Photo by Thomas J. Story
"Howdy!" says the jolly waiter at Ted's Montana Grill in the Time & Life Building in New York City. "Is this your first time at Ted's?" If a diner says yes, he promptly advises her that the restaurant owned by media mogul Ted Turner serves "homestyle cooking, like you would prepare when your friends come over," and that it specializes in bison, from Turner's ranches and others, "which is very lean and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, very juicy, and tastes sweeter than beef." Then he recommends the 9-ounce fillet for $35.99.
Manhattan is a long way, geographically and spiritually, from the Western plains. But the menu at Ted's proves how bison's popularity has risen in just a few years. In 2003, the USDA had to bail out the bison industry by purchasing $10 million of frozen overstock. By the end of 2007, the industry expected to have processed 50,500 USDA-inspected bison, 20 percent more than in 2006, which was a 21 percent increase over 2005. That's not meteoric, considering the cattle industry slaughters 125,000 animals a day. But it does reflect increasing consumer acceptance.
Health-conscious consumers like bison because it's lean and rich in nutrients. Environmentalists view bison roaming on the prairies as a more sustainable food source than cattle penned up in feedlots. Chefs, too, have come to appreciate bison meat's qualities. It satisfies that lust for red meat but has a less greasy mouth-feel than beef. When properly prepared, it's faintly sweet, with a big, grassy flavor.
Indeed, when it comes to the bison renaissance, restaurants have led the charge. The meat is showing up on menus all over the United States ― in burgers at local treasures like D19 Restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, and as a specialty item at places like swanky Craftsteak Las Vegas and San Francisco's elegant Restaurant Gary Danko and Fleur de Lys.
"There weren't many companies selling in 2005," says D19 chef Dena Marino, whose $21 bison burger inspired chef Emeril Lagasse to dub her restaurant one of his "favorite burger joints" in the country on Good Morning America. "Now people bring it to us."
The American bison (also known as the buffalo) had been remarkably successful due to its agility, speed, robust birth rate, and ability to endure extreme temperatures. For thousands of years, its primary predators were wolves and Native Americans who hunted on foot. As many as 30 million roamed North America before the Europeans arrived. But a confluence of circumstances almost did them in. As the United States expanded to the West, herds were decimated by the invention of the Sharps buffalo rifle and by a demand for bison leather. And by the fact that the U.S. government endorsed their annihilation as a means to dominate restive Native Americans. By the late 1880s, only about 1,000 bison remained.
Relegated to a tourist attraction, bison survived on public preserves like Yellowstone National Park and South Dakota's Custer State Park. By the early 1970s, the herds had begun to outgrow the park system, and culls were sold to a handful of ranchers (including Turner, who purchased a single bison in 1976 and his first herd in 1990). Many bought them for nostalgic reasons but also to market the meat as a novelty protein, like ostrich. Others, like Dave Whittlesey, whose High Wire Ranch has 150 head in Hotchkiss, Colorado, got into bison ranching as an alternative to cattle raising.