Capes, ’Coons, and Tealights: My Evening with Baron Ambrosia (Eating Bugs, Possum, Beaver, and Otter)

Photos by Kim Fornal

The thing that kills me about Baron Ambrosia is that, in most crowds, I have the coolest job in the group. Give me a gaggle of accountants, IT guys, and bankers, and when I say “food writer,” people are generally impressed. Yet Baron Ambrosia is a modern day adventurer who’s carved a career swashbuckling through glamorous situations. As a guerilla filmmaker and host of BronxNet’s Bronx Flavor, he’s scaled the Brooklyn Bridge, undergone voodoo ceremonies, and brewed the magical Garifuna root tonic called giffiti. When his bankroll won’t take him on expeditions to track General Butt Naked in Liberia, the Baron is economic enough to work with what’s at hand. Chances are, it’ll be an adventure, and loads of spooky, ooky fun.

Take Baron Ambrosia’s First Annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner, an event that I attended last week. The Baron had mentioned this pot-luck dinner to me once or twice before, but who knows with the Baron? Though I’ve come to know him and his perfectly sane wife, Kim (a talented photographer whose work you see here), I find it difficult to trust a man who operates by pseudonym. I received his cryptic invitation at 11pm, after a crushingly boring work dinner (washed down by at least three self-consoling drinks). The email promised the consumption of otter, beaver, and opossum in an abandoned Bronx courthouse that offered no heat, no bathrooms, and no guarantee of personal safety. Fuzzy with alcohol and oppressed with the dreariness of my life, Reader, I instantly accepted.

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I scanned the roster of meats to be provided by fur trappers Bill Guiles and Jim DeStephano. Hmmm…beaver, opossum, squirrel, otter, fisher cat, and raccoon. Well, I thought, there’s no way I’m cooking that fisher cat. I looked it up, and this stingy-fleshed weasel held no promise of deliciousness. Otters are too cute, and, like beavers, their flesh might savor of a fish diet. That left possum, squirrel, and raccoon, which worked out for me, since all had long established culinary traditions. I requested squirrel, which is newly chic among nose-to-tail advocates (including Fergus Henderson), but, alas, the Baron admitted there was only one squirrel for 25 diners.

While I suspect that some of the guests may have approached their animals with macho, bloodthirsty glee (for instance, bull penis soup appeared at the meal, made with a protein that is neither small nor game), I went about the task gravely: there is nothing fun or ironic about cutting the pretty, soft paws from a recently alive creature. It became pathetically obvious, when I butchered my raccoon, that it had laid on fat for a winter it would never see. But, as a carnivore and a cook, I’ve always tried to remain aware of my actions: nothing irritates me more than diners who eat meat without accepting the moral impact of causing an animal’s death. And, if you’re going to eat meat, small game like possum, squirrels, and raccoons have the least environmental impact. There are no antibiotic-soaked feedlots, tenement coops, or polluted waterways associated with their slaughter.

It was grim and messy work to sever my raccoon’s limbs and render its copious, hard-won fat. To honor my raccoon (to the best of my limited talents), I confited its flesh in its own winter fat, 24 hours after rubbing the legs with salt, juniper, thyme, rosemary, and some spices. For crunch, I’d serve the boned, confited raccoon on grilled bread, and to ameliorate the dish’s fatty, gamy intensity, my husband quickly pickled watermelon rind, then cooked it into an acidic, peppery mostarda. Our raccoon (pictured here) snagged the photo in this New York Times article, and an appreciative description in Joshua M. Bernstein’s cover story for New York Press. The event was also noted in Grub Street, the evil Eater and – predictably – Andrew Zimmern’s blog.

As with most of the Baron’s projects, the scene was carefully set for dramatic impact. Armed with a password (“perique”—a form of exotic, New Orleanian tobacco), we were admitted past a chain-link fence that guarded our passage beyond the courthouse’s granite façade, now a hulk of forgotten civic importance. A narrow, rubble-strewn, spiral staircase carried us upward—it was barely illuminated by flickering tealights that threatened the hem of my coat. At the top, we emerged into a soaring, raw space that held a Last Supper-like tableau.

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A long table set with glass chargers was laid with “B” monogrammed napkins, while a blood-red menu described the dishes that we were about to eat. Aperitifs: giffiti and gede spirit, a raw Haitian spirit steeped in Scotch bonnet peppers. A trio of insect dishes that included silk worms, pan-fried Columbian Big Butt Ants, and a green papaya salad studded with giant water bugs. Two passed hors d’oeuvres were both raccoon-based: mine, and a thoughtful spiced, ground kofte with yogurt sauce. Possum and fisher cat were prepared by the estimable Mexican Chef, Rafael Mata, Sr., of Xochimilco Family Restaurant in the Bronx – possum with dried pepper and garlic sauce garnished with cactus leaves over Mexican rice, and fisher cat cooked with guajes and chiles morita served with chayotes. An entire beaver was roasted and stuffed with apricots, apples, and raisins and served with Brunswick stew, made with beaver tail and heart and an extra rabbit, for good measure.

Muskrat appeared three ways, as a roulade of saddle, red-wine-braised thighs and “muskrat au vin” with bacon, red wine, shallots, and pearl onions. Otter arrived four ways (numbered variants being a trend), including a daring rack of otter served medium rare. Moving down the buffet, I felt drawn to the hottest dishes in the array (food safety in wild-caught critters is a concern). Brunswick stew was hearty and warming—the courthouse was freezing cold—and I found myself eating a lot of insects because they were guaranteed to be food safe (and turned out to be really tasty).

In all, I agreed with the sotto voce comment made by the food writer sitting on my left, that, “everything is well-prepared, but I think there’s a good reason we don’t eat much otter.” I did not wake up craving raccoon, though I am glad to have experienced cooking and eating it. Baron Ambrosia puts it succinctly: “When I do these things privately, it’s not really about eating the weirdest meats. For me, it’s about experiencing the tastes of all these things, and filing each one away in my brain as knowledge. Beyond all the cultural and historical background of a food, I finally need to experience its taste to fully understand it.”

Valentine’s Day Weekend Approaches! Book Your Table for the Biggest Restaurant Night of the Year (or Hide, and Go Out Saturday and Sunday Night Instead).

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Kitchens look at VD (Valentine’s Day) as a sort assault on Normandy Beach: to survive is the best to be expected, to lose life or limb is the more probable outcome. Boy are we glad, when VD rolls around every year, that we’re no longer kissing our lucky amulets and praying that we survive the next 12 hours. Do as we suggest, and avoid the dreaded VD, and sneak out Saturday and Sunday night instead. These three joints offer their Valentine’s Day prix fixes all weekend long.

Seasons American Bistro & Lounge
February 11-14
$46.50 for three courses

This Somers standard offers a whole weekend of its Valentine’s Day deals. We love that its prix fixe comes with free Champagne and a wealth of democratic choices ranging from six appetizers and 10 mains (including surf and turf and pan-seared scallops).

Crabtree’s Kittle House
February 11-14
$140 per couple, exclusive of beverage, tax, and tip

Four courses, one glass of Cchampagne, and a long-stemmed rose – and, if you’re smart, a dip into Crabtree’s cellar before spending the night upstairs at the Inn.

Bistro Rollin
February 11-14
Prix Fixe not set at time of posting

The folks at Bistro Rollin were in Paris when we were scrambling for info, but in an email, they claim to be “hard at work on our Valentine’s Weekend Specials and prix-fixe dinner. We haven’t got them quite finished yet (this is the fun part of the restaurant business!) But, we do know we will be offering duck confit tortellini with a mushroom anise broth, wild striped bass with a Champagne sauce, a new duck entree that is close to being finalized, and a new chocolate dessert. Knowing how important chocolate is to Valentine’s Day, we also will be making a couple of varieties of chocolate truffles to finish off the perfect meal.”

Kumamoto Oysters and Pork Crepinette at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

The only upside to all this dirty slush is that oysters are their plumpest and most succulent at this time of year. We dared to creep under the killer icicle spikes hanging from our gutter to slurp these precious gems down (in about three short seconds). On the beautiful night of Blue Hill at Stone Barns’s Sixth Annual Sausage & Beer {& Grains} Dinner, they were paired with a Captain Lawrence’s haunting rye ale and tender, juicy pork crepinettes. We felt this dish was only just reward for dashing under the icy guillotine hanging outside our door.

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