ONE NIGHT I'M SNUGGLING with my girlfriend, Diana, in bed, when all of a sudden she screams, "Steve, please tell me that's not another damned crayfish!" Sure enough, there's a set of claws sticking out from under the mattress. A week ago, I caught 40 of the crustaceans in order to make crayfish soup. I wanted them to be extra fresh come mealtime, so I built a makeshift aquarium out of a large plastic tote and stuck it in a spare room. My girlfriend, a vegetarian, loathed this project from the start, and things really got tense when the colony's population began mysteriously declining—en members simply disappeared. I suspected an outbreak of cannibalism, so I switched their diet from lettuce to fish heads. But the disappearances continued. That's when I realized the rascals could climb out of the tank.
I normally wouldn't share my apartment with crayfish, but I'm involved in the complicated task of preparing a do-it-yourself feast out of Le Guide Culinaire. This 646-page cookbook was written by French master chef Auguste Escoffier in 1903. His culinary skills with items like animal organs and common songbirds earned him the title King of Chefs, Chef of Kings, and he cooked for the likes of King George V and hobnobbed with the top actresses and opera singers of pre–orld War I Europe. He is the granddaddy of 20th-century haute cuisine.
Escoffier's magnum opus seemed to fall into my hands with the divine purpose of the Ten Commandments falling into the hands of Moses. Before I had ever heard of Escoffier, I got a call from my mom, who lives in Twin Lake, Michigan. She said she had a live snapping turtle in the trunk of her car.
"I thought you might like...to eat it," she said. "It must weigh 15 pounds."
"Have Dad set up a tank of water in the storage shed, and keep it fed with ground meat," I told her. "I'll come for a visit." The problem was, I didn't have a clue how to prepare a turtle. I explained this situation to my friend Deirdre in a bar near my home, in Missoula, Montana. She told me about Escoffier's cookbook and its recipe for turtle soup. Later she gave me her block-shaped and yellowed copy of the translated masterpiece.
As I thumbed through the book, I realized that I was holding the Kama Sutra of food, more than 5,000 recipes that explain in splendid detail how to handle anything you'd ever dream of eating. For me that includes a lot. I was brought up on game from the woods and waters of western Michigan, and now I live off the wilds of Montana as thoroughly as I can manage. I kill elk, deer, and antelope every year, along with a good mix of birds and fish. The predatory lifestyle keeps me close to the wild, and I'm happy that my food has never been injected with hormones, fattened to a diseaselike condition, then killed by some slaughterhouse worker I've never met.
So I decided to plan a balls-to-the-wall, Escoffier-style feast. I scoured the pages of Le Guide, setting my sights on 13 dishes: smoked breast of goose, mincemeat pie, duckling à la presse (basically a roasted and flattened duck), abattis à la bourguignonne (bird giblets in wine), pigeon pie, rabbit à la flamande (rabbit thighs in a sweet, spicy stew), turtle à la Baltimore (a thick turtle soup with lots of liquor), freshwater matelote (a brothy fish soup with a crayfish garnish), truite au bleu (stunned and blanched trout), bird's-nest soup, a sampler of roast birds, fried smelt, and milt (fish semen) butter sauce.
Luckily, I already had a good start from the past hunting season. I had elk, deer, black bear, and antelope meat. I had ducks, doves, pheasant, Canada geese, and a big tub of hearts and gizzards from grouse, pheasant, and waterfowl. The giant mule-deer neck on the bottom shelf of my freezer would make a large pot of game stock, which Escoffier used as freely as water. But even so, my "to get" list quickly grew to an intimidating length. I need perch, pike, crayfish, smelt, carp semen, and a live trout. I'll have to find a way to breed pigeons and collect their eggs, and I need to get my hands on a bunch of rabbits and a couple of swallow nests. Time to get rolling.