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The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine

(article, Steven Rinella)

h3. From Chapter 2: “Very Fleshy and Full of Life”

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I flew out to get the turtle about a week later. I brought along my girlfriend, Diana, who'd never met my parents before. I was a little nervous about the introduction, because I hadn’t told my folks that she was a vegetarian. The night Diana and I met, at a party, I found her to be very attractive and smart and a lot of fun, so at first I chose to overlook her vegetarianism the way parents might overlook the condoms they find in their teenager’s dresser drawer. By the same token, when I told Diana that I hunted a lot, she chose to imagine me going off with my grandpa every couple of years to sit in a cabin and play cards, watching for deer out the window. She didn’t really grasp that hunting was basically what I do and how I get by. Because I almost instantly fell in love and couldn’t stand to be without her, I knew that the only logical course of action was to convert her to a meat eater. After months of dating, though, I had made only meager progress. Just once, I talked her into nibbling a fillet from a yellow perch that I caught through the ice in Montana. After that, I upgraded her status from pure vegetarian to 99.9 percent vegetarian. I felt that a visit to my folks might better explain to her what I’m all about and fully convince her of the merits of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

h1. About the book and author

The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine is, on a basic level, Steven Rinella's story about his quest to collect ingredients for a 45-course feast from Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, the great guide to haute cuisine. But in this book Rinella, an unapologetic hunter and gifted storyteller, also negotiates loss, love, and the natural world with grace. Humorous, adventurous, and reflective, Scavenger's Guide deepens the discussion about what food is and where it comes from. 

Steven Rinella is a contributor to Outside magazine. He is currently at work on a book about the American bison; see his article on the subject in the November issue of Outside.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Miramax Books (2006).

I didn't want to break the awful news to them over the phone, so I figured that I’d tell my parents about Diana’s vegetarianism once we got there. Because I met Diana out in Montana, my dad was under the impression that I was in love with some badass hunter and fisherwoman. Even knowing that Diana was actually from Boston and was only in Montana for a two-year graduate program didn’t alter his expectations.

When Diana and I got to my parents’ house, I was at first surprised about how good my dad looked. The fact that he’d be dead pretty soon seemed preposterous. I didn’t have time to tell my dad about the whole vegetarian situation before he greeted Diana with a hug and said, “I’ve got a rod and reel set up just for you, sweetheart.” Then he went down to the dock and fired up the pontoon boat for some fishing in front of the house.
As we walked to the dock, Diana was panicky. “Steve,” she whispered. “I don't want to kill a fish. I don’t even want to catch a fish. Tell him. Quick.”

“I can’t just come out and tell him you won’t go fishing,” I said. “Besides, you eat fish now.”

“I ate fish once! But you killed that fish, not me.”

“That's pretty fucked-up logic, if you think about it,” I said. “Just come out on the boat, then act like you’re sunbathing.”

As soon as we pulled into deeper water, my dad cut the engine and walked up to the front of the boat. He set up a chair on the deck, baited a rod with two small hooks and live worms. He dropped the bait to the bottom, then said to Diana, “Sit down, girl.”

She looked at me nervously. I looked away. She sat down. My dad handed her the rod. Within seconds, something was bucking on the end of the line.

My dad was yelling, “Reel it in! Go! Reel it in!”

She reeled. Two hand-sized bluegills came rising out of the water, and my dad grabbed the line and pulled them into the boat. “Good job,” he said. He threw the fish in a bucket, dropped the baits back to the bottom, and handed her the rod again.

I thought that I should intervene and maybe throw the fish back in the water. But I was paralyzed by indecision. Was it worse to upset Diana or upset my dad?

I said, “Dad, maybe Diana wants to relax for a while.”

He gave me a dismissive gesture with his hand and looked at Diana. “Never mind him,” he said to her. “You go ahead and fish.”

In the end, I didn’t intervene. I could tell my dad was quite pleased with the situation. In his mind, it seemed to me, there was no greater reward in life than watching his son’s girlfriend catch dinner in front of his own house. I could understand his revelry. He was born in Chicago’s South Side in 1924 (he had me when he was 50) and was raised by his immigrant Sicilian grandparents, Rosa and Anthony Rinella. Anthony ran a produce-delivery business; he had a wagon and a horse named Pete to pull it. In the mornings, Anthony would crack an egg into a glass of red wine and have that for breakfast, along with a piece of bread, and then he’d leave the house before sunup and head to the downtown markets.

Because my dad’s grandparents were so poor and had to work so much, my dad didn’t get to travel outside Chicago until he dropped out of high school after Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the army, and shipped out to Biloxi, Mississippi, for basic training. If he wanted to fish as a kid, he’d walk down to the Lake Michigan piers with a cane pole and a bucket of worms to catch perch. He’d usually sell his perch to passersby and give the money to his grandma. Now, standing in his own boat with an accumulating bucket of bluegills, he might have been looking back on his life as a tremendous accomplishment.

After the fishing trip was over, Diana went inside the house, lay down on the guest room bed, and cried. I tried to console her as best I could. “My dad and I would have caught those bluegills anyway,” I told her. She promised me that she wasn’t crying about the bluegills specifically. She was just overwhelmed by the whole experience: by my dad’s illness and the beauty of the lake and, yes, the bluegills gasping in the bucket.

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