Imagine planning, prepping for, and cooking a 45-course meal spread out over three days, each course from a legendary and legendarily complicated, century-old, aristocratic French cookbook. Now, imagine each course features, as the main ingredient, an animal you hunted and butchered yourself. This is the simple but frankly ludicrous-sounding hook behind The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine (2006) written by Steven Rinella, possibly the country’s most interesting hunter.
The book begins with Rinella standing in a Montana kitchen, puzzled about how to stuff a duck he hunted into the bladder of an antelope he hunted. It is a struggle. Eventually, he gives up and substitutes pigeon for duck, the pigeon Rinella, of course, killed and butchered himself too. Over the next 300 pages, Rinella takes the reader along in a journey from Florida to Michigan to Alaska as he kills or captures (then kills) all the wild game needed for his mad feast.
It’s a terrific ride—even if you have no interest in, or patience with, hunting.
In the beginning, Rinella gets his hands on a copy of Auguste Escoffier’s Le Grand Culinaire a massive cookbook written in 1903. Escoffier, the “King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings,” according to Rinella, cooked for Europe’s most discerning 19th-century appetites. King Edward and Kaiser Wilhelm were frequent diners at Escoffier’s table. Escoffier was also a chef right up Rinella’s alley. “This was the only cookbook I’d ever read that assumed the cook would kill his own turtle,” Rinella explains. Rinella kills his own turtle.
High French cuisine might seem to be a strange attractor to a 21st-century hunter, but Rinella is also a passionate cook of the game he hunts, and, in the years since The Scavenger’s Guide was released has written several game cookbooks. “I spend a lot of time thinking about food,” begins chapter one. “If I’m not thinking about food, there’s a good chance I’m out collecting it. I scrounge around in mountains for huckleberries and I search riverbanks for wild asparagus, though mostly I hunt and fish. I suppose you could say that getting my own food is a hobby of mine, but I’ve never looked at it that way. When I’m packing an elk down off a mountain on my back, and it feels like my knees are going to crack open and my shoulders are going to strip away like banana peels beneath their weight, I certainly don’t feel like I’m pursuing a hobby.”
This book though is not necessarily about hunting. There are fascinating character studies. Ray Turner, the Eel Man of upstate New York, resembles a character from Lord of the Rings, living in a stone house he built himself, reshaping a nearby river’s rock-bottom to build eel-trapping weirs. We meet Ron Leighton and his wife Joan who live way, way off the grid on San Juan Island Alaska, and who are world-class shrimp trappers. Then there’s Floyd Van Ert, a man who’s devoted his life to trapping as many English sparrows as possible because the non-native sparrows kill and harass native birds. Rinella later makes a sparrow pie, in case you’re wondering.
Then, of course, there’s the food writing. The entire last section of the book is devoted to his three-day feast and it’s a near-orgy of food prep, eating, drinking and general merriment. You may find yourself inspired to cook your own version of crabe a l’anglaise (Dungeness crab with mustard, egg, and caviar), selle de chevreuil Briand (antelope with bear fat and wine-poached pears), or fritot de raie (fried and marinated stingray).
Oh, but there’s hunting (and fishing) too. Mountain goats, black bear, and halibut in Alaska. Stingrays in Florida. Frogs in Michigan. Bighorn sheep and elk in Montana. Wild boar in California. And lots more. But Rinella’s descriptions of hunting are not violent. It’s not macho. He cares deeply for many of the animals he hunts, and the visceral connection with nature Rinella experiences on a hunt are vivid on the page. Even the vegetarian reader will find much to love in this book. Rinella is a careful and thoughtful observer of the natural world. His book is filled with ruminations like this:
Ray’s weir wasn’t terribly different from its predecessors from previous millennia. Keeping a weir requires a tolerance for routine and repetition and drudgery. But that tolerance has to be tempered with some love for the rhythms of nature, or it would never last. Indeed, weirs or no weirs, the eels have come down the river every year for thousands and thousands of years. That’s amazing. But it’s especially amazing when you consider Ray Turner and the hundreds of Ray Turners before him. Picking up rocks, setting them down. Collecting eels, preserving meat. Once I watched Ray place a rock into the weir’s wall, then stand up to admire how well it fit. He wiped his hands on his shorts. He looked up the river, then back at the weir. “I just want life to go by in a calm and collected way,” he said. He reached down and touched the rock again. If he moved it at all, it was an imperceptible amount. He stood back up and admired the rock again. ‘I go to my eel weir,’ he said, ‘and everything’s cool.”
Rinella notes too the incredible diversity of animals in Escoffier’s cookbook and realizes there’s a lesson there. “I now think of Le Guide as a great argument for biodiversity. To preserve biodiversity, we must learn to embrace differences…I want the world to be as big and glorious and varied as possible, and packed full of animals.”