I have an old New Yorker cartoon on my bulletin board at school. A buffalo (pardon me, a bison) is sitting at on a bar stool looking gloomy. In presumed response to the bartender's question he says "oh...stampeding off a metaphoric cliff, and you?"
As my students will tell you, in the right mood I think pretty much everything is a metaphor. I'm kind of like Freud in that way, though I hope in few others. So I feel certain that the marketing of corn-fed bison meat is a metaphor for something.
What I'm finding as I cruise the web and foodie magazines is that most commercial bison meat is grain finished. This doesn't mean the animals were moved from the iconic scene above to a feed lot, but corn was a part of their diet. I can also tell you that bovines really like corn. We used to give ours the overmature or underpollinated ears we didn't want to eat ourselves, and they loved it. That's not the same as force-feeding them field corn with no access to grass, I hasten to say, and fresh sweet corn is closer to its grassy roots than dried field corn, but it's not unnatural the way feeding ground up animal products to herbivores is unnatural, and unfortunately common.
But bison ranchers aren't paying to grain-finish their meat to make the critters happy. One of the points of raising bison is supposed to be that they can make efficient use of marginal land that is unsuitable for cattle or for dryland crops. And another point is supposed to be that the meat is lower in fat, and more specifically lower in "bad fat." Still another is, as Michael Pollan's many fans can quote, industrial corn farming has turned into a epic publicly financed boondoggle that contributes to a variety of environmental and social ills. So why would ranchers pay extra and give up the moral high ground to feed corn?
Here's one answer from the Nerud family of Chadron, Nebraska, owners of King Canyon Buffalo:
"Grass fed buffalo is okay, but we soon learned that corn fed buffalo grow faster, yield higher, and are much more tender. As the herd grew and we got wiser, cows and calves were fed corn. Our next bulls were finished on free choice corn and prairie hay. The difference in the meat was incredible. It was the best meat we had ever eaten and we knew we were on the right track."
Flip that statement around: Grass-fed animals grow slower, yield less, and tend to be leaner. (I say "tend to be" because our beasties in Sumas, who ate lush riverbottom grass and windfall apples besides the aforementioned corn snacks, were not what you'd call lean.) It takes more skillful cooking to bring out the flavor. Also, and this is particularly important to the restaurant business, the flavor and texture of completely grass-fed meat is less standardized. Meat is a sort of cellular diary of the elements that created it, and will vary in its cooking requirements from season to season and pasture to pasture. A corn finish makes for a more predictable final product.
If you are determined to eat completely grass-fed meat and you're not in a position to raise your own, it's going to take a bit of sleuthing and reading of fine print. Our main local purveyor of bison, Twisted S Bison, buys a lot of their meat from South Dakota, so you would need to quiz them, if you care. www.twistedsbison.com
If you are buying Oregon Country beef from the food co-op, you may be interested in their website. www.countrynaturalbeef.com, which is admirably straightforward and informative for livestock nerds such as myself. Here is a relevant passage from their FAQ page.
Q. Is it grass fed?
A. Most of our cattle are pasture and range raised for approximately 14-18 months. To assure a year around supply, some ranchers use winter growing lots where the cattle are fed a high roughage ration based on silages and hay. Then, for approximately the last three months, the diet is a ration of cooked potatoes, hay, corn and a vitamin mineral supplement. To ensure a consistent year around supply of quality cattle, all of our cattle go through the Beef Northwest feedlot, (owned by a member ranch) on their way to AB Foods.
I'm running out of time before I hit the road for a few days, so I'll postpone most cooking tips for another day. But here's a quickie. If you are using the leanest ground beef--not the 80/20 stuff that will cook up just fine with your regular burger approach, but the 90 percent or higher lean selections--you should:
Make the patties thinner; otherwise the outside will be tough before the inside is ready. Leaner meat cooks faster.
Lower your usual cooking temperature.
Add a "flavor carrier." Fat is a flavor transmitter, and one that works particularly well with the tastes of meat. Without the flavor transmission, you may as well just choke down a protein drink and skip the meal altogether. If your concern is animal fat but not calories, you could add olive oil. If that seems to miss the point of the lean meat, then try a bit of red wine, or soy sauce, or a small bit of Asian fish sauce, which sounds weird but works really well. Some people use Worcestershire sauce, which has the same anchovy base as fish sauce, plus lots of other flavors. I like to keep things simple so that I still can taste the distinctive qualities of that particular bit of meat.
For more about the Nerud family and bison ranching: www.kingcanyonbuffalo.com
And in the spirit of waste not, want not, here's a site for buying soap made from, among other things, bison tallow: http://www.trailersoap.com/