Steven Rinella is the author of The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, a book inspired by his own discovery of Le Guide Culinaire, a cookbook written by August Escoffier in 1903. The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine follows Rinella’s modern day escapades re-creating the godfather of French cooking’s meals — with American game. A contributor to Outside, Field & Stream, and The New Yorker magazines, Rinella shares his “phood” philosophy and adventures with the Greenneck.
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1. Where did your hunting/fishing/food philosophy come from? Who taught you?
My dad taught me to hunt and fish, but I can’t really say that my philosophy came from him. He had me when he was over 50 years old, and he was raised during the Depression by his grandmother. He scrounged chunks of coal that fell off trains by the railyard; one time he got picked up by the cops for stealing rags and selling them to a scrap dealer. When the yellow perch were in shallow water he’d camp on the piers and sell perch.
We weren’t poor like that when I was a kid, but my dad still had that impulse to get as much as game as possible whenever and however it happened. I did a lot of illegal things as a little kid with no idea whatsoever that I was breaking laws. Running seines over bluegill beds, spearfishing in freshwater, catching snapping turtles out of season, potting squirrels out of season. I don’t resent my dad for being the way he was, but I had to figure out conservation ethics on my own, and it took longer than if I had a more informed mentor.
2. What do you think is different between your father’s outdoor experiences and your own? What has changed?
My answer to #1 spilled over into this arena… but I think a lot has changed over the last two generations. (I consider my father and me to be separated by a “missing” generation, since he was the age of my friend’s grandfathers). Some of the changes are good, some are bad.
Hunters used to be more focused on food; in general, they had a much more sincere appreciation for the good meat that you can get through hunting and fishing. A lot of hunters nowadays are like spoiled brats in that way. They want horns and trophies, but the value of the food is lost on them. I think that’s why we see this ongoing trend of making venison jerky and “snacky sticks.” People are afraid of the meat, or feel inconvenienced by it, and the tendency is to add a bunch of sugar and turn it into candy that you pass around at work. Something about the beautiful value of creating meals for one’s family is missing within that paradigm. The good changes have to do with conservation.
We’re much more aware of what it takes to have stable populations of wildlife now. I think of salmon management in Alaska. We now know that it’s possible to have too many salmon return to a river during the spawning season; if you limit the returning fish, you get a better recruitment of healthier individuals heading into the ocean. That level of knowledge allows us to be adept conservationists, and I believe that most hunters and fishermen have a greater respect for the written law than they used to. Maybe not ethical law, but written law…
3. Your book is fairly graphic in its presentation of animal-to-food. What kind of reception did it get from various groups– foodies, sportsmen, backpackers and the like?
I got some negative responses, but not the kinds that I cared about. I took a lot of hits from folks who are categorically opposed to killing animals. I expected that and welcomed it. I got an extremely positive response from hunters and sportsmen and other outdoor enthusiasts. I think people appreciated seeing things expressed in real, visceral terms. And thank God for that. If I had gotten responses from lifelong hunters who said that I really missed the mark, I would have felt like I failed something.
4. You often submit stories to non-sportsmen oriented publications– Outside, Men’s Journal, New York Times, etc. Do you find you need to “tone down” your sportsmen philosophy to be more palatable to their readers? Is there a tension?
That’s a good question. I like to read great non-fiction writers who deal with all sorts of things that I will never experience: Michael Herr on the Vietnam War; Joan Didion on life in southern California; Mark Twain on running the Mississippi; John McPhee on making a birch bark canoe. I guess that my goal as a writer is to enter that arena, where your skills and enthusiasm transcend your subject matter to give it a more universal appeal. So, no, I don’t try to tone things down; at least not anymore than Mark Twain would have toned down his thinking about the Mississippi. I’m not equating myself to Twain in any way, believe me, but like him I care about the art and craft of writing as much as I care about my subject. If I had to sit down and describe myself, I’d say that I’m a hunter/fisherman and a writer. That is, I’m not interested in being strictly a hunting and fishing writer.
5. Where do you draw the line on food? Foie gras, etc? If you were on that plane from the “Alive” movie, would you have been one the folks to walk off that mountain?
First off, I like to think that I would have come off that mountain alive. I believe hunting, at least in the more extreme circumstances, strengthens your stomach and your will to survive. And it strengthens your ability to follow through with that will. And I’m not easily disturbed.
But I think “drawing the line” on food is more complicated than simple decisions about what’s gross or disgusting. For instance, I enjoy sushi. I love raw tuna, particularly. However, when I’m in a big city and I go out for sushi, I target establishments where I can order wild Pacific salmon unless I know what the tuna is and where it came from. It’s painful to pass it up, but there’s a reality: we’re exhausting our stocks of pelagic fish and we need to bring those prices down to take away some of the motivation that drives people to kill every last one of them.
You mentioned foie gras. The production of foie gras seems to fly in the face of everything that I understand about responsible animal husbandry. You’re encouraging a diseased state in animals that are under your care. I tend to think of it as an abomination, but then domestic ducks and geese are not endangered or threatened. So I almost feel like I have no business telling someone to abstain. The issue is pretty far removed from the things that I care most about. It’s not what I worry about at night.
6. Recently you submitted an excellent guest piece to the New York Times on how the “locavore” movement (eating local foods) should be informed by hunting locally. To play devil’s advocate, would it even be possible for everyone to go out and hunt their own meat? Do we have enough game to support that?
No way. That’s why I’m reluctant to suggest that non-hunters take up the pursuit. If someone feels drawn to the lifestyle, that’s great. I want to help them out. But I don’t want all 300 million Americans to start hunting. We don’t have the resources, plain and simple. However, I do want all 300-million Americans to have a positive impression of hunters. But that’s another story….
7. Some of the people you spent time with were the Leightons of Saltry Cove, Alaska, a couple that derives almost all of their food from their surroundings. The Leightons are battling the Forest Service not to allow logging above their home, as it would hurt the Leighton’s water supply. Yet Ron Leighton was not a fan of environmental groups helping him fight this battle– what do you think is the disconnect that prevents Ron (and others) from finding common cause?
Ron’s a mystery. I ended up buying the shack next door to the Leightons and now I spend a lot of time with Ron. I understand him in greater detail than when I wrote my first book, though most of what I suggested about him is pretty much right on.
He has some of the same beliefs, however misguided, that I had as a kid. Back then, I thought environmentalism was synonymous with anti-hunting. I can’t explain why I thought this. It’s some great cosmic disconnect that plagues rural America. (Looking back on it, I see that my previous misunderstanding informs the terminology that I use today.)
But a thing that’s important about Ron is that he really, truly loves animals. He’s obsessed with wildlife. He knows all about tons of things, things that you’d only know if you really paid attention because you were in love with the machinations of nature. But his ethics are informed by things that I can’t readily relate to or even understand.
For instance, Ron loves to hunt blacktail deer. Out there, the primary predators of deer are bears and wolves. Ron won’t kill a bear or a wolf, even though there are huntable numbers of each and it’s perfectly legal. He just won’t do it, doesn’t believe it. But he also likes to fish salmon, and because of this he’d kill every last sea lion in the world if you gave him the chance. It’s a complete mystery to me. It makes me want to pull my hair out.
I’m glad that I’ll be spending more time with him this summer and in years to come, because I need to keep talking to this guy to figure him out. I think it’s important that I do so. And I’m trying to persuade him to see things my way a little more. Oddly, he doesn’t try to persuade me to see things his way. I don’t know what that means.
By the way, the logging threat in Saltry Cove has passed. That has more to do with the current economics of logging than it does with anything that the handful of local residents had to say.
8. Where are the places outdoors you care about the most?
I like the extremes. The really far out places – the Alaskan Arctic, the mountains of Wyoming and the plains of Montana – but also the little pockets of wild that are left in and around our cities. Especially those little ponds that you sometimes see behind places like Wal-Mart, where they dug out fill dirt. When I see a duck or a heron in a place like that, I want to jump for joy.
9. What gives you hope that these places can be “saved”?
I’m not sure that I have that hope. It will take a long time, and it won’t be easy, but I think someday wilderness will be brought to its knees. At least in the way we know it. We’ll have parks and isolated patches of wilderness, but the great infrastructure of wilderness, so to speak, will be dismantled. It’s really horrible to think about, but then I can’t say that the aggregate happiness of humanity will be affected by it. Will they cry for it? Probably not.
I was reading recently that in something like 50 or 100 years there will be no more large primates living in the wild. The scientist who said it did not treat this as an “if.” He treated it like a perfect, crystalline fact. How many Americans will miss the idea of wild, large primates over in Africa? Apparently not enough. Likewise, how many of the world’s citizens will lament that the lower-48 no longer has any wolverines?
Like I said, this outcome will be slow and we can fight it and hold it back. We have to hold it back as long as possible. But I’m not sure we’ll stop it. It will happen slowly and steadily, like it’s been happening since man showed up in North America 14,000 years ago. It breaks my heart. And I suppose that’s why I wake up in the morning and pray that I’m wrong about this.