All photos by Christopher Beauchamp (christopherbeauchamp.com)
To wake up the morning after the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner is to have a very special sort of hangover. It’s not just the primal thirst and protein sweats one might expect from pipe smoking and small game. It is a barrage of inescapable, visceral memories that mingle with one’s dreams, as if the evening’s host, Baron Ambrosia (the creation and alter-ego of filmmaker Justin Fornal), had released his guests in a real-life episode of his surrealist Cooking Channel show, Culinary Adventures. The close-ups keep playing in my mind. It’s a condition I fear no egg sandwich or iced coffee can cure.
“That must be it,” says my boyfriend, when we emerge from the subway at 167th Street in the Bronx on Saturday night. Across the lanes of the Grand Concourse, beyond a wrought-iron fence and a dark, wide lawn, sits the sprawling stone Andrew Freedman Home. Snow flurries and cherry smoke drift through the air and laughter echoes from a tuxedoed group on the patio. As we approach, I spot what appears to be a small shred of fur on the concrete walkway.
Inside, Baron Ambrosia prepares for the proceesing, washing his hands in a bowl of water and green herbs while Rose, a Haitian woman dressed all in white, looks on approvingly. Ambrosia’s hair is slicked back even more aggressively than usual, as if it’s pulling his eyebrows into their constantly cocked position. He sends us down the corridor for cocktails. There, in a little dark room, a man donning a massive, mildly decrepit bunny head chats casually with a girl in a black dress. A small plate with tiny glistening snacks on the bar catches my eye, and I hear Kiefer Sutherland’s voice from The Lost Boys in my mind: Maggots, Michael. You’re eating maggots.
I expect the maggots to feel salted and brittle. Instead, they are smooth and slippery. My hand involuntarily recoils.
“Mealworms,” clarifies a cheerful bartender as he pours me an IPA. (He doesn’t offer the raccoon bacon-steeped bourbon, and I take that as a sign.) Thinking mealworms will be just a drop in the bucket of the evening’s gastronomical challenges, I reach for the plate. I am wrong. I expect them to feel salted and brittle. Instead, they are smooth and slippery. My hand involuntarily recoils. “We’ll come back,” my boyfriend says.
Outside, we find chef Terry French, the Food Network’s hulking hillbilly, posted up in front of his smoker, draped in a grey furry pelt. “Mid-EEV-il!” he bellows, presumably in reference to his cooking techniques. “You like coyote? You like bobcat? You like venison?” he asks, sizing me up as if I too, may be on the menu.
He opens the smoker and barks at my boyfriend to shed some cell-phone light. Next to a side of venison, a small, shiny, blackened carcass lays on its back, four little legs straight up. “Raccoon,” says the chef. I opt for a slice of venison, which is smoky and tender. A few minutes later, guests gather for appetizers in a small, wood-paneled library. There, I get my fair share of raccoon, in the form of fatty rillettes smeared onto crusty bread. They taste like duck confit, and wash down easily with the IPA, which I am now chugging to combat the sensory overload.
We wander into the dining room for a preliminary examination of the food stations. There, Terry French describes his coyote potage to a middle-aged woman. “A coyote ate my cat,” she says. French spears me a carrot. It’s wonderfully, warmly spiced, and I say so.
“Kind of hits you right downstairs, doesn’t it?” asks the Viking-sized chef. I turn to my boyfriend, but he has been cornered by Dave Gracer, the “small stock” farmer who provided the mealworms and is passionate about our future of eating insects.
“We ate weevil bread for thirteen months in Vietnam,” says Ron Balsamo, an artist and veteran wearing an olive-green flight suit and aviator glasses. “We thought it was rye bread. It didn’t affect me at all.”
“No, no, it did affect you,” insists Gracer. “Positively.”
Soon, guests like DJ Kool Herc, graffiti pioneer Lava 1&2, Woodstock winemaker Lenny Bee, and the towering, bow-tied botanical explorer Joseph Simcox file in for dinner. All are seated and welcomed by Bill Guiles, a silver mustachioed game trapper with a mink penis bone dangling from his ear. “We enjoyed catching the game,” he says. “We hope everyone enjoys eating it.”
Before I can process that idea, or the sudden presence of a tuxedoed announcer who seems exported from a 1950s Vegas boxing ring, a saucy song wafts over the speakers. Two tiny Japanese girls in French maid uniforms appear, swirling on their high heels while their leader, Reni Mimura, coquettishly croons into a microphone hidden in her palm. Post-dance, Mimura prances around the tables with a tray around her neck, cigarette-girl style, as the chefs take to their food stations.
The Tuscan-style leg of bobcat with rib-meat ravioli looks like it could have come from Il Buco—except for the skull beside his serving dish.
Rafael Mata, from Xochimilco restaurant in the Bronx, spoons chipotle-sauced grey and red fox with cactus paddles and potatoes onto my plate. “More sauce?” he asks, as I reach for a corn tortilla. Michael Max Knobbe serves shredded raccoon, Wakefield subway-yard style. (“Bronx strong!” yells a guest, when this dish is announced.) At the third station I visit, where the chef has momentarily stepped away, a server is sawing at a sizeable carcass.
“This is going to be both bloody and crunchy,” he says. I ask him to remind me which animal the meat came from. “It’s duck,” he says facetiously. Chef Michael Sherman of Riverdale Garden returns and tells me it’s actually skunk. “Polecat Junction,” he calls the brothy dish of shredded skunk, wild mushrooms, and arugula. Pennsylvania chef Mike Pichetto’s Tuscan-style leg of bobcat with rib-meat ravioli actually looks like it could have come from Il Buco—except for the skull beside his serving dish. It seems small for a bobcat, I remark.
“The heads look bigger,” says Pichetto. “They have a lot of fur on the side of their face, like a lynx.” Of course, like a lynx. I mention the fur I saw on the sidewalk walking in. He confirms it came from the bobcat.
Terry French piles coyote potage onto the increasingly small empty portion of my plate, and I make my way to the table. I try everything, but Pichetto’s bobcat blows it all away. It is tender and no gamier than your average osso buco, and the ravioli are a welcome change from all the saucy, shredded protein overload. Mata’s chipotle is also a standout (though I most enjoy it on the potatoes). To be truthful, I can’t get past a tiny piece of the Polecat Junction—but that may be mental.
After dinner, Jerome Raguso of Gino’s Pastry Shop in the Bronx offers me a sublime, traditional cannoli, and then tells me to dip a cannoli chip into a red velvet cake-colored version of the filling. It is actually blood pudding, but at this point in the night, it tastes no different from the white cream, aside from a heart-quickening hit of iron.
On the patio, we pass pipes from Baron’s collection before we tumble out onto the street. In the dark car back to Brooklyn, there is a shred of fatty meat stuck between my teeth. I wonder what it is, and look forward to flossing when I get home.
Jenni Avins is an NYC-based freelance multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in VICE, Saveur, and New York Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @jenniavins.