I CAN WALK past a high-ticket item for years and never be tempted, but once it's sold out I tend to want it urgently. Thus with buffalo. Never mind that a student in my daughter's class gave a book report on buffalo as an endangered species (which it no longer is). Never mind that my husband said he couldn't imagine eating something about which he had sung "home on the range" so many years -- a national mascot with a mystique of majesty. Never mind my friend Julie, who said that she would blackball buffalo for dinner as belonging somewhere between beef and Bambi.
At Safeway recently, I had a brief glimpse of buffalo in the meat section, at a price slightly higher than beefsteak. By the time curiosity overcame frugality and brought me back to buy it on another day, I learned that it was all sold out. Safeway's local meat buyer, Henry Hughes, explains that they buy buffalo about once a year, whenever it's offered to them, have it slaughtered and put in selected stores. The 150 or so head they bought this year didn't last long, even at $4.99 a pound for porterhouse and T-bone steaks, $3.79 for sirloin, and $1.99 a pound for ground meat.
I located, and contacted, the National Buffalo Association, a confederation of buffalo buffs and growers who think the only thing more dangerous to the current renaissance in buffalo ranching than government regulation is the handful of bleeding hearts who think killing a buffalo is a rape of the planet on the order of killing whales and baby seals. "The main reason the buffalo has come back from near extinction is because private enterprise found a way to make a profit on the animal," writes Judi Hebbring, executive director of the NBA and editor of "Buffalo!", one of the liveliest specialty magazines in circulation.
Buffalo were once at home on the range. Bison bison, as opposed to, say, the eastern bison, the water buffalo of Asia or the cape buffalo of Africa, are more commonly know as just bison. They thrived on the protein-rich American grasslands during westward expansion. But as the market for buffalo hides and tongues grew, the ranks of Bison bison were decimated. A few private individuals recognized the danger to this noble animal and protected the remaining scattered herds until greater public awareness led to the creation of national and state parks to preserve the species.
By the 1920s and 1930s, the public herds began to grow. Today, there are about 60,000 head of bison -- a big jump from the turn of the century, but insignificant when you consider that we slaughter more than that many head of beef cattle in a single day in the United States. Only 3,000 to 5,000 buffalo go to slaughter annually. Most of the animals are used as breeding stock, and herds are building up all over the country -- some of them within commuting distance of downtown Washington.
With 68 head of buffalo, Wray and Roma Dawson of Chantilly, Va., have one of the largest herds in this neck of the woods -- small potatoes compared to some of the large herds in the West, but symptomatic of a trend the National Buffalo Association encourages. The Dawsons started seven years ago with 10 head: nine cows and a bull. Why did they switch from raising cattle to raising bison? "We've been in the cattle business for years," he explains, "and we've lost money every year. You can get maybe $400, $450 for a Black Angus, and the rancher has nothing to say about the price -- he's strictly at the mercy of auction prices that day. A bison on the hoof will bring you $1,000 -- and you aren't controlled by the auction."
The Dawsons also have no trouble selling what they slaughter, despite prices one would hardly call giveaway; and in addition they sell the unprocessed hides for $75, the hooves for $10 each (to Western art galleries), and the skulls -- skinned and boiled -- for $75, to Indians, who use them in their ceremonies.
Buffalo growers have resisted pressures to subject buffalo to the same regulations that govern cattle -- brucellosis inoculations, for example, which they say are both unnecessary and dangerous to buffalo, which are sometimes rendered sterile by them. The buffalo's image has so far protected it from government red tape."Not only does the Department of Agriculture have no information about buffalo," says Wray Dawson. "In fact, they have a bias -- they think it's a wild animal. Which is true."
Of the five types of buffalo that exist in the world, only Bison bison has resisted domestication, and that seems to be part of its charm for people like Wray Dawson. "We've bred the survival instinct right of cattle," he insists, "but not out of the bison . . . You don't pet a buffalo." You don't milk them either -- not the ones in America.
Mainly you get to know what makes them tick and act accordingly. You don't run buffalo on two sides of a fence, for example, or you soon have one less fence, so strong is their herd instinct. They are so gregarious, in fact, that if you don't have enough animals to form the semblance of a herd you'll have all you can do to get them to stay. You keep away from bulls in rutting season and mothers with calves ("Buffalo are supermothers," explain the Dawsons), and if you see that a buffalo is mad, you give it plenty of room.
One of the buffalo's chief advantages over beef cattle is dietary: Because buffalo convert their food efficiently, you can produce more buffalo meat at less expense than it takes to produce the same amount of beef -- and get higher prices for it too. Mainly what this means is that you can produce marketable buffalo meat without the expense of the grains routinely fed to beef to increase the marbling American customers have come to expect. What's more, buffalo live more than twice as long as cattle and continue bearing young a long time; their average life span is 25 years, but many live to be 40 and continue bearing young until they die. Attempts to cross-breed cattle with buffalo -- to produce the mildly ballyhooed "beefalo" -- have failed because the hybrid breed won't hold true.
American consumers have not responded enthusiastically to the texture of grass-fed beef, but grass-fed buffalo is both leaner than grain-fed beef and equally tender if cooked properly. It's nutritious, high in protein, and relatively low in fat -- not so low as the buffalo industry might suggest, perhaps, but as red meats go, more than respectable. According to researcher Wayne Johnson at South Dakota State University, who just completed a study of the nutritional content of buffalo, the edible portion of grass-fed buffalo is 4 to 5 percent fat, whereas similar cuts of grass-fed beef contain 6 to 7 percent fat. It is not a huge difference, but as buffalo ranchers are quick to point out, the most useful comparison would be buffalo versus the higher-fat, grain-fed beef. Any claims you hear that buffalo are cholesterol-free are untrue, but because of its low fat content, grass-fed buffalo does have only 150 to 200 milligrams of cholesterol per pound of cooked lean meat -- enough to make it safe in moderation in most low-cholesterol diets.
The hidden phrase in the above discussion is "if cooked properly." Cook buffalo at too high a heat or for too long and you'll get the taste and texture of shoe leather. Cook it at low heat and not too long and you'll get a tender, juicy piece of meat with a tast not unlike that of beef -- and not at all gamy, by the way.
Johnson's experimental team ran kitchen tests of various cooking methods and found that consumer tasting panels gave the highest ratings to buffalo roasts cooked in an open pan, in dry heat, at 275 or 300 degrees to an internal temperature of 155 or 165 degrees (rare or medium-rare). We followed the Dawsons' instructions on the meat we tested -- prepared with utmost simplicity, so we knew we were tasting essence of buffalo -- and got a very positive response from dinner guests who arrived curious but slightly skeptical, and departed fans. Here are the Dawsons' instructions: HOW TO COOK BUFFALO
The first time you try buffalo, keep the cooking simple. It is very important to realize that buffalo muscle fiber is finer than beef, and therefore cooks more quickly. So cook it at a lower temperature than beef and for a shorter time. Buffalo meat is richer than beef, so it can go further. ROAST BUFFALO
Sprinkly your roast with lemon pepper (don't overdo it), then place a couple of strips of bacon over the roast and cook in an open pan at 325 degrees, approximately 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Melt a little butter and pour over the roast about midway through roasting. STEAK
Fix a steak as you would beef. Just remember to cook a shorter time. GROUND MEAT
Use you favorite recipes. If using as hamburgers, just remember to cook only until the pink is gone.
For a copy of "Buffalo Cook Book" ($2.50, postage included), or for more information about buffalo and buffalo ranching; for a subscription to the bimonthly "Buffalo!" ($8.50 a year), or for a copy of "Buffalo: History and Husbandry" by Dana Close Jennings ($12.50 postage paid), write to The National Buffalo Association, Box 706, Custer, S.D. 57730 (605) 673-2073. BUYING BUFFALO MEAT
We got excellent buffalo steaks, roasts and ground meat from Wray and Roma Dawson of Thistlewood Farm, Route 1, Box 207A, Chantilly, Va. 22021 (703) 754-4947. If you aren't near Chantilly, you can arrange to pick up a "buffalo sampler" for $49 from Dawson's gun and tackle shop in Annandale (703) 256-5115 -- call a day ahead of time. The Dawsons charge $6 a pound for boneless steak, $5 a pound for a boneless roast, and $2.53 a pound for the leanest ground meat we've eaten recently (definitely tastier than hamburger meat).
The Dawsons have also been experimenting with a buffalo jerky flavored with soy sauce, but it is so expensive to produce that they'll be selling it by the ounce and haven't settled on a price yet. The samples they gave us were delicious -- much too good for camping, super for cocktails.
Further from the capital, you can get slightly better prices at the B & B Ranch, owned by Bill Neff but managed by Willy and Mary Crites, Box 114-S, Harrisonburg, Va. 22801 (703) 434-0450. As with most sources of buffalo meat, call before you go, so you can be sure they will have what you want. Prices per pound: steaks, $4.75, roasts, $3.50, ground meat $2, stew meat, $2.50, tongue $1.50, liver $1.25, and heart, $1. Buy half a buffalo and you get better rates: $1.50 a pound. Buy hind quarters only and you pay $1.80; front quarters, $1.45 a pound -- cutting and wrapping extra. No mail order.
If you yearn for a somewhat gamier taste, and like something unusual in a sausage, you can buy a pound of buffalo salami for $8.50 (or two pounds for $13.50), shipping included, from Beck Sausage, Inc., 1655 West Berger Lane, Jackson, Wyo. 83001 (307) 73304208. (Visa and Mastercharge accepted; give credit card number and expiration date.) Beck also makes buffalo jerky and buffalo sticks, which we didn't try. The buffalo sausage -- which was too strong for about 15 percent of the people we had taste it -- really perks up home fries.
You can order buffalo pepperoni at $4 a pound (plus $2 shipping on orders up to 3 pounds) from Homestead Farms, Route 216, Stormville, N.Y. 12582 (914) 226-6837. Slightly mushy in texture and mildly seasoned, it tastes a little like Jewish salami.