July 4, 2006
Scorpions, Worms and Ants on the Menu at NY Club
By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK -- A discerning guest at a Manhattan cocktail party removed a scorpion from its bed of cheese atop an endive leaf and popped it in his mouth, determined to savor the taste unadulterated.
"Nutty, sweet," was the verdict of Gourmet magazine food editor Ian Knauer at the recent soiree.
"That's an antenna," he added, pointing to a morsel of cricket left poking through lips of his companion at the Explorers Club in New York, which likes to entertain its well-traveled members with exotic culinary adventures.
Founded in 1904, the exclusive international club has some 3,000 members around the world including Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest, astronaut John Glenn and paleontologist Richard Leakey.
On the menu at a reception for some lesser mortals in June were worms, crickets, scorpions, ants and pigeon pate.
"We're so fast to make fun or make comments about the way someone talks or the way someone walks, and food is like the last bastion," said Gene Rurka, the Explorers Club's exotic foods expert. "But someone today is living off this."
"I guarantee you people in Africa who haven't had rain for seven years would love to see an insect," he said.
Rurka, a biologist who has studied coral reefs in the Virgin Islands, devotes much thought to devising dishes for the Explorers Club's annual dinner in March where guests feast on tarantulas, maggots and exotic parts of various livestock such as eyeballs, testicles and penis.
TEXAS ANTS AND MAGGOTS
Large ants from Texas are served with black currants in a sweet mini-tart, while he likes to serve the maggots stuffed in mushrooms. "They're delicious," Rurka said. "I was going to say like a tasty rice grain, but soft. It's not chewy like that."
He has experimented with worms and decided the best option is to disguise them as a pretzel, tying them in a knot like the salty dough snack, and to serve them with mustard. First they have to be fed on oatmeal for 10 days to cleanse the system, and he does not recommend taking worms from just anywhere.
"You don't want them raised in a dump site, you don't want them raised in manure," he said.
Earlier Richard Wiese, president emeritus of the Explorers Club, led several dozen people through Central Park for a foraging hike to find edible plants in the heart of New York.
Among the findings were wood sorrel -- a heart shaped leaf that tastes a little like sour apples -- dandelions, violet leaves and burdock, as well as pods from a Kentucky coffee tree from which he had brewed a batch of coffee for the party.
"It's naturally decaffeinated," Wiese said. "It's kind of fun to go into Central Park and make your own coffee."
Rurka sources the more exotic ingredients such as spiders and scorpions from farms in Texas and Nevada where they are raised as pets or to feed animals.
At $30 each, the scorpions make a costly canape.
Rurka prepared two large black tarantulas for the cocktail party but he said at the annual dinner he serves hundreds of them, each costing $175. They have to be stored individually and kept alive until just before cooking to stay fresh.
"They kill each other if they're kept together," he said, adding that occasionally the hairs on the legs can cause an allergic reaction, just as some people are allergic to bees.
He neutralizes the stingers of the scorpions with heat to avoid adverse reactions.
"When you look at a scorpion your salivary glands dry up. It's not like looking at a pizza," said Cal Dennison, winemaker for Redwood Creek, who was offering advice on wine pairings.
He recommended a pinot grigio or something similar "to get your salivary glands working."
Rurka said he tries to overcome people's aversion to creepy-crawlies by serving them with something appetizing -- for example a cactus jelly with the cricket, or cheese and sun-dried tomato with the scorpion. He admits he would not normally feast on such creatures by choice.
"This is for sustenance, this is not an every day meal," he said. "The chances are you're not going to be looking for this unless you're in dire straits, and if you're in dire straits, I would suggest you go out and survive."
But he said attitudes to food changed over time and between countries, and with environmental problems and a growing population, the food industry could eventually be looking for new sources of protein, such as maggots or worms.
"I would say in the future our protein source will be different," he said, comparing raising insects to farming battery chickens. "I would say we could raise insects faster, get a better source of protein, control the fat content and have a higher nutritional value."
"I think you're going to see bio-foods," he said. "It's getting over that hurdle; it's hard to put that worm in your mouth."
For the record, a worm pretzel, or worm-zel, is a little chewy but doesn't taste too bad smothered with mustard.