need for a side dish."
"You are not cooking an otter in our apartment," my vegetarian girlfriend commanded. Instead, I told Engdahl I would cook a side. "The requirement would be that it is something that will taste well with delicious, strange meat. We were thinking Brussels sprouts." That I could handle.
The eve of Jan. 29 arrived like so many lately: snowy and cold, the sky as gray as the granite Bronx Borough Courthouse looming before me. The building has been abandoned since the late 1970s, and a banner advertising "available" hangs limply against the facade, near a marble statue of Justice. A locked gate rings the darkened building, but I'm bearing a tray of Brussels sprouts and the password: perique (pronounced per-reek), a type of fruity tobacco. What else would you expect of the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society?
Soon, a man in a black stocking cap and puffy winter
coat brings me, along with a few other food-bearing attendees, inside. Wreckage lines the crumbling stairs, which are lit by candles. Like breadcrumbs, the flicking flames lead us to a soaring, loft-like room stripped to bricks. Construction lights, courtesy of the courthouse's owner, who has permitted tonight's gathering, illuminate the room.
"Welcome," says the Baron, attired in a long gown worthy of a sultan, a golden livery chain encircling his collar. "You can put your Brussels sprouts on the buffet." He ambles off to set up food photo shoots with his wife, Kim Fornal. (Their newborn baby is sleeping at her parents' house this eve.) I bring my sprouts to a table topped with chafing dishes, Sterno flames keeping the meats warm. In an unheated courthouse, this is no easy task. Tonight, the temperature will sink to a teeth-chattering 28 degrees. My breath is visible. I button my coat tight and deposit my bag at the room-spanning dinner table. It's topped in gold cloth. A taxidermied muskrat serves as a centerpiece.
I'm given a waiver to sign. I particularly enjoy this passage: "Attendee understands that the risks in executing any Bronx Pipe Smoking Society experience include, without limitation, seizures, drowning, broken or loss of limb, indigestion, illness (mental or physical), haunting, possession, insomnia, night terrors or concussion." I John Hancock away my right to sue. Bring on the beastly feast.
To warm my insides, I grab a glass of Haitian Gede Spirit, which is rum infused with incendiary Scotch bonnet peppers. It instantly warms my guts, and gives me the courage to make small talk. I meet Jeff Orlick, author of the blog Jeffrey Tastes and an organizer of food events. I ask him if he's ready to eat beaver. "I had no idea what this was, actually," says Orlick, looking dapper in a suit and a trim beard. "But anything the Baron does, I say yes to." Equally eager and uninformed is Ed Garcia, a Bronx blogger behind Welcome2Melrose and Welcome2TheBronx, who is wearing a trapper hat. "I don't even know what's on the menu, but I don't mind," he says. "It's just game."
It's just game. It's easy to type those words. Eating those words is a different story.
In my time, I've consumed camel guts, horse jerky and yak meat. Yet I'm still mortified when the Baron arrives bearing a tray filled with brown-ish, golf ball–size lumps. "Raccoon kofta kebab with cilantro yogurt sauce?" he asks, with a waiter's practiced cadence. The kebabs are courtesy of trapper Guiles' son-in-law, Mike Pichetto, a chef at Vintage Restaurant in Easton, Penn. "Anything that's cooked here, I'll eat," says Guiles, looking resplendent in a camo-print sports coat. "I'm an easy feed." He pops a kebab. I follow suit. The dense, rich meat is enlivened by the tangy yogurt. I like it. I also enjoy Pichetto's flaky strudel, made with olive oil–poached raccoon.
Next, the Baron brings over toasted baguettes topped with grayish meat crowned with a dollop of…something yellow and chunky. "It's raccoon confit with a pickledwatermelon mostarda," he explains. I grab a baguette, picturesquely arranged beside a gleaming-white raccoon skull. I bite. The raccoon is rich and tender, with the mostarda providing a tangy counterpoint. Who knew I loved racoon? I seek out the dish's creator, Julia Sexton. "We didn't want to leave people with the taste of the gamey, mouth-slicking meat," Sexton, a food writer for Westchester Magazine and a former chef, explains. Despite her kitchen background, dismembering a raccoon and finding usable flesh was a squeamish challenge. "My kitchen looked like a slaughterhouse," she says. "It's a hard-working animal, and all the meat is in the thigh." Her gristly work only netted her about a pint of meat, which she rubbed with juniper berries, cloves and garlic. As for the remainder of the animal, it was consigned to the trash. "I hope it's like a head on a pike for the raccoons that wreck our garbage every night," she says.
I grab another baguette and make my way to a scrum of people surrounding a carving table. There's steam rising high. Warmth? I worm my way forward, rubbing my frozen fingers, discovering an entire flayed beaver as black as midnight, its tusks jutting like javelins from its shriveled jaw. "That's Uptown Beaver," says Michael Max Knobbe, the executive director of BronxNet. "It took two days to do it." What constitutes an Uptown Beaver? "Root vegetables, pepper, honey and love—lots of love," says Knobbe, who also prepared a bull-penis soup and truffled squirrel. "It was a blessing to be able to prepare the beautiful creature." I grab a chunk of dark-red meat and chew. It's dry, with a touch of sweetness and a surprising tongue-coating richness. "There are also secret ingredients," Knobbe says, smiling conspiratorially. I leave to find a drink to wash the beaver flavor from my mouth.
I grab some homemade hard cider and find myself beside Engdahl. He and the lumberjack-bearded Shane Gross are carving their masterpiece, the roasted DeKalb beaver (named after the street in Brooklyn where it was cooked). Along with friend Ishmael Martinez, they stuffed the animal with apricots, raisins, apples, herbs and bread, then wrapped it in…what is that shiny brown, leathery coating? "Pig skin," Engdahl explains of his attempt to keep the mammal moist. "Beaver is a very dry meat."
I take a chunk: The beaver is plenty moist, and its flavor calls to mind a puzzling hybrid of goat, venison and, naturally, roast pork. Engdahl and Co. also made an accompanying Brunswick stew prepared with beaver tail and heart and a rabbit. Though it looks plenty warming, I pass. The main meal is set to begin.
Diners shuffle to the buffet line and patiently queue up, clutching plates and napkins bearing a B insignia. I stand beside Martinez and commend him on the beaver. "At first, I was just standing there watching them prepare the beaver, but then I got involved," he says. "If I'm ever in a postapocalyptic world, I want to know what to do." When it's my turn, I fill my plate with bones and meats, the sauces navigating
the reddish-brown spectrum. I sit down, spread a napkin across my lap and, my fork raised like a weapon, attack the food. Rafael Mata Sr., of the Bronx's Xochimilco Restaurant, prepared possum with garlic-pepper sauce and the fisher cat, cooked with guajes (garlicky pods) and dried chiles. Though the sauces sing and zing, I have a tough time choking down these bony, intensely gamey creatures. Same goes for the otter prepared by Michael Sherman, of Cloud Catering. While the braised neck meat is fork-tender, I can't gnaw on an otter rib. "There's not a lot of meat there," Sherman explains.
Insect-eating aficionado David Gracer, of SmallStock Food Strategies, arrived from Rhode Island bearing water bugs and silkworm pupae. They were, respectively, turned into a spicy papaya salad and deep-fried by the chefs at Bronx Thai restaurant Siam Square. The silkworms taste a bit like licking shag carpet, while the papaya salad's chili heat overwhelms the crunchy water bugs, which are as big as my middle finger. I also try Gracer's Colombian big-butt ants. They strike me as kind of nutty.
I move on to Jonathan Bailey's muskrat. Bailey awoke at 7 a.m. to dismember six muskrats. "That's a little early for dismembering," he says, laughing. "My first one threw me for a loop. I had to figure out the anatomy. By my sixth muskrat, I was pretty fast." He slow-cooked part of his muskrat sous-vide style (in vacuum-sealed plastic bags), then served it in a red-wine reduction. The meat fell off the bone, but it was still tough and sinewy. "Next time I'd cook it for 12 hours," Bailey says. "These creatures aren't standing around like boxed veal—they're out and about." More enjoyable is his roulade, which is rolled muskrat layered with watercress and prosciutto. I pop a couple muskrat wheels like chewy candy. Then I leave the rest of the meats on my plate to slowly congeal in the cold.
Not the Baron. He goes back for seconds. "I'm not stopping for a while—how can I?" he asks, grabbing a spoonful of fisher cat. "You can't overlook any flavor." And there are still several to go. After dinner wraps up (happily, I discover that my Brussels sprouts are almost all gone), the Baron breaks out his Baverhojt digestif: a traditional Scandinavian schnapps flavored with beaver castoreum. It's the pungent secretion of the castor sacs, which are located roundabout the genital region. I dip a ladle into the vintage glass vessel and scoop a few fingers of cloudy elixir into my glass, trying not to disturb the submerged paw. It smells like menthol and tastes like oily Christmas medicine, the bitter, fetid distillation of rotten pine trees. I drink three glasses of water, yet the rank taste lingers like a horrible houseguest. I reach for one of the pipes the Baron has on offer and fill it with Latakia, a kind of pipe tobacco.
"That's very rare tobacco," the Baron says, passing me a match. "I roasted it over dried camel dung myself." Why am I not surprised? I light the match and inhale deeply, filling my mouth with the flavor of camel crap. Anything is better than the taste of beaver booze.