Last spring, I was driving back from my morel bonanza, when I came across a small herd of buffalo. There were maybe twenty or thirty of them — cows with calves, a few bulls — enormous, shaggy beasts standing in a swale that green we only get in the spring, with the backside of the Absaroka range rising behind them. It gave you a sense of what it must have been like when this country sustained great herds of buffalo. It was at once an inspiring and disheartening sight. They were so lovely, and there were so few of them.
Last week, the New York Times food section had an article “Home Again on the Kitchen Range” on the second coming of the buffalo market. Buffalo are interesting as a ranch animal, since they are not actually domesticated. They remain wild animals, even on a ranch. Personally, I don’t eat as much bison as I do elk and antelope, mostly because you can’t really hunt them (there’s a small and controversial hunting season on bison that cross out of Yellowstone Park into Montana). You can buy bison easily around here, and it’s delicious — I’m particularly fond of Cinnamon-Chile Short Ribs made with bison. What I found interesting in the NY Times piece is that part of the reason bison didn’t do so well the first time around is that people wanted just the prime cuts — the steaks and chops. In the intervening years, braising has made a comeback in both haute and ordinary cuisine, and if you’re going to eat game, or if you’re going to really use those domestic animals we eat for meat, then you’re going to have to learn to cook more than a steak or a chop. As Rick Bayless said when I interviewed him a couple of years ago: “you have to know how to cook. The job of the cooking schools is to teach how to utilize other cuts. I mean,“ he continues, “anyone can sauté off a lamb chop.”
While the New York Times article focuses primarily on the grain- vs. grass-fed controversy among bison producers, and the way that bison appeals to consumers because it’s not as industrialized as beef, Dan O’Brien in his book Buffalo for the Broken Heart advocates for the return of bison to the great plains as a way of restoring the entire ecosystem — both human and natural. O’Brien was a cattle rancher for years (as well as a falconer) and he was going broke trying to raise cattle without destroying his land. In a fit of desperation, he tried buffalo. Buffalo, he discovered, can not only take care of themselves, but because the prairie grasses and the buffalo co-evolved over millions of years, running buffalo not only doesn’t damage the land in the way that running cattle does, but actually helps to restore it. I loved Buffalo for the Broken Heart when I read it a couple of years ago — not just the story of a man saving his ranch, it’s really the story of a man saving his own life. Sometimes it’s easy, I think, for people who don’t have much experience with the kind of deeply rural life that ranching entails to fall into the easy binary of “wild nature = good,” “ranching=bad” and O’Brien makes a good case for how by saving the buffalo, we might also be able to save a rural ranching tradition that is a crucial part of our cultural heritage.