Dining with the Ichthyophagous Club

dinner on the nautilus
Dinner aboard the Nautilus in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

I like to think of blog writing as a way to store away snippets of stories that I don’t want to forget. Often while researching a completely unrelated topic I’ll come across some interesting side path. Tempting as it might be to take a scenic detour, we are often constrained to the road upon which we first set out. But wouldn’t it be nice to leisurely explore all those side trails?

I sometimes find, however, that by working out my thoughts on the page I can sometimes better understand what it was that led me off the beaten trail in the first place. Sometimes the things that pique our curiosity – because they are unusual or bizarre – point the way to greater insight, even if it is unclear at the outset what that insight will be. In any case, the trail that once tempted you off into the woods, if passed by, will grow over never to be found again.

Thus it is, that today I am writing about the strange case of the New York Ichthyophagous Club, established briefly in the 1880s. As the name suggests, this was a club of distinguished gentleman who got together once a year for a seafood banquet. If you are now thinking to yourself that eating fish together is an insufficient basis for forming a gentleman’s club, you are correct. The Ichthyophagous Club was not concerned solely with the eating of fish, but with eating any and all marine creatures. Now, I imagine, it is starting to dawn on you how adventurous membership in the Ichthyophagous Club could be. To set the scene (and for your entertainment), I have copied below a song composed by one of the club’s members, Fred Mather, on the occasion of the fifth annual dinner on October 17th, 1884:

When the Ichthyophagous dines

There’ll be many curious dish

Of things ne’er caught with lines,

And not at all like fish –

Steaks of porpoise and ribs of whales,

Salami of muskrat and beaver tails,

Aspie of Jellyfish, octopus stew,

Shark-fin soup and gurry-gur-roo,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

For the Ichthyophagous eats

All things that live in the sea –

Slimy crawlers instead of meats,

Unusual to you and me.

Menobranchus from out the lakes,

Mud puppies turtles and water snakes,

Deviled hell-bender with sauce helgramite

Garfish older than trilobite,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

There will come to this ichthyic feast,

Things that crawl, or swim, or squirm,

The fish, the scaphiopus beast,

And the arenarius worm.

The garrulous frog and the frisky skate,

The batrachian toad-fish with flattened pate,

The flying fish with hyaline wing,

Will come with sea nettles, which prick and sting,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

The eel and the sturgeon will come,

And the lamprey with his nine eyes,

The swordfish and croakin drum,

And sculpin with look of surprise.

The gurnard will walk arm-in-arm with the dab,

The horsefoot will waltz with the great spider crab,

The sullen-eyed angler will ogle the sprat,

And the devil fish twine the shrimps round his hat,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

The fiddler crabs will fiddle

To the crowd so strange and weird,

And the prawns dance down the middle

While the mussel strokes his beard.

The oysters will swim in cuttlefish ink,

The starfish will tip the soft clam a wink;

Periwinkles served in skilly-go-lee,

A sight worthy footing it miles to see,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

When the Ichthyophagous dines,

There’ll be queer prog to eat;

The unusual thing in the way of wines

And a single course of meat.

The lobster will come in his coat of mail;

Weak stomachs will shrink from eating the snail,

But the brave ones will sample every dish,

Whether water-snake, muskrat, snail or fish,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

From the same text in which this song was printed we also have the menu of the fifth club banquet. Sadly, it is not nearly as exciting at the song leads us to expect. Perhaps the most adventurous item  is “Croquettes of Limulus,” though we are also forced to ponder the meaning of “essence of devil-fish.” The menu for the sixth dinner of the following year also survives, the most unusual item being perhaps “bisque of star fish.”

While the dinners took on an appearance of carefree festivity, the club seems to have been founded with serious intentions in mind. When the New York Times announced the inaugural meeting, it reported that the dinner would “demonstrate the fact that there are quite as good fish left uneaten as ever came to market.” Holding the dinner as a public event would help “overcome prejudice directed towards many kinds of fish.” It should be of little surprise then that the gentlemen in attendance were “interested in fish culture.” In fact, the Ichthyophagous Club sought to promote the marine fishing industry. And, according to a recent blog article about the club posted by the New York Times, they succeeded.

The Ichthyophagous Club was not to last, however, and I was not able to determine whether an eighth meeting was ever held. “Where is the Ichthyophagous Club, with members of brave stomachs and inquiring gastronomic disposition?” lamented the author of an editorial published in the journal Forest and Stream in 1914. “United states senators, mayors, and high officials, men the very flower of our civilization, were wont to grace these festive occasions, and without turning pale, to brave all the mysteries of banquets ‘loaded’ for the tenderfoot.”

Perhaps some day these heroes will return… We could certainly use a few more “high officials” promoting more sustainable foods for our dinner plates – insects anyone?

So what is the great insight that the case of the Ichthyophagous Club imparts? I fear I have set up some false expectations in my introduction, as I don’t yet have a good answer. What we can conclude, is that the Ichthyophagous Club came into existence for a relatively brief moment in time – a period in the late nineteenth century when industrial fishing was still in its infancy, but growing exponentially. The Ichthyophagous Club is perhaps then a reminder that when we consider the rise and fall of resource industries, it is not enough to consider only technological change. Hence, the invention of the steam engine and the trawl alone cannot explain the growth of pelagic fishing in the late nineteenth century, consumers also had to learn to eat seafood once considered exotic.

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