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Explorers eat fried tarantulas at black-tie gala

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The adventurous hors d'oeuvres have become a staple of the glitzy gala, where astronauts and archaeologists rub shoulders with oceanographers and nature photographers. Shown here, a chef serves snakehead fish.Megan Gannon for Live Science

Goat testicles, earthworms, python and jellyfish were on the menu at the Waldorf Astoria hotel Saturday night. But that wasn't out of the ordinary.

The Explorers Club Annual Dinner has become famous for a cocktail hour that dares its adventurous attendees to be daring with their palettes though not all were up for the challenge.

"Could I say that I gave up eating bugs for Lent?" former NASA astronaut Mike Lpez-Alegra told Live Science last week ahead of the party. [See Photos of the Exotic Foods at the 2014 Explorers Club Gala]

The smell of durian (think rotting meat wrapped in dirty socks) filled one corner of the black-tie gala. A chef in another room cut thick slices of ostrich, poultry that surprisingly looked and tasted like steak. The crispy carcasses of muskrats, alligators and snakehead fish populated the other carving boards, and fried tarantulas were served on sticks. Eaters in gowns and tuxedos found even the most innocuous-looking appetizers, such as mozzarella and tomato skewers, seasoned with mealworms, crickets and other critters.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos joked that he had to pick cockroach out of his teeth as he got on stage during the more traditional, sit-down dinner portion of the evening. (This reporter was too squeamish to sample the roaches but overheard someone saying the exoskeletons took an unsettling amount of time to chew.)

Bezos was accepting a Citation of Merit for the seafaring expedition he funded last year to recover fragments of the F-1 engines that launched giant Saturn V rockets to the moon during the Apollo era. In addition to Bezos and Lpez-Alegra, the star-studded list of guests and honorees included SpaceX founder Elon Musk; moonwalker Buzz Aldrin; ocean explorers Sylvia Earle and Walter Munk; retired NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Daz; and planetary scientist Maria Zuber. Physicist Stephen Hawking even addressed the crowd via telecast.

While the hors d'oeuvres were in keeping with the intrepid spirit of the evening, Gene Rurka, the man behind the menu, had another motive in serving creepy crawlies to A-list explorers.

"The message I'm trying to bring across to people is that we're basically out of food," Rurka told Live Science in an earlier interview. "In a few more years, we could have 9.5 billion people on Earth, and we've got to feed all of these people. We have to look at alternative methods of agriculture not just your beef, your pork, your chicken."

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