I first found out about Steven Rinella when his award-winning book "American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon" hit the scene in 2008. It was a terrific account of a buffalo hunt in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains woven together with the history of one of America’s most revered beasts. In those days he was just an author, and a fine one at that. Nowadays, they’re calling him a modern day hunter-gatherer and cable’s mainstream hunting star. His show “The Wild Within” debuted in January on the Travel Channel and was met with praise from viewers and critics alike.
In the first season of the series, this wild-game gourmand served dinner guests roadkill, chased red deer in the Scottish Highlands, recreated the historic Louis and Clark Expedition and took on Alaska's vast wilderness. I caught up with the husband, father, author and adventurer to find out what he could teach us about cooking wild game, the new-age hunter-gatherer philosophy and how to bring the realities of hunting to a largely misinformed public.
Ben O'Brien: Explain your philosophy on hunting, gathering, conservation and the great outdoors.
Steven Rinella: Wow, that’s a big question. I could write enough to fill a hard drive and still not get it completely right. But, to keep it as short as possible, I’ll say that these things are integral not only to my own well-being, but to the well-being of the nation. Hunting allows us to maintain cultural continuity with our deep past and our own families, to stay intimately attached to the land and it allows us to maintain a deep and primal connection to our food source. What’s more, it presents us with a lifestyle that is pure excitement and joy.
BO: How did you get started hunting? Who was your hunting mentor?
SR: My primary influence was my father. He served in World War II (my mom had me when he was 50), and after the war he got heavily involved in bow hunting. This was back in the late '40s and '50s, when almost no one bow hunted. He measured heads for Pope and Young and worked as a sales representative for Ben Pearson Archery. When I was little, like four and five years old, he used to take me out to sit with him in his treestand. I don’t even remember the first squirrel, rabbit or grouse I ever bagged; I was very young. My two brothers, Matt and Danny, were very avid hunters as well. So that helped, because I always had a couple of hunting partners right there in the home with me. Those two guys are still my primary hunting companions. They are two of the most hardcore guys I know. We hunt together pretty heavily in Montana and Alaska, where they live.
BO: How did you get your start in writing?
SR: I started trapping muskrats when I was 10, and I was fully planning on being a professional fur trapper up until I was about 20 years old. In the back of my mind I had this idea to be an outdoor writer as well, because I had gotten some encouragement in that direction when I was in high school. I jumped around to three different colleges by the time I finished; when I finally graduated, I had an English degree with an emphasis in practical writing. I had learned enough about the writing discipline to know that I wanted to learn more, so I applied to an Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Montana. There I made a lot of great contacts, including the writers Ian Frazier and Deirdre McNamer, and soon I was selling stories to magazines such as Outside and Field and Stream.
BO: Your piece in the July 2010 edition of O Magazine "The Case for Responsible Meat-Eating," in my opinion, distanced hunting from perceptions of barbarism and helped explain the hunter-gatherer mentality. In your mind, has your show "The Wild Within" had much the same effect?
SR: I think "The Wild Within" has done a lot to explain the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and it’s had an inspiring effect on people. I have received literally hundreds of emails (and Facebook comments) from guys and gals who’ve been inspired by the show to start hunting. I’m constantly surprised at the basic nature of the questions they ask. Things like, “how do you buy a rifle,” or “how do you gut a deer?” That shows the low entry level of some of these folks, which leads me to believe that they are just beginning to find out about hunting. I’m not just preaching to the choir.
BO: Explain the premise behind the Travel Channel series.
SR: Thomas K. Whipple, an early 19th century American writer, has a great line in the book "Study Out the Land." He says, "All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream." I thought of that quote a lot while working on "The Wild Within." But I would like to offer one small correction to Whipple’s line: Many of us do not just dream the wild—we still live it.
Check out behind-the-scenes photos from the first season of the show.
BO: How has the show been received by the public? What has been some of the positive feedback? The negative?
SR: From what I’ve been exposed to (and this may or may not be the full truth) the reception of the show has been overwhelmingly positive. I find that many hunters are grateful to have their passions and lifestyles presented in a positive light to a mainstream audience. Negative feedback has been varied and usually specific: Some folks disagree with me about traveling long distances in order to hunt; some disagree with me taking a neck shot (at about 30 yards) on a moose; others disagree with me about taking a shot at a blacktail deer in an extremely remote and mountainous area of southeast Alaska without having a clear view of the backdrop. (It was on the crest of a low ridge.) Some of these are legitimate concerns, I’m sure.
BO: You found a raccoon on the side of the road, cooked it and served it to dinner guests with some nice wine. They liked it. You are my hero. There's no question here, I just wanted to say that.
SR: Ha! Thanks so much. I used to have pet raccoons growing up, and I’d skinned and sold hundreds of them, but I’d never eaten one. That was bothering me, so I figured it was high time I try it. I was truly impressed with the quality of the meat. I’m sure I’ll cook some more in the future.
BO: Any advice for aspiring chefs and backyard cooks out there?