Thursday, June 19, 2008

Back to the Buffalo

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.

If you are buying Oregon Country beef from the food co-op, you may be interested in their website., 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:

And in the spirit of waste not, want not, here's a site for buying soap made from, among other things, bison tallow:

Friday, June 13, 2008

Buffaloed by Bison?

I'll be out of computer range for a couple of days, so I'm putting this up as a reminder myself to keep researching. In the meantime, maybe someone else has insights.

I picked up a pack of bison meat at Haggen, thinking "grass-fed," "low impact," "lower cholesterol," etc. I eat red meat just a few times a year and rarely miss it, but every now and then... Then I read the fine print and found that these beasties are corn-finished, like a feedlot steer. Apparently folks want the cachet of healthy "wild" buffalo but not the actual leanness, with attendent cooking challenges, of truly grass-fed meat.

Sheesh, say I.

But it does make me think that lots of people could probably use some help learning to cook with truly lean cuts of beef. If you are from a hunting family, you probably already know. If not (as I certainly wasn't), then there's a learning curve. If you are going to eat meat at all, but rarely, and you are going to pay a premium for responsibly raised animal flesh, it would be disappointing--and disrespectful to the animal, I think--to end up with a dried-out flavorless slab of stringy grayish stuff. And it doesn't have to be that way. I'll get back to that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Let it be a challenge to you

Fringecup and woodruff are undaunted if not impressive underneath the double whammy of magnolia and spruce.

It's a durable teaching cliche--my mom heard it in the '60s when she was getting her credential, and I've heard it a time or ten myself, though with the fashion changing from paternalistic to collaborative leadership, it's gone out of style a bit.

Let it be a challenge to you. Did your class swell to 34 tenth-graders for your 28 desks. Are 8 of them basically illiterate, not counting the 5 who are still learning English? Do they all have to pass the WASL to graduate? Let it be a challenge to you (not to mention to them).

Actually, the last time I heard that phrase in person was a decade ago when I was teaching a credit makeup class for at-risk high schoolers. Two of them had been on opposite sides of a fight that had ended in hospitalization for one and a no-contact order for the other. They and their gang wannabe cohorts in the class were supposed to spend 80 minutes together in a pint-sized classroom, peaceably working on their English and history credits. I asked my principal how to accomplish that and he suggested I let it be a challenge to me. I wish I could say I rose to that challenge in Freedom Writers style, inspiring the whole roomful to find their common ground. More prosaically, the young warriors skipped school often enough so they were seldom there together, and both did somehow manage to graduate. One went on to thrive in life; the other stopped by my house a couple years ago, understandably jumpy because he had several outstanding warrants, and we had a long talk. At the end he thanked me for listening and shambled off. Last I heard he was back in jail.

But I digress. I was actually thinking about my southeast garden patch, aka Where Plants Go to Die. Yesterday I came across a book of lists for Pacific Northwest gardeners. One list was of Trees Impossible to Grow Anything Beneath. One was a Magnolia grandiflora; three others were spruces. Guess what shades that patch: a gorgeous big magnolia and a blue spruce. My neighbor has the trunks but we share the branches, and more to the point, the aggressive, matted root systems. "Test your plant growing abilities with these!" say the authors. In other words, let it be a challenge to you. Since that patch is the view out my dining room window, I'm motivated to get something going.

I can tell you some things that don't grow there: maidenhair ferns, Japanese painted ferns, mountain laurel, lace cap hydrangea (still clinging to life, but not a happy plant), astilbe (same as the hydrangea), red osier dogwood, various spring bulbs, and other sacrificial victims whose names have gone unrecorded.

It's probably not surprising that most of the keepers so far are Northwest natives who are used to the shady, competitive life of the undergrowth. Plus sweet woodruff, of course, which is sort of a starling of the plant world--attractive and adaptable and altogether too much of a good thing. I've got reasonably happy goatsbeard, fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), shooting star (Dodecatheon), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), wild ginger, and native bleeding heart. A native flowering current may also make the cut; it's too soon to tell. So it seems possible that spring and summer will look welcoming out there in another year or two. I'm still looking for small evergreens that can take the punishment and provide a view in winter.

Next school year when I'm sitting at the table working on curriculum, trying to figure out how to connect my students to literature and to each other, I'll be looking out at that patch. Chances are it will be dark out there, but I still want to know that something has taken root, that "Impossible to Grow" is just another challenge.