Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock you would be aware that Manu, celebrity chef and one half of the judging team on My Kitchen Rules is coming to Darwin for Territory Taste Festival 2019.
Since MKR’s 2010 debut, Manu has endured more than his fair share of dreadful dinner parties, so it seems fitting to honour his upcoming appearance with our own reflection on some of the weirdest, most awkward and downright awful dinners in history.
Black Ties and Beetle Juice
The Explorer’s Club is an ultra-exclusive, somewhat pompous organisation dedicated to the pursuit of discovery, knowledge, and large amounts of funding from wealthy investors. Every year since 1904 the EC has celebrated the year’s scientific achievements at an annual black tie dinner that has become legendary, if not notorious for its fare. While current members are in fact modern explorers of ideas and science, rather than whip-carrying Indiana Jones types, they are adventurous indeed where the menu is concerned. Previous banquets have included bugs on sticks, whole roasted alligator, curried jellyfish and sauteed goat’s penis. 2016’s dinner was dedicated to the eradication of invasive species; hors d’oerves were green iguana meatballs. On March 16 the members will once again gather, this year to celebrate space exploration in honour of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. Scotch on the moon rocks anyone?
Tony’s Boozy Bow Out
On the night that Tony Abbott was rolled for the Prime Ministership by now-also-ex-PM Malcom Turnbull, he commiserated with what seemed like about 900 of his closest Liberal chums in the most humble and contrite way possible. With a rollickingly boozy shindig in his chambers. The party was such a raging success that when the dust cleared and the hangovers kicked in the next day, the ruins of a fancy marble (taxpayer funded) table lay scattered upon Tony’s floor. Liberal Minister Jamie Briggs became prime suspect in the Shattered Table Scandal simply by turning up to work the next day in a wheelchair with a serious knee injury. Rumour had it he’d been standing on the table when it broke, others say he was dad dancing when he toppled over onto it, both stories that he denied. The upshot was that Tony had to pay for the table, and that in doing so he learned a very valuable lesson, which is to always serve party pies and sausage rolls at a work function. As Labor senator Penny Wong remarked in the aftermath, and without any evident sense of irony, “Quite a party”.
The Critic has the Last Laugh
In one of the more short-sighted promotions by a corporation in recent memory, American Express in 1975 sponsored a special prize at a charity auction: dinner for two at the winner’s restaurant of choice. Anywhere. In. The. WORLD. Craig Claiborne, legendary food editor of the New York Times, won the prize with a US$300 bid ($1,400 in today’s money) and promptly whisked his dining companion off to his chosen restaurant, Chez Denis in Paris. Over the course of five hours the pair treated themselves to a 31 course degustation and nine wines, nibbling on caviar, pheasant and truffles while running up a tab of $4000. Writing his front page review in the NYT upon his return, Claiborne declared that while food was ‘generally exemplary’, the presentation was ‘mundane’. You just can’t please some people.
The Socialite and the Surrealists
Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, glamorous socialite and banking heiress, was an extravagant entertainer beloved by artists, European nobility and the Hollywood elite. In 1972 she threw the now infamous Rothschild Surrealist Ball at her home, the Chateau de Ferrières in France. The invitation, written backwards on a painting of clouds, stated black tie, long dresses and headdresses based on the works of famous Surrealist artists Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. Many of the costumes were made by Dali himself who, along with Audrey Hepburn wearing a birdcage on her shoulders, was among the guests. Dinner was served on black fur plates by butlers dressed as cats and included Goat’s Cheese Roasted in Post-Coital Sadness, while dessert was a life-sized sugar mannequin corpse laid on a bed of roses. It was all so fantastic that another socialite reportedly threatened suicide if she wasn’t invited to the next Rothschild event.
The Unsinkable Dinner
In 1912 a first class passage on the RMS Titanic cost upwards of $100,000 in today’s money, so it’s no surprise that the final meal served above decks before the ill-fated liner slipped below the icy waves was a fancy one. Beginning with oysters and hors d’ouvres, dinner for the elite was a gastronomic triumph of poached salmon, filet mignon, roast duckling and fois gras. For dessert guests could choose between waldorf pudding, chartreuse jelly and peaches or chocolate eclairs, while every course was paired with wine. The Titanic employed a head chef, five sous chefs and 128 cooks, the majority of whom spent their final hours creating an ostentatious feast that swiftly became a flashpoint for the condemnation of the class system that followed the sinking.
The Final Waltz of Nikolas II
It was the winter of 1903 and though they didn’t know it, the House of Romanov was in a delicate position. In the words of one Duke, “a new and hostile Russia glared through the windows of the palace while we danced”. But like a Rich Kid of Instagram, Tsar Nikolas II went ahead and threw his annual fancy dress ball anyway. As the workers were striking, the Imperial Family and their guests dressed in traditional 17th century garb, danced the waltz and feasted on champagne, caviar and ice cream.The ball was to be the final spectacular event of the Russian aristocracy, and the beginning of the terminal collapse of the Empire that would culminate in the Russian Revolution, the rise of socialism and the slaughter of the entire Romanov family. Which just goes to show you should never flash your cash, particularly while your comrades go hungry.
Dark and Desperate Times
In September 1870 the Franco-Prussian War was not going very well for the French. German forces had surrounded Paris and cut off their supply routes; it wasn’t long before the hungry inhabitants of the city had exhausted their stocks of fresh food. By the time Christmas rolled round, things were looking grim indeed, even horse meat was starting to look good. Enter the good chefs of Voison, one of the few restaurants to remain open as winter closed in. Determined to dish up a festive feast on Christmas Day they looked to the only source of fresh meat available to them: the local zoo. Guests were treated to entrees of Broth of Elephant and Stuffed Donkey Head, roasts of Cat Flanked with Rats and Antelope Terrine. Bear Chops and Kangaroo Stew were offered as mains, while a palette cleansing gruyer cheese at the end of the meal delivered a last minute note of normalcy to the whole affair.
A Feast Fit for a Queen
Elizabeth I had only been queen for two years when, in 1560 she was rumoured to have hooked up with the ostentatiously wealthy Earl of Leicester. After 15 years of friendly yet cordial relations, the lovesick Earl decided to throw her an extravagant banquet in order to win her hand. In what could only be described as excessive, the party went for 17 days and featured 300 dishes including, but certainly not limited to, whale bile and sturgeon, eel and pheasant, and mountains of sweets such as candied aniseed and rose jam. (The Queen was hopelessly addicted to sugar, a craving that would eventually turn her teeth black.) To accommodate the Queen and her entourage, the Earl extensively renovated his estate, including a whole new wing for her Majesty and lodgings for her 400 staff. Unfortunately for him, and the fortune he had blown, the Queen rejected his proposal. And on that note, I’m off to see whether MKR beauty queens Piper and Veronica have learned how to cook a simple steak without insulting anyone. I suspect they haven’t.