Steven Rinella has a history not unlike mine. We grew up in a world where the great outdoors is revered, studied, and utilized. Hunting and fishing were just a regular part of life — to the point that not being able to get a deer for the deep-freeze every fall meant going hungry that winter. For many people in this country, even today, harvesting wild game, fish, or produce isn’t so much a choice as it’s a way of life.
For me, an Indigenous person who was raised fishing and hunting on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, this is something that’s deep in my bones. It’s a connection to the natural world that we’re losing more and more purchase on as we, collectively, urbanize. As we move away from our hunting and fishing grounds, these issues get confusing and ethically fraught. With that in mind, I thought I’d reach out to someone I see as a fellow traveler on the wild road, the MeatEater (on Netflix, his podcasts, and his website), Steven Rinella.
In a world where dietary mantras dominate lifestyle — vegan, lacto-ovo, vegetarian, carnivore, keto, gluten-free, pescatarian, segan, etc. — eating in line with nature can feel like the rarest of all food decisions. So, I jumped on a call with Rinella, who was in between harvesting some wild mushrooms and hunting for a late-fall deer. We covered a lot of ground from the dropping of his groundbreaking new wild food cookbook to where hunting and harvesting your own food fits into the modern American landscape. We go deep, folks. Plus, you get a killer venison adobada recipe for Thanksgiving at the end!
So, the year is winding down and you have a new cookbook dropping. This is a special book. It’s a comprehensive guide to wild foods from the land and sea. Where did you start and how did you get to the finish line on a book like this?
We started a couple years ago by gathering images. We’ve shot way, way more processing photos than we were able to put in there in the end. I’ve run into this problem a few times, I tend to overdo projects and then really need to cut a lot of material out of ’em.
Since we collected about five times what we could ever put in there, it puts you in the situation of just picking your favorite stuff. I think it winds up being better for the project in the end. It’s better than someone who comes up light and starts making up shit to fill it out. To me, when you look at it, it really feels like the culmination of years of work because of all the different locations and varieties of foods.
What does the book cover?
You know, everything. Like how to process everything from a squirrel to mahi-mahi, and everything in between. In terms of the recipes, I had a lot of stuff. I put a lot of recipes into our guidebooks before. What we did here is that I wound up also using some friends, acquaintances, and chefs I like.
How did you choose the recipes?
It kind of came down to that it was comprehensive and also gave people a really good idea of how to handle a lot of different ingredients. Also, I propose a way to sort of think about wild game cooking, ’cause when you look at wild game cookbooks, a lot of people make the mistake of acting like there’s such a thing as a whitetail deer recipe, or a mule deer recipe.
I think that if you’re cooking game, especially horned and antlered game, it’s so much more important to think about the cut. Like, the cut of meat matters far more than what it came off of.
Right. There’s a universality.
I’ll have people be like, “oh, I saw that recipe you had for elk heart. Do you have a recipe for moose heart?” And, you know, it’s unnecessary. So, I’m proposing an approach to wild game that I think might be a little bit unfamiliar to a lot of people who’ve spent a lot of time cooking out of wild game cookbooks.
I think that’s sort of what’s brilliant about the book is that an ossobuco cut is an ossobuco cut. It doesn’t really matter where it’s coming from, to an extent. It feels like you’re casting a wider umbrella here to adapt recipes across the board.
That approach is something that differentiates this book from others. The gold standard of wild game cookbooks has always been the L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook. It’s a great cookbook. Everyone I hang out with has that cookbook and it’s been around forever. The thing that’s always bugged me the most about that book is the way that it’s organized: “Oh, here’s the Dall sheep recipes,” “here’s the antelope recipes,” “here’s the mule deer recipes.” It’s kind of maddening that it would be put together that way. So, I wanted to correct that.
Another thing that we put in the book is a piece called “The Nature of the Beast” in every one of the sections. It’s sort of a way for you to compare and contrast different things, and find the similarities to make substitutions easier. We also include an “Also Works With” section to give a sense that if you stumble across, say, a rabbit recipe, we explain how to go about using substitutions. That allows you to understand how the recipe actually works, what parts matter, and what parts don’t matter.
You’ve also integrated actual tasting notes so you have a more general idea of how these ingredients do work together, which I thought was a great idea. I mean, you so rarely see that and I think even L.L. Bean, they sort of assumed you already knew what this stuff’s gonna taste like.
It’s like a little bit of a contradiction there because, on one hand, I’m saying, “Oh, treat it all the same, just go by the cut.” But I’m also saying, “Okay, but if you are curious about the differences, here are the differences and here are the ones that matter, and here are the ones that you can ignore.” Like cooking with bear, there’s this big thing you gotta pay attention to. You have to be cooking in a way where that thing’s gonna hit a safe temperature. So, the substitution system falls apart with some of the stuff and you wanna really make sure that people understand the areas in which it matters.
There seems to be a lot of myth and misconceptions about wild food that you work towards dispelling in the book. Walk us through some of that.
There’s this fallacy that exists among American hunters that older animals become less palatable, which is not true. I mean, you can find animals that are in poor condition, and those can be less ideal. And, then, I try to really take on people’s ideas about what is gamey or what does gaminess come from. What does it mean? So there’s a lot more going on than just a compilation of 100 recipes. There’s a ton of information that’ll teach people how to think about and deal with wild game.
Okay, let’s talk cooking food. Thanksgiving is around the corner, what’s getting served for at the Rinella household this year?
We kinda do now what they did with the original Thanksgiving, which is you just run with what you have at the moment. You know, they definitely weren’t busting out frozen turkeys at the original Thanksgiving, right? They were actively hunting and cooking up what was being hunted at the moment. Like, last Thanksgiving we had squid because the squid were running and we were jigging a lot of squid.
So, we’ll do a bunch of things for Thanksgiving. I think that one of the things people like about turkeys is you pull it out and here’s this giant centerpiece. So to capture that, I like to do a whole deer leg for Thanksgiving because it’s just big and dramatic. It gets people excited. They certainly were eating venison at the original Thanksgiving so it’s funny that that didn’t become our standard Thanksgiving dish. Maybe it’s fortunate because I don’t know if our deer herds would be able to support 350 million Americans going out and getting a deer leg.
I’m with you on the venison! I do a lot of venison this time of year and I’ve actually gotten into roasting geese as well.
Sometimes we do whole geese, whole ducks too. So yeah I definitely lean toward the symbolism. The big grand presentation but it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a turkey or not.
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With waterfowl seasons opening across the US, many of you are about to be flush with duck meat. Be sure to give @wildandwhole’s recipe for seared duck and roasted acorn squash with pomegranate sauce a try. Your taste buds will thank you. Recipe at the link in our bio. #trophymeal
So, for me, one of my big beliefs is in getting more people into wild foods and away from factory farmed food within a realistic fashion. I’m not expecting factory farms to be shut down tomorrow or 100 million Americans to go hunting tomorrow, that’s just not reality. But, you know… hunting gets a pretty bad wrap — a lot of that’s thanks to trophy hunting consuming the conversation. Coming from an Indigenous background, it’s hard to wrap my head around that. To me it’s really more about “harvesting,” you know? When we’re out there taking a deer or bear or whatever, we’re also picking morels or chanterelles and collecting wild berries and herbs.
Yeah, about 45 minutes ago I was cutting the ears of a big chicken of the woods mushroom. A couple minutes after that we were hunting squirrels. I walked in from squirrel hunting to do the phone call. And when we’re done with the phone call I’m going to go back out and sit in a tree for deer. So there’s a handful of attempts in one day.
What’s hunting/harvesting to you?
For me, there are two components to it. I have to enjoy it and the food’s important to me. I think some people sometimes treat nature as a grocery store. They’re not really invested in the conservation end of things. They’re not really invested in the history of how these things came to be and what they are. I think on the other extreme you have people who are interested in some trophy. They recognize the value of hunting, they recognize the cache of being a good hunter and they want to steal that through just having the symbol of a big deer. They recognize that it’s a potent symbol. People look at a big deer and they like what they see and so they just want to cut to the chase and have that little bit of recognition by shooting it. There are different ways that people look at it.
The word trophy it’s so unpopular. The vast majority of Americans disapprove of trophy hunting. When I hunt for meat, I hunt for a host of reasons. Meat being one, enjoyment being another one in the sense of fulfillment comes from being self-reliant.
But if you come to my house, man, it’s full of antlers and animal hides. I like all that stuff. I view it as symbolic of a bigger whole. If I shoot a buck, I don’t leave the antlers laying the woods. I take them home with me and hang onto them, I like them and they mean a lot to me. So, it’s a confusing time.
People have probably been saying this for many generations, but, I think, that there are a lot of nuances missing from conversations about hunting and conversations about wildlife. One of the things I do in my career is I spend an enormous amount of time talking about and embracing the nuance.
And I’ll push against that tendency to want to strip it down to something clean. I’ll push against that, hopefully, until the day I die because these aren’t clean issues. They’re dirty, thorny issues that you really need be willing to think about if you’re going to really have any kind of meaningful conversation about our relationship with wildlife, our relationship with the natural world, and our relationship with hunting, or fishing, or clam digging, right?
Yeah, I have a hard time with the trophy issue. When I moved to Germany, I brought a few of my drums and a lot of feathers with me. I have a black bear hide drum over my desk right now. I got the claws hanging off of it too. I’m very proud of that drum, claws, bear, and experience. But, also, my family ate that bear. Now, when I glance at the drum and claws, I think of that time in my life, making the drum with my uncle, and the meals we shared because of the bear. That’s a trophy at the end of the day, right?
Yeah, man. I think when people hear the word “trophy,” what they’re envisioning is someone who’s killing for the reason of having the symbol. It exists. And we have to address that it’s confusing for some people.
Hopefully, we can find some common ground on these issues as we move forward.
So, let’s shift gears a bit. Can you recommend some practical ways for young people who haven’t grown up in the outdoors getting into harvesting wild food and even hunting? Where do you start?
So, I’m always trying to encourage people who want to get interested in hunting, is that they don’t need to follow the horde. They don’t need to follow what they’re seeing in magazines and thinking they need to shoot some big, huge buck in order to be a successful hunter.
There’s a thing that’s kind of happened to hunting in America over the last generation. We used to have a lot of small game hunters due to a real collapse a while ago. Turkeys became very rare. Deer became very, very rare. This was thanks to the market hunting that was going on [about a century ago]. There were many states that had no white-tailed deer. In fact, the white-tailed deer could’ve potentially been extirpated from much of the United States. There were states that shut down their deer season for a long time. Now we have an embarrassment of riches and we’re all sitting around trying to figure out what to do with all these excess deer. But during that time, people switched and hunted squirrels, rabbits, and other small game.
Now that we’ve recovered deer and turkey so successfully, people have abandoned small game hunting. So, now, there’s this great resource out there that’s underutilized. What made us good hunters growing up is that we hunted squirrels and rabbits because you can hunt squirrels and rabbits more days out of the year than you can’t. We’re talking about seasons that are six months long. Then, meanwhile, you might have a deer season that’s ten days long.
You can go and have the whole damn woods to yourself hunting small game. You can learn how to hunt, you can learn how to shoot, you can learn how to cook with small game.
Let’s say you’re not ready to get out there yet. Where’s a good place to find a community to help you find your way?
I like to tell people to get involved with nonprofit conservation groups. When you’re starting out hunting, it’s really hard to get people to give you their information. It takes a long time to learn how to do it. It takes a long time to learn where to do it. People don’t want to just give that up to any stranger that comes along asking. But when you go and work or volunteer for conservation groups and get involved, people respect that. Then, the people within those organizations will oftentimes take you under their wing.
If I was gonna talk to someone now who wanted to start hunting (and they didn’t have family or friends that hunted), I’d tell them to join their local chapter of BHA, or Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Do that for a few months. Be an active participant and I guarantee you that you’ll soon be out in the woods hunting with very excellent hunters.
Then, read, a lot. All I wanted to read when I was a kid was about hunters. I read about frontiers and the mountain man era. I read about hunters all the time. I read about trappers all the time. I learned a lot from that reading. These are things to do. If you come from a family that hunts, it’s just gonna be ingrained in you. If you don’t, it’s hard. There’s just something that happens to you. There’s something that happens to people that hunt their whole life. It’s like, you know, there’s something that happens to people who are around horses their whole life. You can’t get interested in horses at 30 or 40 years of age and ever look at a horse right, right? The people who know and are brought up around them, they look at a horse totally different. You’ll never learn what they learn. It’s just funny, there are some things like that. That early exposure really transforms your brain.
Yeah, I feel that.
It’s still fun. I still see a lot of people have fun learning the stuff. It’s valuable, you know? But, inevitably, hunting becomes more controversial all the time as we become a more urban society — a more urban society who doesn’t have a day-to-day involvement with wildlife. People in urban areas start to view wildlife very differently than people who live a day-to-day existence with wildlife. People view it as something that should not be touched and should just be enjoyed through the window. And I think that that makes it harder for people to get into hunting because it becomes ethically confusing.
Right, yeah, I feel hunting in my bones, man. But I live in the city. So, I’m pretty confused too. So let’s wrap this up so you get back to your deer hunt. I want somebody to go buy this book and I want them to try new wild recipes and try new wild flavors. How can we find some of these proteins and ingredients if were unable to harvest them ourselves?
That’s the thing, half the cookbook is full of fish and shellfish. These are all things that are readily available. Then there are a lot of game meats that are marketed in the U.S. For instance, people can buy wild pigs since they’re not covered by prohibitions on selling wild game because they’re non-native. You can buy alligator meat and so on. Also, you can befriend hunters and go and get stuff.
I’m very uneasy with the captive cervid industry. But, there’s a lot of wild game cooking you can do through good commercially established markets. The thing that I would ask people to consider is that all 50 states have regulated hunting and fishing seasons. These things are not impossible to do. Some of them are easy to do. I think that wild game is a package of things. It’s not just an ingredient. It’s a lifestyle. It’s having an interactive and responsible relationship with the natural world.
A hundred percent.
I don’t know that you can really successfully pick it apart and just grab portions of this life. It’s the kind of a thing that you need to just immerse yourself in and begin to learn. Even if that means going down to dig a razor clam along with 10,000 other people on a good clam tide. You know, everyone’s out there enjoying the resource. It’s something that’s very easy to do. That’s a wild game experience. It transcends the actual piece of meat.
So with doing a book like this, it’s that people learn how to cook better. But it’s also that people would look at it and be inspired to go out and experiment with these ingredients. You could walk down to most any river around any city and flip over rocks and catch crayfish. That’s a wild game meal and that’s a wild game experience. So it doesn’t need to be that you’re in the high country of Colorado hunting elk, right? It’s something that anyone can go out and experience. So I think that part of my motivation here is encouraging people to go out and have the gumption to try this stuff. There’s a lot of it that’s not hard. It’s a great journey to embark on and it’s a long, long strange journey, man. But, you know, the best way to begin is just by taking a step in that direction.
After our call, Rinella sent over a video for the venison preparation he’ll be making this Thanksgiving. It’s a venison shank recipe that you can easily sub beef, pork, or lamb shanks in for if needs be. Give it whirl. It looks delicious.