The centerpiece of Montana writer Steven Rinella’s collection of animal relics is a black bear’s finger that he found in a pile of bear dung in the Cabinet Mountains. That’s the type of souvenir a scavenger collects when he’s out bear hunting. As for what he does with his kill, Rinella says the bear fat he collects can be saved in the freezer to use as lard in the deep-frying of meat. He also melts the bone marrow to spread on toast points.
For all his success as a bear hunter, Rinella, an MFA graduate of the University of Montana’s creative writing program and author of the travelogue The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, has a surprisingly difficult time with frogs:
“The thought of killing a frog gave me an almost visceral sense of dread,” he writes. Turns out, frog-catching involves a three-pronged spear that you plunge into the frog’s mouth, sinking the reptile into swamp muck. When you lift it up, the frog will still be alive with its legs kicking, so you thump it on the back of its head. Standing waist-deep in a swamp outside Traverse City, Mich., he realized how much less of a man he’d become. “In terms of frog-catching, I had become a total loser.”
For Rinella, a Michigan native who began hunting as a child, the gastronomic potential of bone marrow and frog legs—or “nymphs at dawn” as the latter are called in French cuisine—were just a few of the many discoveries he made on a year-long journey wherein he procured the ingredients to re-create a three-day, 45-course feast described in Le Guide Culinaire, the 1903 cooking bible by French master chef Auguste Escoffier. Procurement of complex cooking ingredients, for most of us, might involve several trips to the grocery store and maybe one trip to an out-of-the-way specialty market, but Rinella’s mission requires the hunting, fishing and butchering of the necessary menu items. Before he set out on his journey, Rinella imposed a couple of restrictions upon himself: he must gather all ingredients in a year’s time and he must hunt and fish only within the United States.
In a phone interview, Rinella admits that, ironically, hunting for the ever-present street pigeon—which he attempted underneath Missoula’s Higgins Avenue bridge—constituted his most difficult, and most rewarding task.
“Most animals hate our cities so bad,” he says. “Here’s this animal who just loves our cities, almost as much as we do. And most people can’t stand them. I look at them totally different now and just enjoy hanging out with them on an intimate level.” Rinella named his pigeons Red and Li’l Red.
After traveling from Florida (stingrays) to California (wild pig), Rinella finally served the feast over a long Thanksgiving weekend to a group of friends in Miles City (including his vegetarian girlfriend). Besides good eating and hunting, the year-long adventure allowed Rinella to rediscover the personal philosophy that has informed his life since he was a kid riding a bicycle with a shotgun in his pack.
He writes that, “People will happily pay good money for dead animals, so long as the animals are killed by proxy executioners and sold in grocery stores. But many of those same people are suspicious of folks who enjoy killing their own food in the wild. So let this serve as a warning about what kind of guy I am, and what kind of book this is.”
For Rinella, who grew up in an age “where it’s considered hickish” to kill and eat your own food, Escoffier, the renowned “King of Chefs and Chef of Kings,” might seem like an odd choice of kindred spirit, but as Rinella writes: “This was the only cookbook I’d ever read that assumed the cook would kill his own turtle.”
Over the phone, Rinella admits that “not everybody can hunt; not everybody can just go out and procure their own food because there’s finiteness to what the natural world can provide, but I hope people become more sympathetic to people who do do that and understand that hunting and fishing for your own food is not about bravado or aggression, that it can be an honest, compassionate activity that is born of having the natural world’s best interests in mind.”
On Thanksgiving morning, the first day of the feast, Rinella found himself stuffing a duck into an antelope’s bladder. Among his worries was that while the recipe actually called for a pig’s bladder, he’d accidentally nicked the pig’s bladder with his knife while splitting the animal open and so had to resort to antelope. Also, he wanted to recruit his girlfriend from vegetarian status to full carnivore, and his brothers still hadn’t returned from hunting the rabbit that would serve as the main ingredient in the pate of cottontail rabbit course. Such worries aside, though, Rinella first had to take care of Red and Li’l Red. He used a hatchet.
Steven Rinella appears at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing of The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine Tuesday, April 11, at 7 PM.