Carving the roast beast
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
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
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
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.
"Sales have grown in leaps and bounds," says Steve Brigham of Oxford Trading
Company, a meat distributor in Norwood. "And that's because people are becoming
more adventurous about what they're eating."
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.
How healthy is it?
Calories, fat, and cholesterol
per 100 grams (3.5 oz)
Source: US Department of Agriculture. Please note that fat content varies
depending on the cut of meat.
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.
In the 1990 movie The Freshman, Marlon Brando hires Matthew Broderick as
a courier for the Gourmet Club, an exclusive organization that hosts
endangered-species feasts. The privilege of eating the last of a species goes
for a mere $1 million per plate.
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?"
Not the chefs serving the meat, that's for sure. Riseman, who wants to bring a
Panache-style restaurant to Boston, says he has an advantage in that very few
people, if any, will come to his restaurant and say they've had better
The taste report
Wondering what all this meat tastes like? Below are tasting notes on
Panache's "Super Serengeti for Two," which costs $89 and is enough to satisfy
the hunger of an entire pride. The platter is composed of whatever meat chef
Russ Riseman currently has in stock.
American buffalo: similar to beefsteak in consistency and flavor, but
chewier and less fatty.
Black bear: extremely smoky, very gamy, and a bit too tough to enjoy.
Cobra: bland and slightly rubbery, but decent when charbroiled.
Elk: not all that different from beef except in color; it looks black
Giraffe: a red meat that was served very rare, which made it
extra tender. It had a melt-in-your-mouth quality.
Lion: the big surprise on the platter -- it was tender and tasty, like
the dark meat of a turkey.
Malaysian frog's legs: much larger than the ones you find in French
restaurants, these are easier to eat and very tasty.
Musk ox: tender, chewy; lighter than beef.
Ostrich: extremely tender red meat with a tinge of sweetness; slightly
gamy, like venison.
Water buffalo: chewy, like a bloody version of pork.
Wild boar: a delicious, smoky version of pork.
Yak: very gamy and smoky.
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
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.