Oh the People You Will Meet, the Things You Will Eat. Fine Dining at The Explorers Club Annual Dinner?

The Cockroaches were offered in three choices this year, Argentinean Wood, Madagascar Hissing and the ever popular Costa Rican Cave varietal.

Diving into the Exotics buffet, and still smiling. Julia Van der Laan, The Explorers Club Annual Dinner, New York City. Photo: Shane Lundgren

If you tasted one Cockroach, best to also sample the others for comparison, though being lightly roasted, the Hissing variety was no longer hissing and perhaps a bit disappointing, but perhaps more tender than the Argentinean Wood Cockroach? It was reported that all had the satisfactory Cockroach Crunch, so important to those with a discerning palette.

Just in case you like your cockroach with a slice of watermelon or pineapple? Photo: Julia Van der Laan

The samplers of these exotic delicacies were the members and their guests at the annual Explorers Club dinner. The Dinner is long established as the yearly gathering of global adventurers and scientists, from those diving to the bottoms of the worlds oceans, climbing to the top of Everest or going up into space.

Although simply buying a ticket to space certainly won’t ensure your entry into this Club. More than one applicant has found themself rebuffed when they thought an exotic destination or two, no matter how exclusive, would get them through the door. Real exploration, real adventures, real science, led from the front, bravely into the unknown, following in the footsteps of Hillary.

Animal, vegetable and probably a few minerals, with undoubtably a bit of a sting in the tail. Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown

The exotics part of the Annual dinner has long been an historic staple of what is traditionally a very long evening. The morning after the event in 1958 The New York Times reported:

“The food was as exotic as the conversation, The hors d’oeuv-res included jellied cherry blossoms, sea urchin paste, lily bulbs sukoshi, rooster comb au vin, lava worm glacé, ants takusan, baby snakes blanche and pickled whale skin.”

At some point a bit of discretion was introduced and the menu was moved into the 20th century with “sustainable” exotics, although we have yet to see a collection of Cockroaches from each of New York’s five boroughs, it is probably only a matter of time.

The guests sampling these are often as exotic as the food, medals and cultural dress is welcomed, lending a festive air to the evening.

Plotting adventures, Thor Heyerdahl and friends, with a hint of Scottish gallantry, surrounding the globe now resident in the Club House on 70th street, New York City. Photo: Kon-Tiki Museum, Norway

Never knowing who you will bump into, be introduced to or start plotting a new adventure with is at least half the fun of any dinner. At a private reception for speakers prior to my first Annual Dinner, Thor Heyerdahl, having seen my middle name, came over to say hello and inquire as to my heritage.

It was an immediate eye opener into both the openness of the members and the chance to rub shoulders with the worlds’ great explorers. I sampled a pale snake later that evening, and pretty much finished up my exotic sampling with that, a bit of a neophyte to the exotics it seems.

Following our new route on Everest’s Kangshung Face, my team gathered the following year for a reunion, with our Honorary Expedition Leader Lord John Hunt, for a few fun filled days of activities in New York, culminating in the Dinner. As we browsed the exotics, our Expedition Doctor and lifelong vegetarian Mimi Zieman commented, “I’m not sure there is a whole lot here for me?”

All dressed up and nowhere to go. Paul Teare, Stephen Venables, Lord John Hunt, Wendy Davis, Robert Anderson, Ed Webster. At the after party, we were turned away at the door at one of New Yorks grittier night clubs, when the bouncer said, “I just can’t let you guys in dressed like that.” “That’s a first for me,” commented Paul Teare, “overdressed.” Photo: Joe Blackburn

How many of these exotics actually get eaten in the wild is still under discussion, though on our flight across the Arctic with a landing at the North Pole, tracing the amazing flight of fellow Explorers Club member George Wilkins, we did manage to eat our way through a large case of Reindeer Sausage. An earlier flight had already taken the plane across Siberia, with a whole different menu, with our Clubs Head of Membership and photographer extraordinaire, Marc Bryan-Brown documenting the journey.

Donny Olson, Alaska State Senator (left) and Captain Shane Lundgren at the North Pole with the Antonov AN-2. A crate of Reindeer sausage was one of Donny’s contributions and our main sustainance for the day long flight from Canada, to the Pole and onto Northern Greenland and Svalbard. Photo: Robert Anderson

The Annual dinner also allows us to introduce a new generation to the members and traditions of the Club. Something about sharing a bit of python on toast makes it easy to strike up a conversation with an astronaut, a deep ocean diver or a renowned scientist just back from their latest expedition, no matter how old or young you are.

It has become a rite of passage to make a decent dent in the exotics prior to the dinner and speeches. And lest the exotics are thought of as visual extravaganzas only, their smell, texture and distinct tastes are incomparable. They are lovingly prepared, artfully displayed and served with accompaniments to set off all their fine qualities.

Fine tuning the tasting experience, Chefs at the Glass House hone their offerings. Photo: Peter Domorak

While the Exotics may be the headline, the mix of personalities even outshines the food – for to share stories and to hatch new adventures is the real draw of The Explorers Club.

In the midst of my Seven Summits, someone requested I do a flag return at the Dinner, by completing a tyrollean traverse over the guests, then rappelling down and traversing the stage to hand over the flag to the President – a bit of low key adventure brought to the city.

With more than a little help from my photographer Joe Blackburn, we rigged up the ropes a day previous, and with a rather large insurance policy in place just in case it all went badly wrong, the next evening I swung my way across the audience and successfully dropped onto stage. I do remember consciously not eating many lizards or birds eggs prior to the event that evening.

Practicing for the great escape. The biggest challenge was securing an insurance policy for the Waldorf Astoria in case I fell off on an illustrious guest. Photo: Joe Blackburn
Red pepper, green pepper, yellow pepper, and then those tasty morsels in between. Who would think that a crispy grasshopper like creature, so crackling and crisp on the outside, would have an al dente center of white jelly to roll around on the tongue and such a lingering aftertaste?

So while the exotics may lure members and their guests in and the dress may put us in a festive mood, ultimately it is those connections made over the Lionfish and the Iguana, the Pythons and the Spiders, that ultimately lead to our new explorations in the coming years.

Comes highly recommended by the Chef – lightly grilled, a delicate taste, perhaps available in medium or well done? Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown

Robert Anderson is an International Fellow and Vice Chairman of The Middle East Chapter, The Explorers Club. He has carried the Explorers Club Flag to the tops of the Seven Summits and on first ascents in the Arctic and Antarctic. His tales are recounted in four books, across 16 different editions: Seven Summits Solo, To Everest via Antarctica, Antonovs over the Arctic and Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest and in French, Neuf vies – Expeditions A L’Everest.