Bison meat makes inroads with American gourmands 

By Devin Smith, Columbia University News Service

Ed Tuccio yanks the steering wheel of his Dodge pickup truck, sending a Slurpee of melting snow and ice over the wheel hub and onto the windshield. He flips on the wipers, hoots as he hits a concealed rut in the field, and bounces the vehicle toward a nearby animal holding pen.

Roughly 70 bison glance up at the pickup truck.

"Now that was a test drive!" says Tuccio, skidding the truck to a stop next to the pen. "Did you know a bison could take a grizzly bear in a fight?"

Physical credentials notwithstanding, bison are an increasingly admired animal among Americans, particularly served with a side of roasted potatoes and some steamed spinach.

Bison has considerably less fat, cholesterol, and calories than mainstream meats.

"Bison meat is gaining popularity as people are beginning to understand that it's not only nutritious, but also tastes good," said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association (NBA), an advocacy group and network for bison farmers. "We found that the market jumped between 10 to 15 percent last year alone."

Carter said the nation's bison farmers "processed" about 20,000 animals in 2002.

Even in a region of Eastern Long Island where farmland remains one step ahead of strip malls, Tuccio's 500-acre bison farm is still a rarity. In fact, his North Quarter Farm claims the only bison for at least 125 miles.

Skating around his land in a Dodge, Tuccio doesn't look like the millionaire former head of the NBA. At roughly 55 and weighing about 250 pounds, he looks like an out-of-work linebacker. Tuccio's hands make the steering wheel look like a hoop earring.

He says bison farming first piqued his interest 20 years ago.

"I was going through a midlife crisis," he explains. "I figured it was either bison or women, and bison seemed less dangerous."

One reason bison dishes are making inroads with American gourmands is that the meat is inherently lean without sacrificing any of the flavor that's generally attributed to a high fat content.

Studies conducted by Dr. Martin Marchello at the University of North Dakota suggest that bison meat contains considerably less fat, calories, and cholesterol than the big three meats in America: beef, pork and chicken. A 100-gram sample of buffalo contains only 2.4 grams of fat, 143 calories, and 82 milligrams of cholesterol.

In comparison, beef has 9.3 grams of fat, 211 calories, and 86 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams; pork is similar to beef; and skinless chicken claims 7.4 grams of fat, 190 calories and 89 milligrams of cholesterol.

It is the very leanness of the meat, however, that makes preparing it a challenge. There's no buffer of fat in bison to camouflage overcooked meat. 

At Tweed's Restaurant and Buffalo Bar, Tuccio's establishment in downtown Riverhead, NY, the head of the last buffalo shot by Teddy Roosevelt hangs on the wall. Tuccio says he acquired the head, which Roosevelt shot in 1883, from the local Boy Scouts when they discarded it.

In the kitchen, Tuccio has hired three chefs trained at the Culinary Institute of America. The three have strict orders to never cook bison steaks more than rare or medium rare. By keeping the meat pink, the chefs get the most out of the bison's wispy fat, and in turn, preserve the steaks' robust flavor without the greasy aftermath.

Most people who eat bison say it tastes similar to beef, only sweeter. Tweed's serves it with a cream sauce on the side, but Tuccio encourages his guests to try the meat without condiments to enjoy the flavor alone.

The restaurant also serves two different brands of buffalo vodka from Poland. The liquor's unique flavor comes from blades of grass that have been "beloved by buffalo" in each bottle, according to the label.

In the early 1800s, the unregulated hunting of bison decimated the U.S. population, reducing a species that once numbered in the tens of millions to no more than 1,500 by the end of the century. During westward expansion, settlers often took potshots from the passing trains, slaughtering entire herds of buffalo in the process.

"The railroads actually had bison pens near the ticket counter for passengers to see," Tuccio says. "That way they had a good idea what they were shooting at."

Now, however, the NBA reports roughly 244,000 bison in the United States with herds in every state, including Hawaii, Florida, and Alaska. Although the average private herd numbers less than 100 head, a few extend into the low four digits. Rangers at Yellowstone National Park estimate the park's public herd at about 3,500 bison, making it the largest population in North America.

Weighing between 40 and 50 pounds at birth, mature bison bulls can eventually tip the scales at over 1,900 pounds and live as long as 40 years. Although cows can reach four decades as well, they weigh only half as much as their male counterparts. 

"The Native Americans subsisted almost entirely on bison," Tuccio says. "And I don't just mean for meat." 

Bison farmers still follow the precedent established by the Native Americans. Pulling a coffee-colored knit hat from the glove box, Tuccio explains that buffalo fur can be used to make mittens, scarves, and hats, just like sheep's wool. Since bison hide is similar to cow leather, it is particularly valuable for making furniture, clothing, and moccasins. What little fat can be found on a buffalo is used for making soaps. Hooves provide an integral ingredient for glue. 

"These animals are so unique and useful," Tuccio says. "They've really come a long way in the last 100 years."

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