You might be surprised by how well crickets pair with brie. Wrapped in a sushi roll, their carapaces’ pleasant crunch counterbalances the creamy squish of the cheese. I’m not a foodie – the only celebrity chef I admire is John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Yet there I was, munching away on exoskeletal delicacies in a mansion in the Bronx, trying not to get grease on my black velvet smoking jacket. I may have an unsophisticated palate when it comes to food, but I consider myself a connoisseur in the matter of interesting people, and my host for the evening, Baron Ambrosia, is a multi-course meal of eccentricity, expertise and obsession, alone worth a visit to the Bronx.
Baron Ambrosia is 6’1″ tall but everyone agrees he looks taller. A filmmaker, explorer, and self-described “culinary anthropologist,” Ambrosia moved to the Bronx from Connecticut, and his inborn curiosity led him to investigate the length, breadth, and depth of the borough.
“If there’s a sign that says ‘Keep Out,’” says the Baron, “I go in. Every day I try to get behind some door and see what people are doing.”
The rewards of his exploration were abundant. “The music is loud and the food is spicy – it’s the home of the funk. You can travel the world without leaving the Bronx. It’s diverse without being spoiled.” The Baron was soon a highly visible local celebrity with a reputation as the man with the palate to please. People on their way to parties, carrying trays of hot food, stop him on the street to offer him a mouthful of rice or crab or curried mystery.
The premise of the annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner is intriguing enough: small animals, native to the area, trapped and killed locally, then prepared by a diverse bunch of the Baron’s chef friends – from starred haute cuisine restaurateurs to lunch-counter locals from the Bronx’s many neighborhoods. The dress code read:
Black tie, traditional, or warrior. If you are part of a sect, society, crew, or military branch, wear your colors, sashes, badges, medals, beads, taxidermy, bones, & mojo bags proudly. Large blades are welcome; swords, machetes, spears, etc. I needed no further inducement.
The Bronx grew out of a farm owned by a Dutchman named Jonas Bronck in the 1600s, but had become, over the past few decades, a byword for all that was violent, contagious, addicted, depraved, desolate and destitute in New York City. On the subway, I adjusted my bow tie among brash and buxom Latinas with thickly-penciled eyebrows, fresh from the parlor, their hair frozen in peroxide perms.
Entering through one of the rusticated limestone arches of the exterior ground floor, I was met by a woman accepting the $20 donation for the dinner and a sign which read: I understand that consuming raw or undercooked game meat, insects, and home-brewed beverages is an ultra-hazardous activity.
I understand attending any event hosted by Baron Ambrosia is an ultra-hazardous activity.
I am a grown-ass person and do not hold Baron Ambrosia, Fornal Films, the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society, or the Andrew Freedman Home responsible for any illness, injury, madness, nightmares, pregnancy, possession, or stomach aches that may result from attending & indulging at the 4th Annual Small Game Dinner.
The next things I came across were a bowl of barbecued cicadas on a piano, a large painted ritual voodoo coffin and the tuxedoed Baron himself, his hair rolled in shotgun shells, greeting people as they arrived.
On a table near the entrance was a rack of pipes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, free for the guests to use on the balcony. Tobacco is another of the Baron’s passions. His grandfather smoked a pipe, and he started the young Ambrosia (then simply known as Justin Fornal,) on his collection with a few gifts before the boy’s own love of it took over. Ambrosia collected pipes from wherever he travelled (there was an Oriental carved tusk pipe at the dinner,) and at one point he worked as the pipe specialist at the Nat Sherman store in Manhattan where he met Erik Nording, the “father of the freehand,” with whom he’s now designing a pipe that he swears will be “the biggest breakthrough the pipe world has seen in decades.”
At the dinner he offered his own blend of Latakia, which he had prepared in a traditional way involving smoked camel dung. He’d originally tried to acquire the necessary ingredients from the Bronx Zoo, but they were hesitant. “You’re really not going to give me a bag of shit?” he asked. Fortunately, a woman in the town he grew up in had camels, and when he called her up and said “Can I come by and get a bag of camel faeces?” she was happy to oblige. As an occasional snuff-taker, I was delighted to find three antique boxes on a silver plate, each filled with a different flavour of the Baron’s own blending. Some years ago he’d acquired a good amount of the famous Perique tobacco of St. James Parish, Louisiana, pressed under whiskey barrel wood and, ever eager to use traditional things in new ways, he dried and ground it into snuff himself, then spiced and flavored it, creating a delicious and unique Perique snuff that can’t be bought anywhere in the world.
The guests began gathering in a side room where the aforementioned cricket sushi was available, as well as a mink-and-okra variety. Behind the bar, Ambrosia’s father was filling plastic cups with beer from a keg. The brew was, unsurprisingly, Baron Ambrosia’s own. Upon learning that Native Americans flavoured water with the Staghorn Sumac plant to create what he calls “their equivalent of Kool-Aid,” the Baron used it to brew a sweet and tart lemony-cranberry-like Berliner Weiss beer.
After a few rounds of Sumac beer I noticed a man with a white beard wearing fringed buckskins and a wolf pelt as a hat. This was obviously “Trapper Bill,” the man behind the meat. Baron Ambrosia had met Bill at a Native American pow-wow in upstate New York, where the latter was selling a wide variety of animal pelts. Ambrosia asked him what happened to all the meat and whether he could have some of it. That November, the Baron stayed with Bill and his trapper friends at Camp Red Dog, setting and checking traps and spending long, cold nights eating, drinking, and trading stories. He learned how to skin and gut the animals himself, freezing the meat in labeled bags, but keeping every part of the animal, including the various funky glands. The meat stays frozen for four months, and the list of meats goes out to chefs a month before the actual event, so they can claim their game and plan their dish.
The party was filling up, and people soon moved to the wood-panelled library where, under an oil painting of a dour-looking tycoon who may or may not be Andrew Freedman, the first of the night’s dishes were being served. A man in an embroidered Western shirt and a hat shaped like a zebra head handed out beaver-meat tacos, a local fisherman shucked fresh oysters from Long Island, a young butcher carved up a hunk of elk meat on a board under a hot light, and a black Julius Caesar and a white guy in a Venetian mask helped themselves to a platter of raw porcupine meat in a traditional Thai preparation of lime, mint, chili, and cilantro called Nam Tok. The big hit, however, were the sliders, made of jalapeño cole slaw and shredded and barbecued Fisher, a member of the weasel family.
Word soon spread that it was time to enter the dining room, a brightly-lit hall with all the natural atmosphere of a school gymnasium, somehow made electric and exciting by the odd nature of the night’s event. Baron Ambrosia introduced the night’s chefs and their dishes one by one: Callita Diego, a Honduran, who served a Hudutu of possum in a coconut milk broth with mashed plantains; Rafael Mata, a Mexican who brought coyote hinds in a chipotle sauce; Assetou Sy, a Malian, with Muskrat Fakoye, the meat prepared with the West African sauce netetou, also known as sumbala; Michael Pichetto, an haute chef, with an otter roast. Dessert was champagne lollipops coated in edible gold and chocolate made with white clay from the soil of Georgia.
Baron Ambrosia invited Trapper Bill and Bronx Hip Hop legends DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Melle Mel to the front of the room for the ritual “Stabbing of the Beast.” A man named Geddy (short for Armageddon,) gave a lyrical invocation-cum-blessing, and the men stuck long knives into the otter roast. Then the feasting began.
I couldn’t begin to describe the flavours of each dish. For one, there were too many to keep track of, and they all bled into one another on my packed plate. Aside from that, the combination of unfamiliar meats and equally unfamiliar preparations resulted in me not really knowing which factor was the cause of the strange tastes I was experiencing. The net result was my feeling stuffed, content, not a little greasy, and the frog closures of my jacket remaining open for the rest of the evening.
And then things got really strange. Baron Ambrosia wheeled out a table on which rested two large, covered glass jars. In one was a “Beaverschalt,” a liquor flavored using castoreum (an excretion of the scent gland of the American beaver.) As the Baron explains it, “anything I don’t know what to do with I soak it in vodka and hope I don’t kill anyone with it.” This method of disposing of the less obviously useful parts of animals was even more apparent in the second jar, which contained two paws from an American black bear, fur, footpads, claws and all, swimming in several litres of spirit. The first concoction tasted like a martini made from a beaver’s anal glands and the second tasted like bear feet. No surprises there.
Before I drunkenly nodded off, a remedy for tiredness was produced. Only a few of us hard-core diners were still at the party, hanging out around the piano, occasionally stepping outside for a few puffs of camel dung Latakia, when Baron Ambrosia appeared bearing a bottle of thick green glass. Inside was a litre of gedde, a liquor first given to Ambrosia by “Rose the voodoo queen”, drunk during ceremonies to honour Baron Semedi, the spirit of their club. The participants in the ritual drink it like water, which they’re only able to do when possessed by the spirit, because the liquor itself is made by soaking loads of blended scotch bonnet peppers in Haitian white moonshine, making each mouthful – or even the tiniest taste on the tip of a tongue – a fiery horror. A quick gulp taken without reflection burns through you and drops into your guts like, as Ambrosia puts it, “a lead ball in your stomach.”
One sip and I was more awake than I’d been in hours. He then told us, to a chorus of female winces and gasps, that the female participants in the ceremonies rub the peppery booze on their genitals and dance with wild abandon.
The night was over. Those of us who’d made it past midnight faced the incredible challenge of hailing a rare taxi in the torrential rain of the Bronx. After several trouser ruining splashes by buses, we enjoyed a wet ride home over the Triboro bridge. I sat in the front seat next to a silent African immigrant, cut off from backseat conversation by the bulletproof partition. As we sloshed and skidded our way back to the sadly unenlightened borough of Brooklyn, I remembered why people are willing to suffer degradation, inconvenience, and humiliating rents to live in the metropolis: because once in a while you get to wear black tie, sniff rare spicy snuff, and drink bear-paw voodoo juice with the men who invented hip hop in the dream mansion of a dead snob on a belly full of otter, beaver, elk, possum, clay, and cricket.