We at The New York Times could affect a lot more dudgeon over the horse meat scandal in Europe if we hadn’t come across a menu in our files from a celebratory dinner given in 1909 — by the editors of this newspaper — to honor Robert E. Peary on his discovery of the North Pole.
Legacy media have items like this in their files.
Labeling was not the issue in this case. (With the possible exception of the fact that whatever Peary discovered, it probably wasn’t the North Pole.) Everything on the menu was called what it was: narwhal, walrus, ptarmigan, pemmican and musk ox.
We were queasily impressed. Gene Rurka, a member of the Explorers Club, was not. He’s in charge of the exotic hors d’oeuvres served at the club’s annual dinner, like browned earth worms in the form of salted pretzels.
“It’s salesmanship,” he said about The Times’s polar menu. No amount of French, Mr. Rurka said, could disguise the fact that the meat and poultry weren’t fresh. “What can you do with a walrus?” he asked, quite reasonably.
In our forensic analysis, aided by Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, one of the nation’s most acclaimed chefs, here’s what we think The Times did:
Petite bouchée walrus — This mouthful of walrus would probably have tasted funky since walrus meat was usually fermented before being eaten. Had the meat been uncooked and just cured, there might also have been a frisson of risk, like eating Japanese blowfish, since walrus meat is known to carry trichinosis. (Mr. Achatz envisioned very thin slices of raw walrus meat with sea salt and black pepper — “almost a sashimi of walrus.”)
Velouté ptarmigan aux croutons — Here is the soup course; a cream soup, though probably beige, not white, since ptarmigan is grouse-like, with gamy red meat. A stock made from the bird’s bones would have been the soup base, with pieces of the flesh and croutons in the velvety, flour-thickened soup.
Suprême de narwhal, Véronique — A boneless slice of narwhal meat, most likely the color of the dark meat of chicken or wild turkey, was perhaps served with its chewy mattak, or layer of blubber, considered to be a delicacy. The dish at the dinner would have been presented in a cream sauce, and garnished with fresh green grapes. Polar explorers might have had raisins, but never grapes. (Mr. Achatz would have garnished the meat with reindeer lichen. He pictured the tusk as a trophy piece.)
Mignon de musk ox, Victoria, pommes Parisiennes — Musk ox has red meat, so this would have been like filet mignon, maybe like filet mignon of horse meat, though probably not cooked rare. Victoria, as in the English monarch, usually meant black truffles in the sauce or as a garnish, and possibly pieces of lobster, too. Potato balls in clarified butter went alongside.
Mousse de pemmican, Kossuth, épinards aux fleurons — The pemmican, or jerky, could have been made from any animal, but reindeer is a good candidate. This could have been a tasty dish, the dried meat and fat ground up and lightened into a mousse, no doubt Hungarian-style à la Kossuth with sour cream and paprika. Clusters of spinach went alongside.
Sorbet “North Pole” — White ices, but certainly not coconut, served as a palate cleanser. At this dinner, the sorbet came at the end of a succession of exotic meat preparations and before what was probably the best dish of the evening. (Mr. Achatz conjured a coarsely textured, hand-cranked sorbet, flavored with mint and sea salt, frozen in pans eight inches square and one inch deep. “Then you would shatter it so that it broke into organic pieces, like icebergs,” he said.)
Perdreau roti, bardé aux feuilles de vigne, coeur de romaine en salade — The roast partridge was wrapped in grape leaves, a classic preparation for the little birds, which have pale, tender and somewhat gamy flesh, especially when young. Juniper berries are typically included in the preparation. This should have been delicious, served with some romaine lettuce salad alongside. (The birds might well have been served whole, Mr. Achatz said, heads included.)
Biscuit glacé Knickerbocker — This is not a biscuit as we know it but a type of frozen dessert presented in a thick slice, similar to ice cream but made with mixture of cream and a dense meringue and often flavored like nougat. (“Knickerbocker” may have hinted that, like the cocktail of the same name, the dessert was made with rum and flavored with raspberry, orange, lemon and lime, Mr. Achatz said.)
By this point in the evening, the rum was probably welcome.