May 2007

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine by Steven Rinella

The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, by hunter and outdoor writer Steven Rinella, is as much hunting memoir and ecological philosophy treatise as it is a book about food. Rinella’s ecological philosophy, which is heavily based on sustainable hunting, fishing and gathering (gathering is mentioning mostly in passing in the book), won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Rinella’s enthusiasm for all aspects of hunting, from the stalking to field dressing elk in the backcountry (while watching anxiously for grizzlies), might be shocking to people used to buying tidy vacuum-packed deboned steaks at the grocery store.

The Scavenger’s Guide isn’t a standard culinary memoir, focused entirely on cooking and eating; the actual cooking of the three-day-long French haute cuisine feast takes only the last four chapters. But the book is about food -- specifically where the food we eat comes from, and what it means to be personally involved in obtaining that food.

“A historian could make a good argument that human history is just a long story about the depersonalization of food products,” Rinella writes in the first chapter. “Up until ten thousand years ago, every human being survived by hunting and gathering... Over the last three to four hundred years, the number of hunter-gatherers has shrunk to just a couple pockets, located in the remotest corners of the globe.” Many people who happily eat factory-farmed and slaughtered meat from the grocery store react with horror to hunting for food.

This is probably not a book for those people. Rinella’s writing is elegant, earthy, compellingly readable and often funny. He creates fascinating portraits of the people involved in his year-long odyssey of hunting and gathering food for his feast based on the recipes of famed Ritz chef Auguste Escoffier -- from Floyd Van Ert, a one-man campaign against the invasive English sparrow, to Ray Turner, who smokes and sells about a ton of eels every year.

I am not a hunter myself, but the Wisconsin-dwelling portion of my family still farms a little, hunts venison every fall to turn into sausage, and fills the freezers every summer with muskellunges and bluegills. Hunters and anglers have the option to use every edible part of the animal or leave the scraps for scavengers, options taken from the average consumer by slaughterhouses that send the scraps to make substandard pet foods or be thrown away.

Escoffier’s haute cuisine copiously uses parts of the animal we cringe at today: thymus glands and brains and bladders. What Rinella doesn’t save for his feast he leaves for scavengers like bears and coyotes.

Rinella’s culinary journey led him to conclude that Escoffier’s cookbook is an argument for biodiversity. The subtle differences between animals are important not just for haute cuisine but also for the health of the world. Like Rinella, I want the world to be “as big and glorious and varied as possible, and packed full of animals,” and not just because I like cooking.

The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine is a wonderful reminder of what it means to be a part of the world, part of the cycle of eating and being eaten.

The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine by Steven Rinella
Hyperion
ISBN: 1401360173
319 Pages