The cold roast lion garni Malabar tasted much like veal, the python in Creole sauce was similar to chicken and the warthog ragout had the taste of pork. The brandade of hippopotamus was wonderfully tender, as was the roast elephant au naturel, while the marinated white gnu was sweet—but not as sweet as braised zebra.
Gnu? Zebra! What kind of gastronomic gag is this? It’s not a joke at all, but a list of the courses offered by Jack Jonas at his sixth annual Hunter’s Dinner in Denver. Despite the stomach-turning menu, which also featured octopus à la grec, gazelle salad, Cape buffalo sauté forestière and moose vinaigrette, about 225 people from 12 states paid $25 apiece to sample the exotic fare—and to raise money for a recently published conservation textbook, Operation Respect. Safari-suited Jonas, 43, was uniquely qualified to arrange the affair. Along with his father, Joe, he runs Jonas Brothers, Inc. of Denver, the largest taxidermy business in the world.
Jack Jonas argues that hunters are, by and large, ardent conservationists. “There are more deer and elk in the country today than when the Pilgrims came,” says Jonas, who also runs Jack Jonas Safaris, a firm that arranges hunting and fishing trips all over the world. In the past four years he has spent 10 months in Africa and made regular journeys to Alaska. Whenever possible, Jonas’ wife, Lasca, and children, Tina, 21, Karen, 18, and Stephen, 14, vacation with him in the wilds. “We hunters are nuts on conservation,” Jonas says. “We realize that if there are no animals we can’t hunt.”
Any shortage of animals means trouble for the family business. It was founded in 1908 by Jack’s Hungarian-born grandfather, who mounted big game for Teddy Roosevelt. The company has also done work for Roy Rogers (several gnus and gazelles, but not Trigger, who was mounted by an L.A. taxidermist), actor Robert Stack (gazelles), race driver A.J. Foyt (polar bear) and the late author Robert Ruark (Bengal tiger).
The Hunter’s Dinners have always drawn criticism from environmentalists, but this is the first year Jonas has used the event to raise money for a conservationist cause. Since its start in 1971, the cooking has been supervised by Denver chef Louis Navant, 53, whose father learned recipes for wild game while working as chef for several French consulates in Africa. “Africans eat a lot of monkey,” says Navant, “and they love snake.”
Jonas learned after printing the menu that federal law prohibits the transport of spider monkey and tiger meat across state lines, and he had to drop them from the meal. He supplied some of the dishes from his taxidermy shop and bought the rest from exotic meat dealers, who both import meat and buy zoo animals who have grown old and cantankerous. Two blue sharks were caught off the coast of California and flown in.
Chef Navant marinated most of the meat three to 10 days to tone down its gamy quality. Even so, several of the guests cheerfully paid the full amount for the dinner but nibbled only green salad. Most, however, including former Colorado Gov. John Vanderhoof, dug in. Toward the end of the dinner, Jonas came up with the most popular item of all—doggie bags, which he auctioned off at $35 apiece.