The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine
by Steven Rinella
Published by Miramax
318 pages, 2006
50 Ways to Eat Your Pigeon
Reviewed by David Abrams
The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine opens with Steven Rinella standing in his Miles City, Montana, kitchen trying to stuff a duck inside an antelope bladder. Ideally, he should be using a pig's bladder, but when Rinella killed a wild boar in California the previous summer, he accidentally nicked the organ with his skinning knife and now he's in a panic because the antelope bladder is too small for the wild duck.
Thus the stage is set for Rinella's account of his year-long quest to build a perfect wild game feast for a dozen of his friends. Part food memoir, part hairy-chest hunting adventure, The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine turns out to be one of the most unlikely enjoyments of the literary season.
Rinella's story begins when a friend gives him a hundred-year-old cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire, by Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was once known as the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings; his list of royal clients included Kaiser Wilhelm II, the shah of Persia and Queen Victoria.
Rinella writes that he initially found Le Guide Culinaire to be "a pretty weird cookbook." As he read through the century-old pages, he realized Escoffier wasn't advocating a quick trip to the supermarket to pick up the necessary ingredients. A precise and fussy restaurateur, his meal-gathering methods went a bit deeper than that:
This was the only cookbook I'd ever read that assumed the cook would kill his own turtle. And I could see that this Escoffier fellow didn't mince words. He first advises that the turtle be "very fleshy and full of life." Then he gets into the chore at hand. He doesn't seem to be concerned about any squeamishness or sensitivity that a cook may have about performing such unsavory duties.
Squeamish readers (and vegetarians) be warned: Rinella also spares no sensitivity when he writes about patiently stalking, killing and eviscerating his ingredients. For instance, if you think pigeons are cute little cooing creatures or if you get teary-eyed when you pass a road-killed deer, you won't have an easy time of it when you approach passages describing how Rinella raises pigeon squabs for the sole purpose of baking them in a simmering lemon-butter broth.
Leafing through the pages of Escoffier's recipes, Rinella comes up with the idea of treating his friends to a multi-course feast the following Thanksgiving. He imposes a couple of restrictions on himself: he gives himself one year to gather the necessary ingredients for the feast and, because traveling to other countries to hunt and fish would be logistically and financially impossible, he limits his scavenging to the United States.
And so we follow him from Florida (stingrays) to Alaska (mountain goats) to upstate New York (river eels) and several other points of the compass in between. We watch him try to make bird's nest soup out of cliff swallows' dwellings ("I took the mud home and boiled it in a pot. I was left with nothing but hot muddy water and a dead floating bug") and a sauce out of fish semen ("It looked and smelled suspiciously like, well, semen"). We meet characters like Floyd Van Ert who traps English sparrows "as a service to the United States," a high school biology teacher named Drost who worries about being seen lurking around a Michigan swamp spearing frogs, and Ray Turner (a.k.a. the Eel Man) who annually traps and smokes about a ton of eels.
The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine is as much about Rinella re-discovering his inner hunter as it is a guide to preparing a mouthwatering banquet of wild game. Society has grown lazy and timid -- we prefer to snare our food in the supermarket aisle rather than hike seven miles through Montana's grizzly country in search of skittish elk.
The book could have been improved if Rinella had ramped up the humor in places or pushed the sentimentality a little harder (especially in scenes involving his father who is dying from lung cancer during the year of scavenging), but to his credit, he keeps the narrative tumbling along at a quick pace, always coming back to Le Guide Culinaire as a touchstone.
Rinella admires the way Escoffier's recipes "demonstrated a frontier sense of thrift and economy" and calls the cookbook "the Kama Sutra of food." Indeed, there is sensual delight to be found throughout The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine and the final feast is nothing short of a three-day orgy full of moans and sighs and much licking of fingers. I'd advise not reading the final chapters on an empty stomach. Rinella's descriptions of food preparation are so vivid, you might just end up eating the pages. For instance, his duck consommé:
The flavor was rich and layered, like a mild, buttery beef broth at first, but that taste quickly faded and was replaced with a deep roast duck flavor that hung on for several seconds. I'd eaten scores of ducks over the years, but I suddenly thought of a mallard in a completely different light. It was like learning that your girlfriend, whom you loved anyway, just won a million dollars on a slot machine.
Eventually, he comes up with about 45 dishes -- 15 courses per day -- which include mousse froide d'ecrevisses (crayfish mousse), fritot de raie (marinated and fried stingray), dindonneau en daube (a rolled galantine of young wild turkey, venison sausage and pistachios) and mauviettes a la piemontaise (sparrows baked inside a polenta and risotto cake).
Most of the dishes succeed (mountain goat sweetmeats in a puff pastry), some don't (elk and antelope kidney pudding), but in the end, as we learn from Rinella, it's the journey that matters more than the destination. | February 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.