It's 7 p.m. on a weeknight, I'm eating a yak meatball, and chef Gene Rurka is expounding on the tasting notes of alpine cheese. Between us is a table filled with "cold weather foot"—bites sourced from the hearty plants and animals that live in Earth's least-hospitable places. There's hare confit, arctic kelp, caribou sausage, the aforementioned yak, and pemmican, an extremely rich cake made from tallow and dried, powdered blueberries used as survival food on arctic expeditions. Gene hands me his card. His title is "International Consultant." He's using a three-foot caribou antler as a centerpiece and though we've only just met, I can tell he does not mess around.
"When you're freezing to death and can't find food, this stuff will keep you alive," Gene says as he serves me a slice of pemmican. It tastes terrible, like burnt fat run over by a muddy diesel tractor. I have to flex my shoulders just to get it down before smiling politely, and excusing myself to another room where I make a mental vow to never eat pemmican again. If I somehow end up lost in the arctic, I'm just going to die.
So began my night at the tasting preview of this year's Game Dinner at the Explorer's Club, a mesmerizing Upper East Side residence that's part museum, part hunting lodge, part conservation think tank. The Club's members include the likes of renowned ecologist William Beebe, modern antarctic explorer Lauren Farmer, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Joseph Kittinger, who in 1960 set skydiving records when he leapt from a helium balloon 19 miles up. The hardy group was founded in 1904, and has occupied their luxurious digs on East 70th Street since 1960, where you'll find framed photos of honored members, old maps of Egypt that date back to Napoleon, and a dead zoo complete with cheetah, penguin, polar bear, wolf, walrus, leopard, and sperm whale penis, all mounted for posterity.
Wednesday night's cold weather theme went beyond Rurka's cuisine to include Tim Taylor, CEO of Tiburon Subsea, who was at the Explorer's Club showing off his underwater drone. Shaped like a torpedo and painted bright orange, it can dive 650 feet deep and has, according to its owner, serious military and private business potential. It costs $450,000. "It's the next big thing," Taylor tells me.
Ten feet away from the sub drone stands Richard Garriott, whose official description reads "astronaut, author, game software developer." Garriott and I never actually exchange words, but I spent ten solid minutes eavesdropping on his conversations with other guests and admiring the (real?) spacesuit he's brought to the Explorer's Club. He vouches that the Russian Soyuz is the safest, most cost-effective way to go into space before lamenting "I can't really afford going up a second time."
Joining the Explorer's Club takes significant scientific accomplishment (and paying dues), but Saturday night's sold out annual Game Dinner is open to common city-dwellers. This year's menu of yak, freshwater fish, kelp, and pemmican will be supplemented with plenty of drinks and more than a few bonafide explorers. The dinner was inspired by explorers in the 1930s who unearthed a wooly mammoth and, naturally, ate it. Previous dinners have included muskrat, cockroaches, and a whole 265 pound roasted ostrich.