My learning to hunt didn’t happen alongside my dad or any other family outdoor enthusiast.
My father was a city boy; born and raised in urban southern California. He played sports in high school and quickly went from graduation to a job in the trades.
It was not a life that offered easy access to the outdoors. We went fishing from time to time, although neither of us were particularly good at it. Quality outdoor spots were hours from my house and the hunt was a foreign world to my family and friends. No one in my high school punk rocker band would have had the first clue if they’d been given a knife and told to dress a deer on the ground.
Almost 20 years later, I dressed my first whitetail. The task would have been much easier if I had been able to read “The Complete Guide to the Hunting, Butchery and Cooking of Wild Game, Volume 1: Big Game” by Steven Rinella beforehand.
Sadly, Rinella’s “Guide” wasn’t published for two decades, in 2015. I had to stumble upon this first deer, with the help of experienced in-laws from Montana.
The internet was of no help in the days of digital darkness, when this book would have been a revelation. I must point out that these are the fewest cookbooks among the cookbooks I have reviewed so far as holiday gift suggestions. Michael Ruhlman’s “Charcuterie” was almost entirely a cookbook, while Hank Shaw’s “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail” divides the difference between a cookbook and a practical hunting guide.
“Kitchen” is the last gerund in the title of Rinella’s book. It doesn’t seem accidental. There are recipes in the last chapter of the book, but it wasn’t until after the first four sections covered over 300 pages covering equipment, hunting tactics, all the big game species of America. North and the butcher’s shop.
Cooking is not an afterthought for Rinella, however. Anyone who’s seen one or two episodes of his “MeatEater” TV series knows that. In a sea of chase TV shows that treat the killing as a dramatic climax, for “MeatEater,” it’s just a signal for a commercial break. The real work – dressing the fields, butchering and cooking – is yet to come.
Kitchen work is a vital part of the journey from the field to the table, but you have to kill it first and then manage it properly on the long journey back. Missteps will leave you with rotten, disgustingly tasting meat that even a legion of French saucers can’t salvage.
So Rinella starts from the beginning. The equipment section begins with a breakdown of rifles, scopes, muzzle magazines, bullet guns, archery equipment and ammunition. The book moves on to range finders, optics, camping gear, butchering knives and dress-up play in the field, and clothing. This section includes a discussion of the effectiveness of camouflage and odor control gear. Response from Rinella: Huh, maybe? He suggests that both could be as much crutches as they are effective tools for ensuring your beacons are met.
As for the cool factor of a well-dressed man sporting the latest camouflage styles, Rinella offers no opinion.
The sections on species and tactics cover a wide range of relevant topics, although none go too far. Moderately experienced hunters will glean some insight, while people with decades in the field don’t read guidebooks for advice anyway.
For an inexperienced beginner, this book should be a prerequisite, as well as a hunter safety course, before venturing out into the field to hunt. And if successful, that newbie will benefit from the in-depth section on dressing and butchering in the field, with clear, color images from outdoor photographer John Hafner.
When I was learning this stuff, I relied on almost useless line art and blurry blacks and whites.
While Rinella isn’t Hank Shaw, the recipe section has plenty to keep a budding game chef busy with a mix of stews, roasts, burgers, and sausages.
Here is MeatEater 101. There is no better place to start.