Escoffier, turtles and Cool Ranch Doritos

Bizarre foods: “I've eaten a lot of bizarre things ... but I think the weirdest thing I ever ate was a Cool Ranch Dorito,” says lifelong hunter, Steven Rinella. Photo courtesy of Zero Point Zero Entertainment
Bizarre foods: “I've eaten a lot of bizarre things ... but I think the weirdest thing I ever ate was a Cool Ranch Dorito,” says lifelong hunter, Steven Rinella. Photo courtesy of Zero Point Zero Entertainment

In 1903, Auguste Escoffier, the oft-called "chef of kings and king of chefs," released Le Guide Culinaire, considered by some to be the French culinary Bible. To the average modern eater, the menus in the 5,000-recipe tome may seem downright bizarre; the book is now regarded as more of a recorded history of food than a cookbook. The recipes often involve unusual methods of cooking (birds poached in bladders, say), game meats and parts and pieces that are difficult to find outside of the hunter's arena.

One of the more intriguing recent attempts to revive Escoffier's culinary stylings is detailed in Steven Rinella's 2006 book, The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine. Rinella, host of MeatEater on the Sportsman Channel, is also a hunter, trapper and food writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times and the annual anthology, Best Food Writing. Scavenger's Guide follows the author's attempt to catch and prepare Le Guide recipe ingredients, from eels to baby pigeons (which he describes as one of the toughest things he's ever attempted to trap).

On Sunday, March 18, at 2 p.m., Rinella will speak at the Diana Wortham Theatre about those experiences and other chapters in the life of a longtime hunter and forager. He'll discuss problems of our current food systems and natural habitat preservation and conduct a question-and-answer session.

Rinella is speaking in conjunction with an event to be held later that evening, Dinner for the King, where local chefs Matt Dawes (formerly of Table), Brian Canipelli (Cucina 24), Jeremy Hardcastle (Hardcastle Hot Dogs) and Camp Boswell (The Junction) will offer interpretations of recipes from Le Guide Culinaire. Tickets to that event (presented by the Blind Pig supper club, blingpigofasheville.com) have long been sold out, but Rinella will be the guest of honor that evening, naturally.

"I've done a fair bit of Escoffier cooking with strange items, so it will be fun to see someone else's interpretation of it," he says. "I struggled with it mightily, so maybe they'll make it look easy."

Xpress: Cooking a huge dinner from Le Guide Culinaire is an ambitious thing to take on, even putting aside the fact that you trapped and cleaned — and in some cases raised — all of those animals. Any formal cooking experience?
Rinella: I have no formal culinary training. I watched my mom cooking while I was growing up and my dad was an avid deep-fryer of wild game, but I'm completely self-taught. I haven't really invented a lot of dishes or anything, I just take great things that other people have made and try to figure out how to make it with things I’ve killed. But I love to cook. Cooking, to me, is tied intrinsically to hunting.

What drew you to Le Guide Culinaire?
I had a snapping turtle that I wanted to cook up, and a friend of mine gave me her copy … I had always boned the meat out, breaded it and deep-fried it — which is a pretty good way to have turtle. I had never heard of it cooked another way, and here this guy has all of these ways of cooking turtles. Then I started seeing things in the book that were all around us, that we have access to.

Here were all of these inventive ways of handling [wild game]. He's not talking about some chicken recipe that I'll try to replicate with grouse, he's talking about grouse recipes. Plus, the pure weirdness of it — the idea that there's a cookbook where he's explaining how to behead a live turtle … It's just not the kind of thing that you run into these days. You know, Jamie Oliver is not going to have you decapitating a sea tortoise. There's a lot of lost art and information in there.

During an interview with NPR, the host makes a cringe-worthy comment about your friends who traveled to eat the meal that you labored for over a year to put together. 'You wonder why they would accept such an invitation,' she says. Is that bothersome to you, or are you used to it? (I do understand the liver soufflé was awful, however.)
I've spent a lot of my career fighting that perception, but it doesn't bother me. A lot of people ask me, 'What's the weirdest thing you ever ate?' I've eaten a lot of bizarre things — everything from domestic dogs to porcupines — while traveling … But I think the weirdest thing I ever ate was a Cool Ranch Dorito. If you shopped all day and devoted a week to cooking, you would never be able to replicate a Cool Ranch Dorito. That thing is the product of a laboratory. No one that's ever eaten a Cool Ranch Dorito could ever have a way of describing what they're putting in their mouth. We eat some bizarre stuff camouflaged as normal …

… and what's taboo for one culture may not be for another.
Right. I did a story about how people eat dog meat in Vietnam, particularly in the north in the final days of the lunar new year. It's kind of a luck food. When I wrote this piece in Outside Magazine, the final conclusion was that more people on Earth live in a country where, in some part of the country, it's acceptable to eat dog meat, than don't. The other [conclusion] I came to was I don't like eating dog meat. I ate it seven times and it disgusted me every time because the cultural taboos that I was brought up with are still very much intact. I couldn't tell if I liked the taste of it, it was so off-putting to me. But I tried it again and again.

I saw a video where you cooked elk in the field directly after killing it. You said it would be better if you'd let it age a bit longer, but that it's something you do to honor the animal in the field.
I like to eat things on the ground where it came [from]. For some things, like salmon, it's beneficial in the flavor sense — salmon likes to be eaten almost half-alive. Other things, like red meat, aren't as good if you haven't hung it for a while. But it's still pleasurable to me … I feel like I'm demonstrating to the animals that they will be used wisely.

Along those lines, does the general food waste of the American public drive you crazy?
Yeah, I'm a pretty frugal person in a food sense, and I'm sure that comes from having a sense of responsibility to the animals I hunt. I drive people nuts with the way that I'll manage my refrigerator to try to diminish waste. Hunting speaks to that level of frugality. I also grow my own vegetables in the summer. When you see all that goes into the making of something, the sight of it going bad is disgusting.

I eat a lot of food that's somewhat questionable. I had a bear come back trichinosis positive, which can cause people all kinds of problems, even death. I had 80 pounds of ground bear meat off that one bear, and there's no way I was going to pitch it out. So, I got a good meat thermometer and ate my way through the whole bear. I don't even bother to have them tested any more. I just assume they're positive for trichinosis and eat it anyway — just make sure to cook it good.

So, is it really harder to catch baby pigeons than wild boar?
Yeah, I would say so. It requires a different skill set. A lot of [the baby pigeons] are inaccessible. They'll hatch up under a bridge overpass or something like that where they're tough to get at, and you have to be lucky to find them there. They've got to be not eggs, not hatchlings, but just close to being ready to leave the nest. It's obvious that people who do squabs for restaurants are not finding them under bridges, they're rearing them. I recently spent a number of days in San Francisco trying to find baby pigeons, and I could not find one at all. 

What's it like chasing after pigeons in the city with a bunch of people around you?
It's funny because … many municipalities control pigeon populations in urban centers with pesticides. People know that pigeon eradication goes on all over, but it just really pisses them off to see an individual out grabbing a pigeon in order to eat it.

But it's OK to poison them …
Yeah, because it's like, somewhere else. They just hate to see a person doing it. They feel like they're being visited by some ugly part of human history … But they can live knowing that it's going on as long as it's not occurring in front of them.

People also have this reflexive sense that we are dirty — like how could some animal that lives among us and near us be edible? There's this erroneous assumption that these things are filthy and not safe, while having no idea what they are putting in their mouths has been subjected to.

Right, yet it's perfectly OK to eat a factory-farmed chicken that spends all its time in a coop inhaling waste.
I don't get it. No, I can't act like I don't get it. I get it. We desire a certain amount of removal from many things. There are many things that we don't participate in that make our lives function and work. For a lot of people, food happens to be one of [those things]. Everyone's life is full of hypocrisy — I'm not immune to being hypocritical. But that's a glaring, confusing hypocrisy.

What will you be talking about in Asheville?
I'll be talking about a lot of the things that you and I just talked about. I'll be talking about my personal history as a hunter, cultural conflicts surrounding hunting, the ethics of hunting and the adventure of hunting — the weird food of hunting. I'll offer a snapshot into the mind of a longtime meat-eater and hunter.

Tickets to see Rinella speak are $30. Groups of 10 or more are $15 per ticket. For more information, visit http://avl.mx/ay.

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com

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