Interview with a carnivore: Checkin’ in with Brooklyn Heights hunter Steven Rinella

Interview with a carnivore: Checkin’ in with Brooklyn Heights hunter Steven Rinella
Photo by Matt Rafferty

Steven Rinella is one of those guys who really cares about his food, but he’s no loca-vore and he’s anything but a vegan. The Brooklyn Heights resident spends about 150 days per year traveling the world, hunting Dall sheep in Alaska and Himalayan tahr in New Zealand, among other varieties of game. The rest of the year, he and his family chow down on the exotic meats he keeps in the freezer. Rinella — who will discuss his new book “Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter” at Fort Greene’s Greenlight Bookstore on Sept. 5 — checked in with Ben Muessig and shared his perspective on what it’s like to be a hunter in Brooklyn.

Ben Muessig: You’re fresh off of a caribou-hunting expedition in Alaska. Do you plan to share the fruits — errr … meats — of your labor with anyone in Brooklyn?

Steven Rinella: I have a lot of people here who I trust to use my game meat real responsibly. It’s sort of like “venison diplomacy” where I’ll introduce people to the hunting lifestyle when I have people over at my home. But let’s say I give someone some game meat in October, then I go over to their house in June and sneak a peak into the freezer and I see that’s there still a lot of it in there, then, without making a big production over it, I cut them off.

BM: What’s in your freezer right now?

SR: Just a moment before we talked, I was integrating some caribou into the freezer. In another freezer, we have wild turkey and black bear. In another freezer where I work we have some Himalayan tahr, some shanny meat, some javelina, some whitetail deer and some mule deer blended together in a grind, some more caribou, a couple of pieces of fish, and my brother raised some lambs so I’ve got a leg of lamb.

BM: Do you and your family eat any meat that you haven’t killed?

SR: At restaurants I’ll eat farm-raised meat, but at home we just eat wild game. It’s not a conscious decision, but we have it and we prefer to eat it, so we just eat wild game. Even if I had this parallel freezer that god filled up with farm animals, I would just eat the wild game.

BM: Is there ever a time when someone in your house says, “This meat tastes a little gamy.”

SR: My wife has eaten more game meat than most of the hunters I know, but there are things she doesn’t like — things she thinks are a little gamy. Probably the gamiest critter would be a mature mule deer buck, shot during the rut.

BM: The rut?

SR: Mule deer are usually found from the 100th meridian westward, so while a whitetail deer probably has access to agricultural fields and a pretty lush diet of grass, a mule deer eats lots of sage brush, which can give a pretty pungent flavor. Then they go into the rut, which is their breeding season. They run themselves ragged, they don’t eat much, they don’t sleep much — all they’re doing is chasing tail. Then they have a gland on their back leg called the tarsal that they piss on.

BM: This does not sound appetizing at all.

SR: They get a smell — I’ve heard it described as gamy, I’ve heard it described as musky. Then my wife might complain about the gaminess. The other complaint she has filed is about bears you get after the salmon run is over. When the salmon are gone, the bears just hang around eating rotting salmon that have decayed to a putty-like consistency. Sometimes then you get a bear that has a real salmon taste — that can be off-putting to some people. That’s when someone in my home might be like, “That’s gamy ass meat.”

BM: How long could you live off of the land in Prospect Park?

SR: There’s no big game, but I could live for years there.

BM: Years?!

SR: In Prospect Park specifically, they have a lot of fenced-off ponds you’re not supposed to go into, but they have lots of bass and blue gills. The catch-and-release lake has largemouth bass. And there’s a great abundance and small furry game. There’s also a great variety of exotic birds — there are pigeons, which are rock doves in Eurasia, European starlings, and English sparrows. It’s rife for opportunities.

BM: What’s the biggest misconception that people have about hunting?

SR: The biggest misconception about hunting is that the primary motivation for hunting is to prove one’s manliness or to get one’s jollies through killing an animal — it’s perpetuated through all cartoons, from “Bambi” on to the modern things with this dim-witted man out in the woods, trying to prove something to himself and others by dominating animals. At times, certain people who hunt, some public figures, really play into that perception. But the hunters I know and the hunters I admire are students of natural history. They are careful practitioners who spend a lot of time preparing and training with their tools and their weapons. They eat their game, and they do it for reasons of cultural continuity or to be closer to their food.

BM: So it’s rough out there for hunters?

SR: Hunters are still atoning for and still paying for sins we committed. When I look at certain species — like bighorn sheep out west, buffalo out west, elk that used to be in the Appalachians — quite frankly and undebatably, they were shot out of existence by uncontrolled hunting. I think there is a cultural awareness of what we have done. The broader public recognizes the sins that hunters have made, but we have gone a long way to correcting our sins. Now there are more wild turkeys in this country than there were at the time of European arrival. They are bringing bison back, buffalo back — and hunters are the biggest drivers on that.

BM: Have you convinced any Brooklynites to come hunting with you?

SR: I’ve taken four people from Brooklyn out to kill their first big game animal.

BM: How’d they do?

SR: I found that they, almost to the person, defined it as kind of a life-altering experience. They found the greatest sense of pride in having people over to eat the wild game that they killed. But oddly, none of them has gone out or initiated their own hunting expedition since then.

BM: Do you feel a little out of place in a borough where people freak out when they see a raccoon?

SR: When I come back here after being in the mountains, sleeping in tents, eating game meat or freeze-dried food and it’s hot and people are going about their business, going to work, I get this feeling that I’m some kind of intruder. I get this thought, that if some random passerby only knew what I just doing, they’d have some kind of strong opinion about it.

Steven Rinella at Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. betw. S. Eliot Place and S. Fulton Street, (718) 246–0200, www.greenlightbookstore.com] Sept. 5, 7:30 pm.