It's 9 p.m. on Saturday night, and I'm standing next to a trio of beverage dispensers, watching a parade of decadently dressed partygoers examine their contents.
A man in a pink dress shirt and a pith helmet steps up to the first dispenser, which contains a bear's claw floating in a bath of vodka. He fills a tiny cup, and raises it to his lips. His eyes narrow in thought.
"Tastes like dirty bear claw," he announces. Then, after a beat: "You would never seek that out as a drink."
You would, actually, if you were an attendee at the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society's Sixth Annual Small Game Dinner, the occasion not only for the animal tinctures but an entire menu of meats generally not found in the modern American diet: Coyote, otter, squirrel, raccoon, bear, and so, so many more, arranged in varying degrees of identifiability.
The annual gathering is held in the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx, a stately-but-fraying former mansion that in its later years was converted into a senior center. These days, it functions as an offbeat and almost certainly haunted events space. And if Baron Ambrosia, the dinner's host and mastermind, could figure out how to trap a ghost, braise it and serve it with a nice chutney, he most certainly would.
The goal of the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society, the Baron told me in an email, is to unite people who wouldn't otherwise find themselves in the same company.
"The media wants to brainwash people of different backgrounds and lifestyles to live in fear of each other, and suppress the exchange of knowledge," he said. "The fact that the menu is all indigenous protein sources that most people usually would not consider a food source creates a good environment for cultural exchange."
(Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
Back at the beverage counter, I filled my own cup with liquid that contained a long, brown entity that looked like a decomposing sausage. I was told it was a beaver's castor gland, used to scent-mark territory. It tasted vaguely floral, and a hell of a lot better than its companions, the aforementioned bear claw, which left bits of putrid detritus lingering in my mouth, and an unidentified arthropod in tequila, which you would expect to be the least foul but was actually not.
By the time we were ushered into the library for appetizers, my stomach was complaining in a way that informed me it would tolerate this behavior to a point, but not for much longer. I ignored it and swallowed a delicate square of alligator-tongue sushi, which I chased with some moonshine.
Once in the library, I fell briefly into conversation with a couple who were members of The Explorers Club, a common thread among many of the night's invitees. One of them, purportedly a descendent of Charlemagne, was introduced with her husband as "the only private owners of an object on a foreign celestial body." I feigned understanding as they discussed the headache that is securing a lunar launch license.
Before I was forced to offer my own contributions to space exploration, a duo of waiters blustered past, holding in the air a serving platter that contained a woodchuck, cooked whole and arranged supine on a bed of pine needles. A scene from Antichrist, my least favorite movie in history, flashed through my mind as I took a small helping from its severed mid-section. It was tough and gamey.
I sampled portions of coyote relleno, which was fatty and rich, along with some alligator cheek pressure cooked in orange sauce. Then I was offered a chocolate by a man whose entire head and face was covered in a linen mask. As I took it, I asked in the direction of where I thought his eyes should be what inspired his outfit. "Brazilian Amazonia," he replied, explaining that he'd made the chocolate I just ate with guarana, a climbing plant that acts as an aphrodisiac.
Next to me, another partygoer sniffed at a cup of clear liquor. "Is there any anus in there?" he asked his companion.
Tempting though it is to write off the dinner as a freaky showcase built to test the limits of the human gag reflex, the Baron does have a more morally conscious agenda in mind. A TV personality who's also known as the Bronx's culinary ambassador, Baron began hosting the dinner after meeting a group of trappers at a Native American powwow upstate. Upon learning that the animals were going to waste once stripped of their pelts, he asked whether he could buy the unused meat. The trappers declined, but did offer to let Baron help them during the season. "It was a way to make sure no part of the animal would go to waste," he said.
Dinner was served in a cavernous ballroom, with enough space between courses to ingest a healthy amount of moonshine, which, mercifully, did turn out to be anus-free. Bear Wellington (greasy but satisfying) gave way to hudutu, a Honduran soup usually featuring fish but in this case made with otter.
The final dish was beaver tortellini in a blood pasta shell bathed in lemon sauce. "Stop," my stomach warned gravely as I swallowed my last mouthful of beaver. This time, I promised I would.
Part of the festivities also involved revealing the Pipe of the Year, made by Brooklyn taxidermist Divya Anantharaman. This year's version featured a bobcat, whose head was packed with tobacco from a Tanzanian crater and mixed with elephant dung.
"Anyone who's a recovering nicotine addict, don't worry about it," Baron told the crowd as he lit the pipe with a blowtorch. "There's no nicotine in elephant shit."
By 1 a.m., I was tired, full and looking forward to my rebirth as a vegan. As we moved outside for the final reveal, an alligator head marinating in 92-proof alcohol, a minor disturbance broke out: An uninvited guest had hit the castor gland vodka—and maybe something else—with too much enthusiasm, and was lying on the ground, wailing and thrashing around. "Spit the glass out," someone shouted, a command to which he did not respond favorably. Paramedics eventually showed up and hauled the man away.
Once the drama was settled, a glass of "alligator butt juice," as it was referred to, was passed around. I carefully watched the face of one man as he touched the glass to his lips. "Fuck that," he gasped, recoiling from it. Agreed! I went home and brushed my teeth for about an hour, but as of this writing, I still can't expunge the sensation of bear claw grit swishing gently against my tongue. That stuff really lingers.