Quote of the Day - Those - what do you call them - tarantulas? That's the closest we've been to them except the Discovery channel.
Last night at the forever elegant Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan, the Explorer's Club had its 104th annual dinner. This year marked the passing of two of its greats: Sir Edmund Hillary and Steve Fossett, although I wondered whether Mr. Fossett was just flying around with Amelia Earhart, a fellow member.
The program focused on "Exploring Planet Ocean," and as famed scuba, deep-sea diver and honoree Dr. Silva Earle closed the program, "onward and downward," she gleefully gave the "thumbs down" sign, a signal universally understood by divers to coordinate the beginning of a dive. The evening was anything but a downer, but it began that way.
It started from the 34th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Towers, where my room sported an eye-to-eye view of the Chrysler Building, one of the famous landmarks dotting the Manhattan skyline. Out the other window, the Brooklyn bridge stood stately, gracefully traversing the East river, which flowed slowly toward the ocean.
In the hallway on my way to the event, the elevator doors parted and I stepped on wearing native Scottish garb from head to toe, native being the seemingly preferred matter of dress for attendees, which many there wore. Once on I met a somewhat shorter but tremendously more charismatic white-haired man wearing an impressive-looking medal around his neck, several small pins I couldn't read, a chrome-plated bow tie and a double-breasted, striped satin tux.
He was accompanied by an equally elegantly coiffed, stunning woman decked out in a wedding-white long gown with a burnout top full of fingered sparkles and beads. They were obviously a couple, and well-suited in age and demeanor to one another. She began the conversation with me first, complimenting my kilt and Prince Charlie tailed coat. The three of us conversed intently and quickly as the elevator descended and the other riders listened keenly. He asked about my heritage, which I confirmed as Scottish and Welsh.
As we stepped off the elevator, I caught a glimpse of one of his pins and read "Apollo 11" almost as quickly as I noticed his hand extended, offered in a greeting as he said, "I'm Buzz Aldrin, and this is my wife, Lois." There he was, the second man to walk on the moon right after Neil Armstrong, and he's walking off the elevator toward a waiting crowd. I had seen him once before on television when he was wearing a white moon suit when I was twelve. Now, some 38 years later, I met him in person. It's a small universe.
My dear friend Sara Shoemaker Lind, a famous underwater photographer and videographer who has quite literally traveled around the world scuba diving on a grant from the Explorer's Club (and the source of my invitation to the event), ribbed me at the end of the evening over my oft-told elevator story. She overhead once again me telling another member of the Explorer's Club that I had met Buzz Aldrin and his wife in the elevator, saying "Oh, you're telling that story again."
As the Waldorf Astoria staff escorted us into the event, we passed by the silent auction items, consisting of dinners or diving events in exotic locales around the world with other members of the Explorer's Club. Travel lust was beginning to stir while I walked up and down the tables with larger-than-life photos of real-life explorers I had only dreamed about becoming as a kid. Long sigh here. I'm practicing law, not circumnavigating the globe.
Sara, her husband Kevin and I met up again as we walked into the exotic foods room, where appetizers were served. No, I'm not kidding. Take, for example Yak Wellington. Kangaroo meatballs (quite good). Elk stroganoff (also quite good). Stuffed pork bung (no, didn't taste it). Servers in white gloves whisked around silver trays of tempura wildflowers (orchids, I'm told, very tasty). But the highlight of the evening were the bugs.
Fried tarantulas, legs and all impaled on a skewer, to be exact. Beetles speared on top of spring peas. Scorpions on tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil, complete with the stinger (poison in all supposedly removed). I have photos, since I knew you wouldn't believe me, and once Sara passes them along, they'll get posted, but for now you'll have to be satisfied with the descriptions.
The black tarantulas were mostly flavorful in a nondescript sort of way given what I was expecting (which I'm not quite sure about, to be exact, other than to say I thought it would taste terrible), but I have to say it was noticeably hairy and crunchy. The difficult part was dealing with them in several bites, since the little guys are about three inches long. To put the whole thing in your mouth at once would be, well, impolite. How much more impolite than staring down at a partway eaten tarantula, I'm not sure, but nonetheless impolite.
The scorpions were visibly displayed as a bruschetta, their brown bodies with curled tails featured quite in contrast to the white cheese, and for once immobile compared to their live counterparts, which typically scurry away when confronted. Crunchy little devils, I must say, now that I've had two.
The beetle was the most difficult to stomach, however. Well not really stomach, but get it through your head you were going to bite what looked very much like a roach. I got close, but finally drew the line at the spring peas. They were rather tasty, but I must say the beetle/roach is still perched atop a small toothpick, sans the peas. I couldn't get it through my head or into my stomach. There are some things I'll try at least once, and some things I won't.
Yes, I know. Once you've eaten a black tarantula and a brown scorpion, why stop at a beetle? Just look at the photo in those last two links, and you'll understand. I'm not even sure it was cooked. Beetle sushi, in other words. Ugh. Oh yes, the meal worm sushi endive, almost still squirming, was a no go, too.
The cocktails, and I mean that literally, were the highlight of the evening. Each on of the cosmopolitans had some type of testicle pearls in the bottom, some blue, some clear, but all laced with testosterone, I'm sure. There was enough of that in the room, but the drinks made it ever more so evident.
Dinner was comparatively pedestrian, with a typical couscous-tomato-zucchini-eggplant appetizer, red and white Shark Trust wine from San Diego, a nice slab of rare beef with a medley of root vegetables and a delicious chocolate desert.
But the food is not the reason to go. Neither is Buzz Aldrin. The rest of the explorers, like my friend Sara and her friend Michelle, a true-life rocket scientist at JPL in Pasadena who works on the software for the Mars rover, together with many others just like them and just like you and me. They push the boundaries of exploration and science. Not everyone can be the first to go the highest, the deepest or the most times around this or that, which is not to discount those who have, but rather to compliment those who haven't yet nonetheless expand our knowledge and discover what we don't yet know.
The program for the evening consisted of awards to other accomplished explorers, each deserving kudos in their own field. The most interesting aspect, however, was the presentations about the state of the world's oceans. They should know: they're out there everyday diving below and on the surface. They see. Universally to a speaker, save one comment ("reefs have constantly changed over time"), the picture of our oceans is not pretty.
We've explored only five percent of it. We take out too much, and what we leave behind will consequently not be able to sustain itself. We put too much pollution into it. We're killing the little bit we leave behind. It's the world's largest repository of carbon, and it may not take much more, which leaves only one place for it to go: into the atmosphere you and I breathe.
Dr. Earle perhaps made the most poignant comment of the evening when she compared the colossal amount of money we've spent on space exploration to the minuscule amount we've spent on exploring our own oceans - a literal drop in the bucket.
Maybe it's time to look down and around us instead of up into the sky.