My first encounter with a live American Bison was up-close and personal. I in my car and a huge bison, weighing easily as much, were both headed for the same parking space in front of a guest lodge in Yellowstone Park. It was clear from its nonchalant manner that this beast had no respect for anything on four wheels. I could have beaten this slow moving giant to the space, but of course, I hit the brakes. That was thirty years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.
This continent's largest land mammal is still at risk in the wild. We should have learned that after having almost hunting them to extinction in the 19th century. Their current enemy is local ranchers who each year force a cull of the Yellowstone herd that still is allowed to roam at will. They fear that vagrant bison will infect their cattle with brucellosis although there's no record of any such transmission. The ranchers imagine that a randy bison will mate with their cattle (offspring, if any, from such a match are sterile).
The American bison also has a champion. Two decades ago, CNN founder Ted Turner came to their rescue. He single-handedly turned bison into a crop. Bison now graze over lands he owns across 17 states and in Argentina. In 2002 he and his partners opened the first Ted's Montana Grill. There are now 44 of these restaurants in 16 states serving bison raised on his ranches.
Ted’s Montana Grill has a slogan: "Eat great, do good". I would add 'eat healthy, be thrifty'. Bison's dark red meat is lean and flavorful from a diet of grass. It's iron-rich taste reminds me of the beefy, butcher cuts the French love like tri-tip, hanger and flatiron steaks that are regarded as a budget cuts in the States.
In winter, bison short ribs are also an inexpensive treat: out-sized, generously padded with meat and with surprisingly little fat. My current preparation is adapted from Bruce Aidell's Great Meat Cookbook. He calls it Lazy Man's Short Ribs because it has no marinade, fewer ingredients, fewer steps and takes less time to cook than his other recipes. It’s a slow simmered dish with vegetables, wine and stock, a lot like a French stew. I'm all for that.
This is a comforting weekend dish to serve in the doldrums of winter. When I cook other meats and poultry, I don’t think about their origins. Bison stir my imagination. As the scent of wine and onions fills the house, I conjure the image of bison standing out on the Montana plains their great humped hide so thick that late winter snow doesn't melt on it. It’s their link in the food chain that sustains me.