After near extinction, the bison is reclaiming the Western prairie and the American table as a healthy, tasty, and sustainable alternative to beef.
No animal is more synonymous with the Wild West than the bison. They are strong, fierce, ruggedly handsome, and able to withstand nearly anything Mother Nature can dish out.
For Native Americans, bison were a source of nearly everything — clothing, shelter, tools, toys, jewelry, spiritual inspiration, and, of course, food. In fact, bison was the primary source of sustenance for many tribes. Today, bison’s edible attributes are once again in the culinary spotlight as popularity among chefs and home cooks has skyrocketed, with demand often surpassing supply.
The resurgence of bison is particularly surprising considering its beleaguered history. Before Europeans arrived, the American bison (the name “buffalo” is a misnomer, although it is still widely used interchangeably with bison) roamed over nearly two-thirds of North America, reaching coast to coast, from northern Mexico to central Alaska, and numbering around 50 to 60 million. By the mid-1800s, the arrival of settlers — as well as the earlier introduction of the horse and advent of better hunting tools, which changed the hunting patterns of Native Americans and extended their hunting season — led to a decrease in the bison population to about 30 million.
But it was over the latter half of the 19th century that record numbers of the animals were recklessly killed. It was partly for their hides, which were used for robes, stagecoach siding, and belts for the Industrial Revolution, and partly for tongue, which was considered a great delicacy. It was partly to make room for cattle as ranchers moved westward, and partly for sport as hunting parties traveled by train. And it was partly to promote the annihilation of Native Americans, who relied on bison for their survival. Whatever the reason, by the turn of the century these majestic animals were near extinction, with fewer than a thousand surviving.
Today, thanks to groups like the National Bison Association (NBA), its Native American counterpart the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), and the Wildlife Conservation Society, there are nearly 500,000 bison in North America — and their numbers are growing. Yet one of the major reasons for the bison’s resurgence might seem to cut against the grain.
“Private herds, public herds, and tribal herds all have an important role in the restoration of the bison,” says Dave Carter, executive director of NBA in Denver. “But for the average individual, the best way to save a buffalo is to eat it.”
Carter says his organization has taken a three-pronged approach to promoting buffalo consumption: sustainability, health, and taste. “There’s nothing more sustainable than an animal that’s been around for tens of thousands of years,” Carter points out. “Plus, this is an incredibly nutritious product that’s high in protein and low in fat — and it’s a great-tasting product.”
Jim Stone, executive director of ITBC, agrees with Carter’s goal of getting buffalo on more tables. But the communities he serves have required a little extra persuading. “Our mission is to restore buffalo to tribal lands and reintroduce buffalo into the daily diet of Native Americans,” he says. “But many of the older Native Americans are resistant, mostly because eating traditional wild game was viewed as something bad in the boarding school indoctrinations they went through.”
Mark Tilsen and Karlene Hunter, however, are trying to convert reluctant palates, both Native and non-Native, one nutrient-packed snack bar at a time. They founded their company, Native American Natural Foods, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 2006 with one goal: to bring delicious and nutritious foods that promote a Native American way of wellness — feeding mind, body, and spirit — to the masses. Their most popular product, the Tanka Bar, was inspired by the traditional Lakota food known as wasna, a mixture of dried bison and dried fruit (also called pemmican in the East) that hunters and warriors carried with them because it could last without preservatives or refrigeration. Tanka Bars are similarly made from nutrient-dense slow-smoked bison mixed with dried tart-sweet cranberries. Launched in 2007, the product quickly went national and is now available on 300 Indian reservations and in some 3,000 stores across the country, including the national outdoor retailer REI and Whole Foods Market.
“Not only are Tanka Bars helping to restore our traditions and our culture, but also our ecosystem,” says Tilsen. “When buffalo live on the grasslands, the prairie becomes reborn. Plant diversity and predators come back; the prairie comes to life. Not to mention the fact our product is also good for you and tastes great.”
Health is, in fact, one of the biggest reasons people are buying bison in droves. A naturally lean meat without any marbling, one 3½-ounce serving contains only 2.4 grams of fat, which is about one-third of what’s in a skinless chicken breast and one-quarter of what’s in an equivalent amount of beef or pork. Bison is also higher in vitamin B12 and iron than other red meat, and lower in cholesterol. And it is illegal to use any growth hormones or antibiotics on bison.
But how does it taste? Compared with beef, bison has a richer, fuller flavor that is almost sweet, but without the gaminess you’d expect from an undomesticated animal. According to Carter, the majority of commercial bison is grain-finished (meaning they are fed a mixture of grain and grass for the last few months of their life), which increases yield and gives the meat a more consistent texture and milder taste. But more and more smaller operations and all of the tribal operations are raising strictly grass-fed bison.
“Grass-fed bison tend to have yellow-colored fat, while grain-fed bison fat is white,” says Stone. “The flavor is also fuller, broader, and a bit stronger. It also varies depending on where the buffalo was raised — the land — and what it ate.” Like all game meat, bison tastes best cooked low and slow. Since it’s so lean, burgers and steaks cook much faster than beef and should always be prepared rare or medium rare.
“A well-done bison is not worth eating,” says bison rancher Skip Sayers. “It just dries out.” Sayers has about 1,000 head at his SayersBrook Bison Ranch in rural Missouri. It is considered one of the larger bison operations. (Most bison ranchers are smaller-scale, with less than 50 head, due primarily to the size of the beast and the fact that it needs a lot of land to roam.)
Big animals also mean big yields — a 1,250-pound bison yields about 500 pounds of salable meat. In the commercial market, much of that ends up ground, primarily for the increasingly popular bison burger.
“Our house buffalo burger and our buffalo chili are big sellers,” confirms Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. But Hetzler doesn’t limit himself to a traditional patty on a bun. “We also do a Buffalo Duck Burger with duck confit stuffed in the center of the burger, which is then topped with roasted pepper Dijonnaise, smoked tomatoes, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese. The duck fat adds richness to the lean buffalo meat and they complement each other beautifully.” Hetzler, who sells about 400 to 600 pounds of bison weekly, gets his meat through the ITBC in South Dakota. “Buffalo is something we have on the menu all year long. People know we have it, and they come here for it.”
Another place known for its bison and game meats is The Fort in Morrison, Colorado. “Buffalo is our specialty,” says owner Holly Arnold Kinney. “People come from all over the world to eat it.” The Fort sells more than 70,000 bison entrees a year, but no burgers. “Our biggest sellers are buffalo filet mignon and our Game Plate, which includes a buffalo sirloin steak, marinated quail, and either a wild boar chop or Texas antelope.”
Other interesting bison offerings at The Fort include roasted buffalo bone marrow (known as prairie butter), buffalo empanadas, buffalo barbecue ribs, buffalo sausage, and buffalo tongue. “Our buffalo tongue is braised for up to 8 hours, so it’s very tender — almost like a pâté — then it’s sliced and grilled, and placed on a crostini with horseradish, aïoli caper sauce, and topped with microgreens,” says Kinney. “When we serve it at events, it’s wildly popular with young people. It has a wonderful wild umami taste.”
As for Stone, he’s convinced that tasting is believing. “Many people who taste bison prefer it over beef, because it’s got so much more flavor,” he says. “I used to be a big beef eater, but not anymore. Now I eat bison.”
From the March 2013 issue.