Food Lessons From A Box of Bison Meat
Twenty-five years ago, Dan brought a box of Wild Idea buffalo cuts into my restaurant and asked if I would create some “how-to” cooking instructions and recipes to include in the first boxes of meat that would soon be shipped out to family and friends. Over the years, as a chef and restaurateur, I had cooked with buffalo meat, but I’d always had to bend it to my will—piercing, pounding, and marinating it—to achieve a desirable tenderness and to hide the often-gaminess. But this buffalo meat was different.
The first thing I noticed was the aroma: there wasn’t one. It was clean. It didn’t have the pungent, fermented smell that escaped the packages of beef or other buffalo meat I’d worked with. I quickly learned that I didn't need to bend the Wild Idea buffalo meat to my will. I simply needed to apply the proper cooking techniques to achieve tenderness and allow the naturally clean, slightly sweet, rich flavor to shine through. The meat was not only fabulous, it made me wonder: If buffalo meat could be this different, what about the rest of the foods I was procuring for my family and restaurant? It was a jaw-dropping moment.
I grew up on a patchwork farm that was split between grazing lands for our Holstein cows and crop lands. We always had a fresh supply of raw dairy products, farm-fresh eggs, and seasonal produce from my mother’s flourishing garden. We canned over half that produce to get us through the non-growing months. We also had meat and chicken, but not on a daily basis. I remember well the coveted Sunday pot roast, which brought the whole family to the table with delight! But my parents’ divorce during my teenage years left our family farm and the foods I grew up on in the rearview mirror. The quicker, faster, cheaper foods slowly replaced the nutritious foods of my childhood.
Around the same time that I received my lesson in buffalo meat, the organic movement was gaining ground, and I got on the bus. I started to purchase foods that were organic or raised more sustainably for my family and my restaurant. A couple of years later, I joined Dan in building Wild Idea and became fully immersed in the business.
One of my first tasks was taking inventory. I counted thousands of packages of frozen meat in a warehouse freezer and discovered that we had a surplus of liver. At that time, we had a third-party plant breaking down our carcasses. They were also processing their own buffalo meat (100 animals a week, compared to our 100 a year!), though like many buffalo, theirs were fattened in a feedlot. I was curious what they did with their liver, so I asked their plant manager, “What do you do with all your liver? Is it difficult to sell?”
He replied, “What liver?”
“The liver from all of the buffalo. Every animal has one,” I said.
“Most of ours don’t pass inspection,” he said. “They are rejected due to cirrhosis.”
“No kidding!” I replied.
It was another jaw-dropping moment that made much more sense when, a few months later, Dan and I went to visit my now-late father, who at the time was working for a feedlot operator in North Dakota. It was an awful place, and I could see by the lack of glint in his steel-blue eyes that he knew it too. He gave us a tour, with the final stop at the silage yard. As I stood there trying to make out the contents of the ginormous mounds of silage, a front-end loader approached and plunged in its big scoop. As it lifted the two tons of feed into the air, bits of ground-up corn and soybean fell back to the ground, along with the ingredients that modern feedlots mix in with high-protein corn and soybeans to fatten cattle faster: hamburger buns, tater tots, candy, French fries, and Wrigley gum, instantly identifiable as it was still in the wrapper. The smell was disgusting and yet familiar: it was the same smell that had escaped the packages of the beef and other buffalo meat that I had opened so many times in the past.
The revelatory experience I had with my first box of Wild Idea Buffalo meat happened to many Americans during the pandemic, as the horrors of our conventional meat industry flooded the media outlets and showed up in our living rooms. For a brief time, we couldn’t look away. In the wake of those revelations, we’ve seen the birth of many companies that claim to be regenerative. Of course, while real regenerative agriculture is a giant step in the right direction, most of these companies’ claims are smoke and mirrors.
As the leader in regenerative bison ranching, we occasionally have the opportunity to share what we have learned within the regenerative ranching community and also with you. In a recent podcast I had the pleasure of being on, cost came up, and I was reminded of an interview I heard with chef and food activist Dan Barber. He was asked about the cost of food and the time it takes to prepare it. Didn’t, the interviewer asked, he think that families needed a break? His reply was a simple “no.” He said: “If someone told you 40 years ago that you would have cable TV and not only pay for it, but also find the time to watch it, you wouldn’t have believed them. If someone had told you 20 years ago that we would all have smart phones in our pockets, and that we would not only pay for them, but we would find the time to use them, you wouldn’t have believed them.” He added, “Not only did we find the money, we found the time.” Holy smokes, I said to myself. Hearing that surfaced the memory of the time and money that went into my family’s beloved Sunday pot roast, and the delight and nourishment that made it worth every second and every cent.
Believe it or not, the food industry (which includes farming and ranching) is not a get-rich business, especially if you are unwilling to cut corners. With Wild Idea meat, you pay the full price upfront. There are no hidden costs, such as environmental degradation, species and habitat loss, water contamination, and human health issues (all of which we pay for when we buy cheaper foods whose production relies on government subsidies). There is no IOU passed down to our children. Our mobile harvest unit travels to the bison herd on the Rosebud Reservation and also to other regenerative bison ranches in South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana, including some of Ted Turner’s ranches and a Nature Conservancy bison herd. All of these ranches follow similar large-landscape, regenerative practices, resulting in intact grasslands that sequester tons of carbon and are also filled with an abundance of flora and fauna.
We wake up every morning and do what we do for an improved environment and an improved food supply that will not only nourish your body but feed your soul. And it’s not just for us, but for future generations. It’s a long-haul plan, and it’s a feel-good-about-what-you-do plan, so we can move forward in this life, leaving these parcels of earth a little bit better than how we found them.