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Dinner of the Century
This title is under the Peabody Collection
The Opening Line
They despised the warm blankets, hated them. The mere sight of the thin sheets of pale golden sand fluttering into velvet folds with the dexterity of a skilled hand was enough to strike the highest form of imminent dread into the frigid cold bodies, for they would have well preferred sudden death than the act of witnessing the grace of their beautiful transformation. He chose one of them.
It began with the back. A small slit down the back in the most genteel manner of a playfully deprived Victorian. Into the steam bath it immediately goes, where bubble jets awaken every ounce of its own flesh. The art of both reservation and strength, where the hands fumble in the heat, tossing and turning the small body trapped in its own wrought prison as the fingers struggle to free. Next comes the rolling of the lovely diaphanous sheets, smoothened from a lump and turned into soft square beds where the body would rest. They are then folded into snug little hammocks, and tied round the ends for the creature to sleep in, before being thrown into the broth of crab velouté made from the walls of the creature’s own cell. It is then presented on the holding table, beside the royal stew of green turtle, marble slabs of bison steak, and the locked case of mystery meat.
It was found in the Alaskan ice. Travelers sought them in the wild, and brought them in the enclaves of their own ice. Welcome to the Explorers Club, where brave men and women step afore to challenge the unconquerable wilderness, and prove their worth in the annual feasting of their own exotic findings. The largest spider crabs with legs so large each could feed a dozen, the fanciest bulls’ testicles dredged in golden panko glory and adorned with gorgeous spring flowers, the rarest meat locked in the frost of a preserved ice cage rumored to be that of an extinct mammoth, dating over two hundred thousand years back.
Excitable the patrons were. A reminder of their superiority in emasculating the vile with the refinement of their own touch, a plate now fit for consumption. But the interesting tale was the letter. It came from a certain Paul Howes, curator of the Bruce Museum. Alas, he had the unfortunate sense to be unavailable for the rich synesthesiac experience of not only viewing the frontier of the discovered wild, but also tasting its inhabitants. Thus he played the game, and demanded his fair share. A bottle to be sent to the evening praise of the animals, where his share of the mammothic meat was to be thrown in, to be encased in the gel which would preserve and immortalize its mortal, inferior state.
And thus the poor bottle sat for two decades on a cold shelf, for it was a conquered soul, unlike the dinosaurs and raw bloodthirsty carnivores who denied the human palate that very opportunity. Time moved on and the sample was eventually carted to the Peabody in 2001, with the same label Megatherium as described on that tasty menu, once confused to be mammoth meat in the popular headlines.
Over another decade later in 2014, a professor named Eric Sargis would come to stir the life of that fateful night again, into the soul of his graduate apprentice Matt Davis, who was coincidentally in the midst of studying ice age ecology then. If the mystery meat found in Akutan was indeed Megatherium, it would have the broadest range distribution, from tropics to glaciers, never before seen in the pages of history. Yet Davis did not fly out like a deranged hippo in the mood for some food. He played his cards well, and had the foresight to test the truth of the meat’s identity in his partnership with his fellow graduate student Jessica Glass.
Months of slow extraction of the sample went by, as Glass collection grew to a suitable amount ready to be studied, where the most resilient DNA strains that could survive the 250,000 year stasis found within the mitochondria of the female cells could yield results. As any form of contamination of even a nearby bacterium could cause the centrifuge to pick up that organism’s DNA instead, it was no wonder few bothered to venture into so precious a task. But Glass came forward, and announced the awaited news. It was neither Megatherium, nor mammoth.
It was the simple sea turtle. And it flowed the seas in vast abundance back then. No rare, extinct meat was served in that Explorers dinner. Imagine the absurdity of it all. It was incomprehensible for the huge chunk of meat to be transported in its own ice preserve from the Alaskan wilderness to the city, let alone finding a perfect specimen of frozen mammoth meat that had not rotten and was still fresh to consume. Moreover, nobody heeded the chef’s jesting proclamation of his newly discovered potion that could turn sea turtle into mammoth meat, as the papers were already piling sky-high with news of that grand feast. After all, it was better to romanticize the truth, and put forth a story to tell in the midst of none.
A haughty dinner crew, a box of mystery meat, and a fateful letter which changed a historic event sixty-five years back. The truth lurks everywhere, deep down within the farthest recesses of a cooked putrid meat. Who knew that one day, the course of science could unveil their dirty little secret? It is foolish to conceal the story, as words spring forth all around us in a language we cannot yet understand, and never will, in our continual translation of the first mystery. And this soft-spoken word demands a little ingenuity, in looking at the minute amid the great scheme of things, to dispel the noise around us in the sieving of the pot and hear the plea of an unexamined story trapped somewhere in an ordinary basement. And what about the Explorers Club? Today, it has ceased its quest to conquer through endangered food, focusing instead on their real mission – the scientific exploration of the lands. Of course, you would still find something like python patties on the menu, and the odd dress of spinach cloaks donning the dinner plate, in homage to that same spirit, now taking hold in the strong and wild rather than the weak and oppressed of the numbers game. An act which perhaps bolsters that Telemachian spirit of competition found in us all, which manifests in different ways, raw or refined.
A 250,000 year old serving of extinct mammoth meat was claimed to be served in the Explorers Club dinner of 1951. This statement was challenged in 2015, and you are about to find out why.