If You Are What You Eat, He’s Dead Meat
Ready to take up the challenge of reviving the bloody old days of classic haute cuisine? Steven Rinella bites.
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.
IN ESCOFFIER’S DAY, wild-game eating was so commonplace that the term “wild-game chef” would have been redundant. Before his death in 1935, Escoffier made four journeys to the New World, where he surely dined on a wide array of American game. In 1903, at the time of Le Guide’s publication, you could walk into Delmonico’s Restaurant, in New York City, and order such favorites as diamondback terrapin (a small eastern turtle), whitetail deer, and canvasback duck.
Delmonico’s opened its doors in 1830 and enjoyed 93 years of business. But the same factors that finally brought the restaurant to its knees were to blame for the demise of wild-game eating in general. Prohibition, enacted in 1919, was a deadly blow: Without legal access to alcohol for cooking, many popular wild-game dishes were deleted from the Delmonico’s menu. The other problem was the wholesale wildlife slaughter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the most popular Delmonico’s dishes was the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. By the time the restaurant closed its doors, on May 1, 1923, a proliferation of state and federal laws had banned the sale of wild game in the United States. These days, the game served in the “wild game” restaurants popping up in major cities has been farm-raised.
It’s surprising to me that faux wild game is gaining popularity in a society that is too squeamish and horrified to kill its own grub. We’ve become so removed from the reality of obtaining our food supply that almost no one knows how to wring—or would dare to wring—a chicken’s neck. If I’m going to eat something, I much prefer to kill it myself. I hunt elk and deer with a bow and arrow, I fish with hooks, and I take birds with a shotgun, then wring their necks if the shot didn’t finish them off. This may sound gruesome, but I can face the consequences of my need to eat. I limit my kills to what is sustainable and sound for animal populations, and I participate in efforts to protect wilderness and open lands. It may seem like my lifestyle is a holdover from the past, but to me it is a good plan for the future.
ESCOFFIER WAS VERY PARTICULAR about using only young pigeons, or squab: “Those older than one year should be viewed as being old and should be completely excluded from use except for the preparation of forcemeat.” He purchased his squab in a market. In modern America, pigeons have carved out a ratlike existence for themselves. When I call the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to clear my plans to net a couple, they tell me there are no laws regarding pigeons. In fact, many cities spend money to exterminate them. I decide on a captive-breeding program that will drown me in squab.
I’ve set my sights on two pigeons that live atop my apartment building. A dozen times every morning, they mount each other in explicit sexual displays. The one thing standing between the birds and me is the blond-haired dude who lives in the apartment above mine. He seems to fancy himself some sort of inner-city gangsta. I heard him tell a visiting police officer once that his name is Tom. I try to build up the nerve to ask Tom for trespass permission, but he falls into a perpetually shitty mood when two thugs destroy his van with baseball bats.
Instead, my buddy Matt Moisan offers to help me chase some pigeons downtown. Moisan’s an actor, which allows him ample free time. After an admirably crafty operation highlighted by a death-defying climb up the wall of a brick building, we manage to capture a gang of pigeons napping behind a pub’s air-conditioning unit. But the pigeons soon prove to be sexual duds.
The complications of urban food collection are bringing me down, so I decide to set off for the Bitterroot River, south of town. One day last August, Diana and I spent an afternoon floating a stretch of it on an inner tube, and I remember watching a bunch of crayfish feed on the carcass of a bloated sucker. Escoffier used crayfish to make a garnish: “Select 40 medium-sized crayfish that seem full of life; cook them in a highly seasoned mirepoix, moistened with one half-bottle of dry champagne.”
I buy a roll of heavy-duty screen and fashion a crayfish trap with a funnel-shaped opening. The crayfish will make their way through the funnel to get to my bait of choice: hot dogs. Then, gorged, they will have neither the will nor the way to exit. In just a couple nights my trap yields about 40 crayfish.
As I’m setting my crayfish trap under a bridge, I notice a bunch of abandoned swallow nests hanging from the bridge supports. The domes of mud look like bull scrotums and are about that size. Swallows build nests by packing together bits of mud with their sticky saliva. Escoffier boiled the nests to extract the saliva, which lent a “characteristic viscidity,” or thickness, to his consommés. He preferred the nests of tropical swallows, built with sticks instead of mud. But I figure swallow spit is swallow spit, so I chuck rocks at the empty nests and knock down a small pile of mud.
A few days later, I head up to Elbow Lake, a crooked body of water that fills a valley north of Missoula. Diana accompanies me. Our plan is to catch some yellow perch. My Subaru is loaded with rods and reels, and I’ve got a tobacco tin full of maggots in my hip pocket. In no time, we catch a small pile of perch in a weedy inlet. I bait a large hook and lower it to see if any pike are around; when you gut a pike, you can sometimes find a perch in its stomach that is still good to eat, which seems like something Escoffier would dig. I catch one the length and heft of a piece of firewood. Diana catches a mountain whitefish just a little smaller than the pike. The big fish have empty guts, but when we clean the perch we find a hidden surprise in ten of them: semen.
JUDGING BY THE FACT that I can barely close my freezer door, the collection process is going well. I have a big ol’ brown trout stuffed in there. I caught the fish in the Madison River, and I was going to keep it alive in the crayfish tank. Escoffier’s truite au bleu requires that trout be “procured in mountainous districts, where the clear water they inhabit is constantly refreshed by strong currents.” He also requires that you toss a stunned trout into boiling bouillon. I wanted to follow his advice, but I couldn’t bear to see the fish endure captivity. I thumped him on the head with a board and froze him.
Meanwhile, the pigeons living in the back room still haven’t produced squab. While I’m waiting for their libidos to kick in, I have plenty of time to gather other stuff. Like rabbit, which remains a very popular dish in France. We have three types of wild rabbit in Montana, all of which are so plentiful (and ignored by hunters) that there is no bag limit and no closed season. Escoffier was baffled by America’s disinterest in eating its rabbits and hares. “As a result of one of those freaks of taste,” he complained, “hare is not nearly so highly esteemed as it deserves in the United States.”
My brother Matt agrees to join me on a rabbit expedition. We leave Missoula on a Friday afternoon, driving east. Over the next three days, we travel a 1,273-mile loop through the Great Plains, making a stop near Jordan, Montana, to kill eight cottontails and four jackrabbits in a rancher’s junk pile with a .22 rifle.
When I get home, I’m greeted by Tom the Gangsta. His phone service has been shut off. “Can I use yours?” he asks.
Tom’s acting jumpy. In an effort to raise money, he needs to make a series of phone calls to sell two items, the identities of which seem to be a secret. Between calls, I make my move: “Do you mind if I catch those pigeons on the roof up there?”
“You can chop those pigeons up, far as I’m concerned,” he says.
Around midnight, Moisan and I are on the roof with a device fashioned from a chaise lounge, duct tape, a hammock, fly-rod cases, cord, and the plastic zip strips cops use for handcuffs during drug busts. We snicker with confidence as we crawl along the crest of the roof, but only manage to catch one. After a few days, the pigeon hasn’t produced any eggs. I’m getting tired of cleaning the crayfish tank and vacuuming pigeon feathers dropped by unproductive birds, so I set a date for the feast a couple of weeks away. Squab or no squab.
FOR THE NEXT 14 DAYS, my kitchen chores are accompanied by the olfactory backdrop of death and liquor. I have 15 different species of critters in various stages of preparation. The mincemeat pie filling— medley of ground meats, fruits, and spices—s soaking in brandy and rum. I’ve given the cottontail a long bath in Madeira and brandy. The day arrives when I take a couple pigeons outside and give their necks a quick, sharp twist. The turtle, which I slaughtered two months ago by severing its head with an ax, has to be thawed and parboiled. The boiling carcass smells like the Loch Ness Monster. Diana comes over and paces around my apartment with a T-shirt squashed against her nose. She says, “Oh. My. God. Steve,” and leaves. I cook the swallow nests and am dismayed to find nothing in the pot but muddy water and a bug.
I get so involved in the painstaking process of reducing the venison stock that I begin a sort of involuntary fast, as though my body is preparing for the meal. I understand how hunter-gatherers must feel during the painful spells of hard times. Nowadays, we eat to celebrate an occasion; we used to celebrate the occasion of being able to eat.
It’s the designated night, a Wednesday, and I’ve invited 12 friends, ranging in age from early twenties to late fifties, to gather for the feast. While I consider all the participants to be like-minded, our eating habits are varied. Deirdre’s a discriminating food lover. Ben and Caroline, two abstract painters, are thrill seekers. Fred seldom cooks, but he can taste most any dish and list the ingredients. Aryn, Jen, and Diana have all flirted with vegetarianism, but they’ve agreed to sample tonight’s offerings. Julian’s a diehard glutton. Anna and Derek are into anything they haven’t already tried, and eating hard-boiled pigeon eggs is one of those things. The two Matts want to taste the fruits of their labor.
Escoffier helped popularize service à la russe, which means to serve the dishes one at a time. I start with the matelote. It’s made with yellow perch, mountain whitefish, trout, and northern pike cooked in white wine and fish stock. Since I killed and froze my trout, I added it to the matelote instead of making the truite au bleu as planned. I produced the fish stock by simmering some smelt that a buddy from Michigan mailed me. Escoffier’s matelote calls for a crayfish garnish, so I dumped the contents of my freshwater aquarium into a pot of boiling water. The matelote receives universal praise and quickly vanishes.
I try to replicate my early success by bringing out the abattis à la bourguignonne: giblets of duck, pigeon, and grouse cooked in a red-wine sauce. Diana sits on the couch and makes no move for the plate. “I’m saving myself for the fried smelt,” she announces. Julian takes one bite, says, “Oh. Chewy,” then eats another dozen pieces. Interest in the giblets fades before they’re even close to gone. Eager for another triumph, I bust out the deer-, elk-, antelope-, and bear-filled mincemeat pies, which went in the oven smelling like a distillery and emerged with a sweet and provocative bouquet. Most everyone bites into the pie with hesitation, followed by excitement. Ben jams a couple slices in his mouth and declares it to be one of the strangest tastes he’s ever encountered. I follow the pie with a small tray of smoked goose.
Next comes the pigeon pie. “I like the logic of eating pigeons, because they so blatantly take advantage of us,” says Fred. But he passes on the dish, maybe because I cooped a couple of the birds in his dog’s kennel for a night. Everyone else partakes and likes it. The rabbit à la flamande comes off the burner with a stewed sweet-and-sour taste. Aside from the matelote, it’s the biggest hit of the night. My veggie-leaning friends clean a small pile of the leg bones down to museum-exhibit specifications. Deirdre polishes off a rabbit loin.
All the while, the deboned turtle has been cooking in cream. I try to temper the sea-monster aroma with Madeira and brandy, to no avail. I announce that the turtle is for connoisseurs only. This warning, along with the odor, keeps the takers down to three individuals. “It has such a strange smell,” says Caroline. “I wanted to see if it really tasted like it smelled.”
“Does it?” I ask.
When my brother and I taste it, we agree to save the soup for some day when we’re extremely hungry. I pull out my ducks, fillet the breasts, squish the carcasses over a bowl, wash them in wine, then dribble all the juices and wine back over the seasoned, sliced meat. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. My guests agree. By about midnight, the food’s all gone and we’re all in a food-and-wine coma, lounging around the living room.
LATER THAT NIGHT, staring at some crayfish shells and pigeon bones in the kitchen, I feel sad about the meal being over, but I also feel like my friends and I managed to do something constructive. We know where tonight’s food came from. We know its history and how it was captured and prepared.
I flip through Le Guide to a picture of Escoffier. His arms are folded solidly across his gut, which is buttoned inside a black wool dinner jacket. He’s got a bushy mustache and squinty eyes that seem to be gazing into my kitchen to see if I’ve got anything good to eat. In the introduction, he writes, “The only profit I wish to draw from this book, and the only reward I crave, is to see, in this respect, my advice listened to and followed by those for whom it was written.” As I look at Escoffier and Escoffier looks back, I know that tonight he likes what he sees.