It was a dark and stormy night, and my mood was even darker. I’d trekked to a bleak industrial section of Ridgewood to join some friends for dinner and gotten lost twice on the way. It would have been OK if the food was worth the hassle, but it wasn’t. Then a gift from the gods fell into my lap. “Do you want me to see if I can get you into the Baron’s small game dinner on Saturday?” Chris Crowley, Serious Eats New York’s Bronx guru, asked. The Baron in question is none other than Baron Ambrosia, the over-the-top “quaffer of culinary consciousness” and star of Cooking Channel’s The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia. Naturally I said yes as I am a big fan of the Baron and was eager to see what his small game dinner was about. After all the only small game I’ve tried are quail, rabbit, and guinea pig.
The next day I received a flowery e-mail inviting me to The Third Annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner. Among the items listed on this year’s catch were raccoons, beavers, skunks, gray foxes, red foxes, possums, bob cats, and coyote. And there was a dress code: “Black tie is the minimum.Tuxedos, colors, beads, medals, traditional garbs, kilts, turbans, wearable weapons, ball gowns, peg legs, and military dress are all encouraged.”
One of the first things I noticed outside the stately Andrew Freedman home was a small smoker and a large gent clad in furs. He looked and spoke like a cross between a backwoods barbarian and Hulk Hogan. This turned out to be Rebel Chef Terry French, champion of Food Network’s Extreme Chef. As one fellow attendee noted later in the evening, “I feel overdressed and undercostumed.”
I arrived on the early side and noticed that Whoopies Miniature Dessert Co. had some rather interesting looking chocolates laid out. They turned out to be chocolate covered silkworm with chilies, coconut, black lava salt, and Spanish moss glitter. And they also turned out to be quite tasty. As a variety of music—old salsa, and vintage StarTrek vocalise—played I had a feeling it was going to be a surreal evening. And then I saw the Bunnyman, and I knew I was in for one of the strangest, most delightful nights of my life.
As the evening kicked off in the library with small bites, the vibe was like Explorer’s Club Dinner meets Mardi Gras with a dash of Eyes Wide Shut. Animal skulls abounded and there was a banner with the society’s motto in Latin. I don’t speak Latin, but I am told it translates to “Less looking, more touching, less talking more tasting.”Among the nibbles were some truly wonderful smoked river trout from Lenny B’s Smoked Fish. There were also red braised beaver dumplings, and raccoon stew alla Calabrese. The standouts among the game were the Possum alla Vincent and the potted raccoon. The latter tasted like a backwoods pâte de campagne.
Soon it was time to dig into the evening’s main courses. But first the truly excellent Master of Ceremonies Matthew Piazzi introduced the evenings chef’s and perhaps one of the most important guests of all Trapper Bill Guiles of the New Jersy Trappers Association who procured the meats for the chefs. “We enjoyed catching the game and hope everyone enjoys eating it,” Guiles said. This was followed by a musical interlude.
If Andrew Zimmern curated a buffet it might look this. At one station there was what looked to be an entire bobcat in a roasting pan. It turned out to be quite nice. I could imagine Michael Corleone’s bodyguard bagging one in the Italian countryside. The next time I find myself in Easton, Pa., I will be sure to try Chef Mike Pichetto’s Vintage Restaurant.
Skunk is probably the last thing one expects to be eating at a gala dinner. Surely preparing it with rose petals was a whimsical touch. It was not all offensive, but I can’t say I was amazed by it either.
When I first approached the buffet line I did not load up my plate. Once I found out that some this stuff was actually tasty I went back for seconds. My favorite was probably the fox in chipotle sauce with nopales. It tasted like a cross between goat and veal. The lean smoked coyote was also quite nice. Heck even the fat on the Yard Raccoon Wakefield was tasty though the flesh itself was a tad tough.
Dessert included beef blood pudding with cannoli chips and the Italian pig blood pudding sanguinaccio. There were also several frosty confections, including an excellent brown sugar and foie gras ice cream topped with apple pie compote. As a nightcap I availed myself of one of the pipes so graciously laid out by the Baron and had a few puffs on the terrace. Then I decided to head back to Queens, before things got too weird. Baron, if you’re reading this I’ll be certain to wear my Indian bridal turban next year. Not sure about that peg leg, though.