Members of the Ichthyophagous Club are caricatured on a menu at one of their banquets.
Members of the Ichthyophagous Club are caricatured on a menu at one of their banquets. Henry Voigt Collection of American Menus

From 1880 to 1887, members of an unusual New York club met once a year for elaborate banquets of unusual water-dwelling creatures. “Ichthyophagous” means fish-eating, but the Ichthyophagous Club devoured all things aquatic, including dolphin, starfish, and manatee.

The club’s stated goal was to expand culinary horizons. Led by the editor-in-chief of the New York Times, its members hoped their example would prove that “there are quite good fish left uneaten.” Which aquatic creatures—considered ugly or inedible by Americans—could be redeemed, especially if cooked in a fine French style?

The membership included fishing experts, food industry executives, journalists, and writers. They considered their efforts philanthropic, but they certainly weren’t martyring themselves. Each event was a rowdy party.

The media followed the annual dinners attentively. The first dinner, which The New York Times called “unique, startling, [and] wonderful,” included novelties like platter-sized moonfish cooked Spanish-style and bottom-feeding sea robin fish with lettuce salad. The Times writer also observed that few members could pronounce the club’s name.

In its third and fourth years, the club’s menu was especially quirky: fresh-caught dolphin steaks, many-toothed lamprey eels fried in crumbs, and dogfish shark croquettes. All of the club’s menus featured typical banquet food—like beef tenderloin and lobster salad—alongside the oddities. But club members were most interested in the eccentric options, even if they failed to impress. The dolphin and alligator garfish were particularly unpleasant. The next year, members loved the manatee filets and alligator steak.

The Ichthyophagous Club used spectacle to popularize uncommon fish.
The Ichthyophagous Club used spectacle to popularize uncommon fish. New York Public Library/Public Domain

The New York Public Library’s copy of the menu from the sixth dinner shows a feast of long-legged sea spider crab, periwinkle sea snails, and starfish bisque. The periwinkles were met with disgust, but the starfish bisque was considered quite tasty. In another claim towards the public good, one of the club’s chefs, Thomas J. Murray, suggested that eating starfish would prevent them from preying on the once-bountiful oysters of the Long Island Sound, leaving more for their human predators.

While the Ichthyophagous Club never popularized starfish soup, it did influence American cooking. Delmonico’s head chef Alessandro Filippini credited it with popularizing both skate and squid, which Americans rarely ate before the Ichthyophagous Club.

While the Ichthyophagous Club successfully introduced new dishes, the seas and rivers of today look very different. In the 1880s, the sea still seemed plentiful enough that advocating for new seafoods could appear philanthropic. Now, whenever a tasty fish is embraced, it’s fished nearly to extinction, making the dream of endless watery bounty more distant than ever.

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