As It Happens

Turns out they didn't eat mammoth meat at famed 1950s Explorers Club dinner

Back in 1951, at the lavish annual Explorer Dinner Club, members thought they were eating mammoth or ground sloth but they were actually eating turtle meat.
A stuffed mammoth excavated from ice in Siberia is exhibited in St Petersburg Museum (L). A piece of turtle meat is preserved in a glass jar in this photo provided by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 in New Haven, Conn.(R). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History/AP)

Whole roasted ostrich, a side of alligator, skewered goat penis and larvae dipped strawberries for dessert.

These are some of the enticing options that have graced the menu at the annual Explorers Club dinner. The decades old event is known for boasting some of the world's most exotic foods.

And as legend has it, back in 1951, club director Wendell Phillips Dodge pushed the culinary envelope even further. He served the standard exotic fare — but also the extinct. Or at least that's what members were told.

The meat served at the 1951 Explorers Club Annual Dinner. (Peabody Museum of Natural History/Matt Davis/Yale University)

"They were told that they were eating something prehistoric," Matt Davis tells As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington. "Some people came away thinking they were eating giant ground sloth and some people thought they were eating mammoth."
Matt Davis is a doctoral candidate at Yale, specializing in palaeontology. (Matt Davis)

Davis, a doctoral candidate at Yale, specializes in paleontology and is part of a team of scientists who decided to investigate the prehistoric mystery meat. A sample of the meat was preserved in alcohol and passed between hands until it ended up at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

"When we first found out about this all we had was the jar and all it said was this is a piece of megatherium meat served at this dinner," Davis explains.

A chef serves a whole cooked alligator at the 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York March 15, 2014. The club, which promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space featured catering by chef and exotic creator Gene Rurka. Chef Rurka prepared a variety of dishes featuring an array of insects, wildlife, animal body parts and invasive species. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Megatherium was a genus of elephant-sized ground sloths. But after leafing through archival documents and sampling DNA of the meat at the Yale Centre of Genetic Analyses and Biodiversity, Davis confirmed that the club members were duped.

"It turned out to be sea turtle — so not ancient and not even a mammal at all," Davis explains.

Goat penises are prepared in the kitchen before the 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, March 15, 2014. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Davis thinks it was likely a publicity stunt and says there are accounts that Dodge eventually confessed.

"I think it was just a joke that no one got," Davis quips. "Just 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge. We're eating mammoth. We're eating ground sloth.'"

A chef with a tray of roasted ostrich walks through the kitchen before the 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York March 15, 2014. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

While Davis says the scientific implications of confirming a positive sample of giant ground sloth would have been a major discovery, putting the decades old legend to rest is some consolation. It's a result the Explorers Club welcomes.

"I think they were actually a little relieved," Davis says. "They were worried about having maybe eaten the only known sample of a new species!"


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