Of all the images of the Old West, none was more iconic than the buffalo. Now buffalo is making a comeback on the American plains--and on menus.
As I write about buffalo, my mouth begins to water. This may be because I have read so much about them in 19th-century accounts of the American frontier. Everybody on the western plains back then ate buffalo--nobody called them American bison, their more accurate name--and travelers tended to describe these meals in rapturous terms. They mentioned buffalo hump and tongue, roasted on embers, with bread and good hot coffee; tender cow buffalo with two inches of fat on the loins; roasted buffalo back ribs with berry soup; fried buffalo steaks with flapjacks; even raw buffalo liver still warm from the animal, seasoned with a sprinkling of gunpowder and a few drops of gall. Reading along in a quiet library doing research for a book on the plains Indians, I could hear my 20th-century stomach growl.
I romanticized buffalo, to be sure. Books say that there once may have been 60 million of them on the Great Plains. I imagined them as the bounty of the continent, flowing in a brown and dusty and bellowing river at its center. Pioneers who were among the first whites to see them said that unbroken herds of the animals passed by for days at a time, that the land was dark with them clear to the horizon all around, that day and night the prairie resounded with their roars.
And then, of course, they were gone. This apparent end to the buffalo story did not hurt the romance of it at all. The slaughter of the buffalo that accompanied the arrival of the railroad to the plains in the 1860s and after made the vanished herds a ghostly presence, palpable in their absence from the vastness they used to roam. For a modern-day traveler on the plains, the realm of the buffalo was in the imagination only. Mainly, the traveler saw emptiness, and sometimes cows.
But the buffalo, it turns out, are not as gone as I thought they were. When I moved to Montana in 1982, a guy who lived just down the road from me had two young bull buffalo in a pasture next to his house, penned behind a stout electrified fence. Driving through the nearby National Bison Range, I had to stop for a buffalo five feet high at the shoulders as he emerged from some sagebrush and walked slowly and swayingly in front of my car. Suddenly it seemed that buffalo were peeking out at me from all over--from a field next to a gas station on the Flathead Indian Reservation, alongside the road in Yellowstone National Park, from a stock truck at a traffic light. Also, I began to notice places with buffalo meat for sale. I stopped at a wild-game processor in Missoula, Montana, when I saw a sign out front advertising buffalo salami. I bought one and it was delicious, so I bought another and sent it by overnight mail to an artist friend in New York City. My friend grew up in Europe and knew of buffalo as a two-dimensional image; when he received the salami, he called me and said, "A buffalo salami--it's a surrealist object!"
Since I came to Montana I've eaten a lot of buffalo. The meat is as good as the old-timers claimed. At first, I mostly ate it dried--in buffalo jerky, leathery strips that I bought by the Ziploc bagful and gnawed on while driving in my car. It's a perfect travel food, as it was for Indians and frontiersmen. Cruising along the highway in this state with no daytime speed limit, I would bite off a hunk of dried buffalo and chew and chew; it reminds you what human beings have big jaw muscles for. (Recently, I've been snipping my jerky into small pieces with poultry shears to spare my jaw.) I liked the jerky so much that I progressed to buffalo burgers, buffalo sausage and broiled buffalo top sirloin sliced thin and dipped in hot sauce.
A Force for Good
The historian Francis Parkman, who visited a camp of Oglala Sioux on the margins of the Black Hills in 1846, described in The Oregon Trail how the Indians gorged themselves on buffalo meat for hours following a successful hunt. When I eat buffalo tenderloin, I can understand the impulse. The tenderloin is the choicest cut, from the short-loin section of the back just behind the ribs. I get most of my buffalo from White's Wholesale Meats, in Ronan, Montana, which will sell you any part of the buffalo you want, including the head and green hide. They ship a lot of their best meat to fancy restaurants in Los Angeles and other big cities. To retail customers like me they sell buffalo tenderloin for $15.50 a pound, which makes it a dish just for special occasions. Cooked properly--all buffalo meat should be done rare or medium rare to keep it tender and preserve its juices--the tenderloin can be cut with a fork. I roast it slowly, in medallions about an inch thick. Buffalo tenderloin medallions with Ojibwe wild rice from Minnesota and yellow morels from cottonwood stands along the Missouri River is an all-American feast I dream of.
People who raise buffalo seem to regard them not just as livestock but as a force for good in the world. These people usually mention first the healthful quality of the meat, which is lower in fat and cholesterol than pork, beef or skinless chicken breast. Buffalo is rich in iron and other minerals and hasn't had the antibiotic injections and growth hormones usually given to cattle. Buffalo ranchers praise their animals' ability to prosper on marginal browse, to graze on many kinds of plants and grasses and not to eat to bloating, as cattle will. Buffalo tolerate cold weather better than cattle, they say, and are naturally adapted with their thick fur to withstand the fierce wind of the plains. On beautiful but stark rangeland all over the West, raising buffalo may make the best sense for agriculture.
Competing with Cattle
Most buffalo are raised on small ranches. Of the nation's thousand or so buffalo ranchers, only a very few (media mogul Ted Turner, for example) have herds of more than a thousand head. The National Bison Association says that the size of both large and small herds is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year and that the industry expects to compete with the cattle business one day. But for now, a buffalo pasture is usually a modest spread--along the bottomland of a small river, say, with a paved county road winding beside it, wheat fields farther off and smoke-colored mountains in the distance. The landscape probably also includes a double-wide trailer house or two. Such a pasture will have a few dozen head of buffalo, and when snow is on the ground, they walk a net of trails over the open expanses, following one another with their heads down as if by magnetic attraction. The winter wind makes a light whistling through their beards, and the steam of their breathing comes out from their nostrils in jets on either side of their heads. In summer, they sometimes like to feed on greenery so thick they can hardly be seen. One July, I watched a small herd in a river-bottom pasture emerge from a field of tall sunflowers, and the brown of their hides was the exact color of the sunflowers' centers. The buffalo murmured and sort of growled--it was a dignified, venerable sound, far different from the bawl of a cow.
When I eat buffalo, I keep these visions of the animals and their home places in mind. Most cattle eventually end up in one of the feedlot metropolises known throughout the West by their sprawl and dust and smell. Buffalo, however, don't. Buffalo ranching is still a small-time operation--more cattle are slaughtered each day than all the buffalo that exist now--and the buffalo industry is not part of any giant system. When I eat buffalo, I am voting for the small, the stubborn, the persistent, the timeless. I'm getting closer to an ancient gift of the West that still survives.
Story by Ian Frazier, the author of Family and Great Plains. His latest book, On the Rez, about the Oglala Sioux, will be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.