BUFFALO meat is as American as apple pie. More American. The buffalo were here before apples. They fed generations of the original inhabitants of the Great Plains, and the buffalo were sacred to the Native Americans. But the buffalo were hunted almost into oblivion by 1889 - partly in answer to real need for meat and leather out East, and partly as a strategy to deplete Indian food supplies and weaken resistance to westward expansion.
Well, the buffalo are back.
Only they aren't buffalo. They are bison - Bison bison, to use the scientific term. These great thundering wild animals that once roamed the United States by the millions, have little in common with the Asian and African buffalo. They are closer to the European bison. Like beef cattle, they come from the Bovidae family of mammals. But whether you use the correct "bison" or the popular "buffalo," a growing industry has brought these thick-robed, shaggy creatures back from the brink of extinction. The roma nce of the Old West lives on as Americans rediscover the special flavor of buffalo meat. And now some of the finest western-style restaurants are spreading out feasts featuring tasty tenderloins and palatable prime ribs with all the gourmet flourishes of "haute western" cuisine.
The American Bison Association estimates that well over 100,000 of these still-wild animals now graze on ranches throughout the country. Buffalo calves may cost more than cattle initially, but the meat fetches about twice as much. And buffalo are hardier than beef cattle. They can tolerate lower temperatures in the winter because they have thicker hides and longer hair, they store fat like other wild animals, and they require less feed in the winter. They need a lot less care than beef cattle, even durin g calving time, some ranchers report. And they are easier on the land than cattle. Even media king Ted Turner has been in the news lately, touting the conversion of his Montana ranch from cattle to buffalo as ecologically correct.
More important, the public demand has grown by leaps and bounds, because American eating habits are changing - the sweeter-than-beef meat is far lower in all fats than beef.
Having heard that bison is tough and gamey from those who might have tasted a barbecued 10-year-old bull, many diners refuse to try this prairie luxury. But buffalo apologists claim that those who slander the bison have been offered meat unfit for the contemporary table. Once a diner has shed inhibitions and actually tried a prime cut of perfectly prepared buffalo steak, beef can seem pretty tame.
Certainly the best way to try it for the first time is properly prepared and presented in a festive frontier setting like The Fort restaurant in Morrison, Colo., just outside of Denver. The Fort sits on a mountain lot overlooking the city. A replica of the original Bent's Fort, an early fur-trade center in southeastern Colorado, the restaurant serves a wide range of buffalo cuts, as well as exotic frontier dishes such as "The Bowl of the Wife of Kit Carson" and the ever-popular elk medallions in hucklebe rry sauce. Other hearty Fort fare includes: pinon catfish, quail, buffalo sausage, broiled buffalo marrow bones (called "prairie butter" by 19th-century trappers and hunters), rattlesnake cocktail, buffalo tongue, and - most eccentric of all - pickled jalapenos stuffed with peanut butter and chutney.
Owner Sam Arnold has been serving buffalo since 1963. An outspoken promoter of the bison cause, he learned to demand the best-quality young meat (from bison no more than two years old) from his wholesaler. He wanted to see bison become popular among his customers, and he has.'The meat of the West was buffalo," says Mr. Arnold. "The Indians and the mountain men found beef to be pallid and uninteresting after they became used to buffalo. And I have found that to be the case for myself. Beef seems a little flavorless, as one man said, 'Buffalo tastes like beef wishes it tasted.' "
Beef recipes translate well to buffalo, he says. "The only thing you have to bear in mind is that you have much less fat with the buffalo. Cook at a lower temperature. In your secondary cuts, you want to cook them submerged in some kind of liquid so that they stay moist. Anything acidic will make [these cuts] more tender - even non-alcoholic red wine."
You can eat more buffalo than beef because there is so much less fat, he says. For parties of six or more, the Fort prepares six to seven pound roasts from the 90-pound hump roast, allowing a whole pound per person.
French trappers prepared buffalo sausages called les boudins. Since the mountain men couldn't pronounce that, they corrupted the French to "them boudies." The Fort's homemade buffalo "boudies" are nearly greaseless, seasoned with rosemary and other herbs, and offer quite a delicious change from the fattier pork and beef varieties.
Arnold recommends broiling the best steaks with nothing more than a little oil and a special Fort seasoned salt made of equal parts garlic salt, lemon crystals, cayenne pepper, and black pepper. Served with the Fort's savory potato, onion, and Anasazi-bean side dish, delicious muffins, and honey-dilled carrots, the experience oddly refreshes.
After all, the buffalo is a big part of American heritage and history. The Fort capitalizes on that past, however checkered. From the old western wear of the waiting staff, to the portraits of Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, to the resident historian and storyteller, to the open wood fires and the ferolitas (candles in paper bags partly filled with sand) leading to the restaurant, we are reminded of a mythic West.
"That's what the word 'restaurant' means," Arnold says: restore-ant.' I want people who come with a mantle of care, to sit back and relax and be restored by the experience."
The buffalo industry may never compete with the cattle industry in sheer numbers, some experts say. But the herds are growing, the market is ready, and the public is beginning to revive a very old American tradition.