Culinary adventurers and Patriots fans are driving a booming market in exotic meats. Zebra burger, anyone?
By Theresa Regli
The lion arrives at the table on a silver platter.
It is roughly the color of pork, cut into strips and speckled with herbs. The waitress begins to point to the other meats arranged around the dish. "You have the giraffe, buffalo, musk ox, wild boar, black bear, Malaysian frog's legs, yak, elk, ostrich -- and this charred thing is Egyptian cobra."
I feel barbaric. I want to grunt, to eat it all with my hands. But I can't, not here at this upscale restaurant in Vermont. I sip my glass of blood-red wine, position my silverware, and start in on a meal that turns out to be delicious.
The platter I'm eating, the "Serengeti sampler," is the signature dish of the three-year-old Panache restaurant, in Killington, Vermont. The restaurant, which has won praise in the New York Times, Ski, and Snow Country, has the largest selection of game meats in the US. Chef Russ Riseman's cooking method, layering flavor upon flavor à la Todd English, has made the eatery popular among vacationing Bostonians and New Yorkers.
But clearly, the subtleties of Riseman's recipes aren't the most interesting thing about the restaurant. Panache represents the most extreme manifestation of a national trend: people want to eat more wild game. In restaurants and supermarkets around America, beef and pork and chicken are sharing menu and shelf space with their more exotic cousins. And for many eaters, the weirder the animal, the better.
Eating wild game is nothing new -- the journals of the earliest European settlers document the hunting of wild turkey, deer, and elk -- but in America, finding ostrich and alligator on the menu is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of these exotic meats are more familiar to foreign diets -- snake, alligator, and turtle are not unheard of in Asian cuisines, while African diets might include lion and giraffe.
The appearance of these meats here is partly a result of Americans' increasing exposure to ethnic cuisines, and their correspondingly more adventurous palates. This experimental spirit extends to other foods, too. Supermarkets display endive and radicchio alongside iceberg and romaine lettuce, star fruit and plantains next to plums and bananas.
Of course, there's a little more symbolism in eating buffalo than there is in eating star fruit. In part, the hunger for unusual meats is the carnivores' backlash against the anti-meat attitudes of the late '80s and early '90s. Tired of being bombarded with the message that meat equals murder (or heart disease), meat eaters have begun to revel in their choice, much in the way that people annoyed by the antismoking movement have gleefully embraced cigars.
Cigars, of course, have always been on the market. Not so with most exotic meats. Chances are, any American interested in a lion burger 50 years ago would have had to bring down the lion himself. Now ostrich and buffalo are raised on ranches in the US, and in Africa the same goes for lion, giraffe, and other animals that Americans are used to seeing in zoos. "In Nairobi, there's a large portion of the population that will sit down and have a zebra steak much more readily than they'll have a beef steak," says Riseman. "Beef is more of a rarity there."
Riseman says that it's legal to serve any kind of animal as long as it is farm-raised and checked out by the USDA. The trick is to track it down: species like lion and giraffe must be imported. But this is becoming easier. Suppliers are proliferating -- and prospering.
Paul Bernardo, a spokesperson for the Denver Buffalo Company (whose "buffdog" has won French culinary awards), says that sales have increased 67 percent in 1997 alone -- and that Boston is the nation's second-biggest market for buffalo. (Denver leads the pack.) Penny Davis, a salesperson for the Colorado wholesaler Native Game Company (which sells such oddities as kangaroo patties and alligator sausage), has tripled her customer base since 1992. Dole & Bailey, a Woburn company that supplies restaurants and supermarkets with everything from quail to rattlesnake, reports that sales have more than doubled over the past three years.
You can walk into Star Market in Allston -- which was built three years ago to set the chain's standard for product variety -- and purchase alligator meat, wild boar ravioli, ostrich steaks, and rabbit or venison sausage. Star's sales of specialty meats were only a few hundred dollars per week at first, but today they often approach, or even surpass, the thousand-dollar mark. The biggest weeks, invariably, are when the Patriots play the Buffalo Bills and Star holds a "buffalo blowout" sale.
It is not just the football fan who drives the market for exotic meat. It's experimental home cooks, gourmets, and sometimes immigrants, explains Jim MacDonald, Star Market's vice president for perishable merchandise: "The people who buy this meat are those who ate it as part of a dish they grew up with, people who have traveled, gourmet cooks, and food innovators."
It wasn't so long ago that the only store offering exotic meat locally was Savenor's, on Charles Street, which has been selling wild game since 1939. "We carry everything from alligator to zebra," boasts Michael Boyle, a manager at the store. "Well, except dog and monkey. But if it's farm-raised and federally inspected, we sell it." Boyle also points out that sales have increased. "We sell hundreds of pounds of the stuff every week," he says.
Culinary novelty and cultural authenticity aren't the only selling points for those in the exotic meat business. Game is generally much lower in fat and cholesterol than more common meats, such as chicken, beef, and pork.
"For instance, alligator has about 35 percent less fat and cholesterol than chicken," Panache's Riseman explains. "Ostrich's fat content is significantly lower than turkey's or chicken's. Buffalo has far less fat than beef. The lowest-fat red meat there is, which is acknowledged by the American Heart Association, is kangaroo. There's almost no visible fat to this wild game. Cardiac patients are being told, 'If you're going to eat red meat, you should switch from beef to buffalo.' "
What's holding up the true mainstreaming of exotic meat, importers and store managers say, isn't squeamishness but cost. Turkey, for example, can sell for as little as 89 cents a pound; a comparable exotic animal like emu, farm-raised in this country, starts at $9 to $14 a pound. Snake is about $12 to $15 a pound, and it's mostly bone. No matter how heart-healthy these foods are, most people can't afford to purchase them on a regular basis.
Star Market's MacDonald says that the exotic-meat industry hasn't developed enough -- yet -- to make the economics work. But as the demand goes up and the number of farms increases, he says, these foods will become more affordable. Production is already on the upswing. The Texas-based American Ostrich Association, for example, reports that its membership swelled from 400 farmers in 1988 to nearly 4000 in 1996.
Although the club turns out to be a scam (they serve smoked turkey in place of an exotic reptile), the film does push a button for anyone inclined to worry about the ethics of the exotic-meat trend. Not everyone is eager to turn the tables on a lion.
"Any commercially driven expansion of meat production constitutes a deplorable step," says Dietrich von Haugwitz, an activist and member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "To stimulate new appetites for new kinds of meat flies in the face of enlightened public policy and responsible stewardship of the earth's resources."
Riseman, who is so queasy about killing animals that he won't put a live lobster into a pot of boiling water, says that he does have customers with misgivings about Panache's menu. But most of them, he says, are appeased once they realize that he serves only farm-raised meat. He also points out that part of Panache's game proceeds go to the Rain Forest Coalition, and that he makes vegetarian dishes every night.
"Typically, the people who have a problem with the game have a problem with meat in general," he says. "The vast majority of people who have said 'Oh my God, I can't believe you serve lion' are the same people who, when I ask if they eat beef, say, 'Oh, no.' "
But Riseman also points out that people have told him they won't eat lion or giraffe simply because "they're cute."
"People think of these as jungle animals," Riseman says. "My only debate with people is this: if it's farm-raised, who's to say that a cow is any better to slaughter than a lion or a musk ox?"
Back when Riseman was looking to expand his menu, he discovered a restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, called Carnivores. When he rang up its chefs, he found out that diners actually sit outside around an open pit and, in a rather medieval fashion, tear at huge pieces of meat.
"It's a prix fixe menu," Riseman explains. "They start off with mutton or goat, and they build up. As the night goes on, these skewers of meat that you're ripping up and tearing at -- just like a carnivore -- become a little more cutting-edge. By the time you're done, you're having cheetah and lion and bear and musk ox and giraffe." The restaurant has since opened franchises in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Frankfurt, Germany.
In and around Boston, where game and cigar dinners are quite the rage, you'll find venison -- and occasionally buffalo, rabbit, and wild boar -- in many restaurants. But for more unusual meats, like alligator and kangaroo, it's better -- and cheaper -- to try cooking them yourself.
"You can prepare it just like you would any meat," Riseman says. The key to preparing exotic meat, he says, is to not overcook it. Because these meats are very low in fat, they can easily dry out, so they should always be served rare.
Although jungle animals aren't likely to become dietary staples in the US anytime soon, don't be surprised if you see buffalo and kangaroo being served in more and more restaurants. "We initially put this stuff on the menu because it's fun to cook," Riseman says. "Then people walk in here and try it, and it's actually good. People tell their friends about it. Then they get together and try some ostrich. It just keeps on going."
Theresa Regli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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