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Story and Photographs by Rick Browne, Ph.B.
As with any cooking style worth its salt (or BBQ rub, as it were), changes are inevitable if that style is to survive and grow and maintain its popularity. And that’s why barbecue grillers are expanding what they cook (i.e.: burgers, hot dogs and ribs) to include more exotic fare, cooking up bison, venison, elk, rabbits, rattlesnakes, wild boar, antelope, and—yes, Rudolph—reindeer.
If those entrees aren’t exotic enough for you, how about a plate of yak, a bowl of alligator stew, a llama burger, a rack of musk ox, or a turtle casserole?
It seems like we’ve gone back to the woods, retracing the culinary steps our ancient ancestors trod around the campfire as we reach out for ever more exotic meats to grill up in our backyards. In fact, annual sales of wild game online have wowed the financial world as revenues have skyrocketed from $110 million to $340 million in just a few short years.
“Our growth has doubled in the fast five years, averaging almost 20 percent a year,” says Russ McCurdy, the owner of Seattle Exotic Meats. “Especially with bison, which seems to be most popular in the Western states, but also with rattlesnake, kangaroo, and elk.”
If you’re a burger boy, they offer burgers made from 11 different species for your tasting pleasure, including alligator, yak, goat and kangaroo.
Nicky Foods in Portland, Oregon, has by far the largest selection of game available online, and has also seen their sales rocket upward in the past five years. “As chefs and home cooks learn more about how to cook game, and the health benefits of foods like bison and ostrich, we’ve seen a substantial increase in the interest in cooking these at home and in upscale restaurants,” says owner Geoff Latham.
To order from their website, you need to download a PDF catalog that is ten single-spaced pages long, then you can order up cuts of meat from an incredible list of game. The bison (buffalo) section alone has 54 cuts of meat listed, everything from bone-in rib eyes and short ribs to buffalo bull fries. Started as a small company selling rabbits to local restaurants, their list of wild game and fowl now numbers over 100 items and is constantly growing.
If you love sausage , they have 32 varieties—including some intriguing mixtures like smoked duck with apple brandy, buffalo bratwurst with burgundy wine, and pheasant with cognac and hazelnuts. Yummy!
Prices for these exotic entrees ordered at most web sites online are higher than regular beef or pork to be sure, but people are finding not only a significant taste difference but, in the case of bison particularly, tremendous health benefits.
“Bison fat contains 4 times the folic acid of any other animal,” shares Skip Sayers, who owns American Gourmet—yet another website dedicated to wild game meats. “And we’re finding doctors who recommend adding bison to patients’ diets because some researchers feel it helps prevent cancer and heart problems. One medical study found that if you eat three 4-ounce portions of bison a week, for 24 weeks, your LDL (bad cholesterol) level would drop by 45%.”
Sayers adds, “Scientists also did a study of Native American plains Indians and found that while some died of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, they never found any evidence of cancer or heart or stroke problems. And their diet consisted mainly of bison.”
On that same track, ostrich and emu—both red-meated birds—have always been touted for their cholesterol and fat-free properties, although most web sites I visited said sales of these birds has fallen off dramatically. One site manager suggested it might be because of a fear of avian flu, but others said that it was more a problem of availability.