NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cooked lamb eyeball, boiled fertilized duck egg and beaver tail are just a few of the more unusual dishes sampled by a club of adventurous eaters called the Gastronauts.
Started in March of 2006 by two friends who wanted to try some of the more exotic foods that could be found in New York, the first meeting of the club attracted only six people.
But it has now grown to more than 1,000 members in New York and Los Angeles and there are plans to expand to other U.S. cities.
“I’ve always been a big trier of new foods; I’ll never say no,” said Curtiss Calleo, an art director and graphic designer who founded the club with magazine editor Ben Pauker.
“Gastronauts is a great way to meet new people, try new foods, and explore the city.”
Calleo said the club is open to everyone, and counts bankers, artists, journalists, designers and an acupuncturist among its members. There are no fees to join and members pay for their own meals which are held monthly in restaurants.
Invitations to the meals, which are normally for 70-80 people, are sent via email. Dinners often fill up quickly.
“It’s a social experience as well as a culinary experience,” Calleo explained. “We get a lot of stories about travel and food-related illness, like Montezuma’s revenge,” he added, referring to the stomach upset caused by eating unfamiliar foods or drinking local water.
Calleo and Pauker both spent their childhoods living in various countries, which sparked their curiosity about unfamiliar foods.
At their last gathering in New York they ate balut, which is a Philippine snack of boiled fertilized duck egg.
“There’s a reason why people eat this stuff,” Calleo said. “In many cases, cultures have had hundreds of years to make the food palatable or even exquisite.”
While no one is forced to eat anything, he said the goal is to “try to try”, which reflects the group’s spirit of culinary adventure.
“It’s rare for people to change their minds once they’re here,” he said. “I think it’s a mixture of peer pressure and a welcoming environment.”
At the October Gastronauts dinner at a Yemeni restaurant Bab Al Yemen in New York, Nicole Murray, an assistant editor at an education company, extracted a piece of eyeball from a cooked lamb skull and brought it toward her mouth as those seated around her cheered.
“It’s kind of jelly-like,” she said, during her first Gastronauts dinner.
Calleo compared it to an earlier dish served during the meal.
“The eye area usually isn’t as creamy as the brain,” he said. “It’s springy but not greasy like fat.”