My hunting apprenticeship wasn’t spent by the side of my father or some other learned family outdoorsman.
My dad was a city boy; born and raised in urban Southern California. He played sports in high school and moved swiftly from graduation to a job working in the trades.
It wasn’t a life that offered ready access to the outdoors. We went fishing, from time to time, though none of us were particularly good at it. Quality outdoor spots were hours from home and hunting was an alien world for my family and friends. No one in my gang of high school punk rockers would have had the first clue if they’d been handed a knife and told to field dress a deer.
Nearly 20 years later I dressed my first whitetail. The task would have gone much smoother had I previously been able to read Steven Rinella’s “The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game, Volume 1: Big Game.”
Alas, Rinella’s “Guide” wasn’t published for another two decades, in 2015. I had to stumble through that first deer, with help from experienced, Montana-native in-laws.
The internet was no help back in those digital dark ages, when this book would have been a revelation. I should point out that this is the least cookbooky of the cookbooks I’ve so far reviewed as holiday gift suggestions. Michael Ruhlman’s “Charcuterie,” was nearly all cookbook, while Hank Shaw’s “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail,” splits the difference between cookbook and hunting how-to guide.
“Cooking” is the last gerund in the title of Rinella’s book. This appears no accident. There are recipes in the book’s final chapter, but that’s only after the first four sections span more than 300 pages covering gear, hunting tactics, every North American big game species, and butchering.
Cooking isn’t an afterthought for Rinella, however. Anyone who has caught an episode or two of his “MeatEater” television series knows this. In a sea of hunting television programs that treat the kill as dramatic climax, for “MeatEater” it’s just a cue for a commercial break. The real work — field dressing, butchery and cooking — is to come.
Kitchen work is an essential step in the journey from field to table, but you’ve got to kill it first, then handle it properly the long trip home. Missteps will leave you with spoiled, foul-tasting meat that even a legion of French sauciers can’t salvage.
So Rinella starts at the beginning. The gear section begins with a breakdown of rifles, scopes, muzzleloaders, slug guns, archery equipment and ammo. The book moves on to range finders, optics, camping gear, knives for skinning and field dressing game, and clothing. This section includes a discussion on the efficacy of camouflage and scent-control attire. Rinella’s answer: Eh, maybe? He suggests both might be as much crutches as they are effective tools to ensure your tags are filled.
As to the coolness factor of a sharp-dressed man sporting the latest camouflage stylings, Rinella offers no opinion.
The species and tactics sections cover a wide swath of relevant topics, though none drills down too deep. Moderately experienced hunters will glean insight, while folks with decades in the field aren’t reading guidebooks for tips anyway.
For an inexperienced newbie this book should be a prerequisite, along with a hunter-safety course, before venturing afield to hunt. And if successful, that newbie will benefit from the detailed section on field dressing and butchering, featuring clear, color images by outdoor photographer John Hafner.
When I was learning this stuff I relied on nearly useless line drawings and fuzzy black and whites.
While Rinella is no Hank Shaw, the recipe section includes plenty to keep a budding big game chef busy with a mix of stews, roasts, burgers and sausage.
This is MeatEater 101. There’s no better starting point.
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