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Eating squirrel with Steven Rinella

Writer and outdoorsman Steve Rinella grew up hunting and fishing in Michigan, but his adventures while earning his master's degree in Missoula led to his first book. The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, released in 2007, recreated a 45-course meal based entirely on Auguste Escoffier's 1903 milestone Le Guide Culinaire, a cookbook of esoteric wild game recipes. Rinella has since written four more books, including his latest two-volume series, The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game. He's also become a television star as host of the Sportsman Channel's "MeatEater," now in its sixth season.

While in Missoula as keynote speaker for the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers fifth annual Rendezvous, Rinella sat down with the Indy to talk about adventurous eaters, serving squirrel to his kids, and Jim Harrison's death.

We have to talk about the death of Jim Harrison.

Steven Rinella: Yeah, Harrison had a huge impact on me, man. You know ... you can never say where you would've been if something hadn't happened, but when I was in graduate school here in Missoula, if I hadn't read at that time his collection of essays, Just Before Dark, which is about food, literature and hunting, I don't know where I would've wound up.

Harrison walked the walk, too, with the stuff he was putting on his table. Is the Rinella table like that? Are you throwing out these huge presentations every day?

SR: I used to, but my cooking has gone way downhill because of having three little kids. But we don't cook them different foods. The other day, my 1-year-old, for his dinner, he had squirrel and rabbit and bell peppers and onions and then he had his tortilla in one hand, and all the parts that would have been his little taco, he picked out of the bowl with his other hand. I just cook differently now because I'm trying to cook something that's nutritious, balanced and isn't something that isn't gonna—you know, that isn't spicy. They drink seltzer water and they're, "Spicy! Spicy!"

  • photo courtesy of “MeatEater”

How many squirrels does it take to feed five people?

SR: When I cook squirrels I have a lot of other stuff. Let's say we're having another couple of friends over. The main thing we're having is squirrels. There's salads and sides and things, but the main thing is squirrels. You got two back legs, two front legs, the saddle ... it's a lot, one per person, especially with other stuff.

Most people think if they're going to eat wild game, it's deer or elk. I mean, I saw a big, fat Missoula squirrel run across the parking lot and I didn't see dinner.

SR: In the recreational, sporting hunting world, there's a tremendous amount of interest in a handful of apex species: deer, elk, turkeys. So in any kind of media about hunting, there's a very strong emphasis on those things. There's an industry attachment to the pursuit of those animals that really creates a culture around those animals. Small game, for the most part, doesn't have that.

You think there are class issues there?

SR: Yeah, I think so. But I think that is more for rural people than for urban people. One of the biggest surprises I have found with wild game is that—and it's counterintuitive—but I think the rural palate is less adventurous than the urban palate.

I'd agree. I grew up rural. I could happily eat six shitty meals in rotation the rest of my life.

SR: Yeah. If I was back in Michigan and had a bunch of older families from around my home over and I'm like, "Well, we have squirrels, snapping turtles, sucker ... " they'd be like, "Yeah, well, I had all that stuff when I was a kid but I like beef." They're not drawn to the exotic, because it's not exotic. They've been accidentally hitting turtles with their car their whole life and at some point in time someone cooked one for them and probably did a poor job of it. But I can go to young urban people and they'll trip over themselves trying to get a taste of these things and it blows their mind.

Those are the same people that are going to an Ethiopian restaurant one night, then maybe an Indian restaurant the next and so on.

SR: Exactly, exactly. If you've only eaten three things, going to the fourth is a big deal. If you've eaten 30 things? Going to 31 is not a big deal.

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