Roaming Around for Bison: Distinctly North American, Lean and Maybe Gourmet

Canadians, well I should say carnivorous Canadians, may take for granted some of our home grown foods and produce   –maple syrup, wild rice and bison.  Bison have

Bison ranch. Near Tabor, Alberta 2005. Photo by HJEH Becker
Bison ranch. Near Tabor, Alberta 2005. Photo by HJEH Becker

been known for inhabiting North American prairie wilderness more than anywhere else in the world.

However in less than one hundred years of rapacious culling by both settlers and natives, the bison numbers have dwindled dramatically. Near extinction, has led to farm-raising of bison on ranches in Canada and the U.S.  Several years ago, on our way to Waterton National Park, Alberta, we dropped by the Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo Jump interpretative site, near Fort McLeod  where the

Smashed-in-Head Buffalo Jump Interpretative site-- near Fort McLeod in southern Alberta 2005. Photo by HJEH Becker.
Smashed-in-Head Buffalo Jump Interpretative site– near Fort McLeod in southern Alberta 2005. Photo by HJEH Becker. Blackfoot Indians used to collectively organize drives of large buffalo herds over the cliff for food, clothing and shelter.

Blackfoot Indians used  to traditionally drive herds of  buffalo over  cliffs to their death.  It was an easier way of killing bison for not just meat, but also for  their hide to make clothing, shoes, floor and tepee coverings.

This is an archaeological and Unesco designated World Heritage site.  The buffalo herd drive lanes, natural grazing lands and camp areas for the aboriginal communities are well-summarized here.  The buffalo were an integral part of the Plains Indians’ cultural and spiritual life just like the salmon is for the Pacific Northwest coast aboriginals.

Bison vendor, Calgary Farmers' Market 2010. Photo by J. Chong
At bison vendor, Calgary Farmers’ Market 2010. Photo by J. Chong

One of the bison meat vendors, told Jack that the term, buffalo, gave way to use “bison” more for marketing purposes and for the public to distinguish their revenue-generating herds from the water buffalo  imported into North America.

In the past 20 years, my meat-eating habits have peetered to less than 5-6 meals per month with meat. For both budget-saving and absent-minded laziness, I do not buy meat nor prepare meat often anymore.   But by no means, do I practice meat abstinence diligently.  I just have smaller portions of meat now.

If price and fancy strike me,  I would choose fresh seafood (any type, except for sea cucumber), chicken breast or lean pork.  On the rare occasion and usually for a special event or dinner, it would be bison.  Quality fresh bison is lean, meaning very little fat marbling and if cooked in a thoughtful way, a great special occasion meat entree.

Everything bison at this meat counter. Calgary Farmers' Market 2010. Photo by J. Chong
Everything bison at this meat counter. Calgary Farmers’ Market 2010. Photo by J. Chong

 Certainly Calgary major chain grocery stores and even our local organic food store, have sizable meat freezer displays of fresh and frozen bison cuts at noticeably lower prices, along with their tahini jars and tofu.

 Don’t be surprised for a Calgary business lunch, there could be a choice of a bison entree. At our workplace, there was bison chili as one of the chili choices for a United Way fundraiser. Then several weeks later, I chose bison at work Christmas annual restaurant lunch at guess what –a steakhouse. Bison ubiquity in Calgary is like fresh salmon or sushi in Vancouver: it’s not gourmet any more. It’s just part of the local fare.

Bison dishware sets and other paraphenalia for enthusiasts. Calgary, AB 2010. Photograph by J. Chong
Bison dishware and other paraphenalia for enthusiasts. Calgary, AB 2010. Photograph by J. Chong

Here, it is bison mecca for any inspired chef to try their hand on this game meat. At home, we marinate our bison in some soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, water and fresh rosemary for several hours in the fridge. Then the bison is sautéed with some onions or smashed, minced garlic, fresh ginger root and some oil.  With a salad, roasted vegetables, wild rice or sun dried tomato couscous as well as a glass of wine, it’s a tasty meal.

Christmas Eve meal at home: Sauteed maple-soy infused bison with sundried tomato mushroom couscous, orange-sesame asparagus and lightly sauteed fresh fennel on side. 2010
Christmas Eve home meal: Sauteed maple-soy infused bison with sundried tomato mushroom couscous, orange-sesame asparagus and lightly sauteed fresh fennel on side. Pinot noir wine in mugs. 2010

I have had bison in sausage shaped in Vancouver (spicy or with blueberries mixed in during sausage-making), ground bison burger (Not dynamic. I’ve always thought any ground meat diminished the original flavor of any meat.  That also includes emu burgers.), bison jerky (dried bison), bison pepperoni and different bison cuts prepared in different ways.

If bison doesn’t turn your crank, then there’s always wapiti (aboriginal), or otherwise known as elk.

Interesting Reading:
Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump Interpretative Centre. Alberta Canada.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. sabrink says:

    The beauty of bison/buffalo meat is most are pasture raised in a natural environment, they can handle the colder months. I think it is wonderful alternative to beef, especially corn fed, stressed out factory cow. Pasture raised beef is awesome also. But the irony is, because there has been more interest in eating bison meat, we are actually saving them from extinction, by eating them. Thanks for the post..happy blogging.

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  2. timethief says:

    Hi Jean,
    What a fascinating post. I used to live in Alberta and I have eaten bison. In fact I do believe I have a couple of recipes I could dig out. I loved the images and liked see the bison theme dishware and paraphernalia.

    P.S. We shipped out last order today and I’m ready to collapse.

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  3. Jean says:

    I didn’t mention for an international audience, but most Canadian children know already that the coat of arms for the province of Manitoba, features a bison. Not sure if any of the U.S. states have the animal somewhere in their state emblems, etc.

    The bison dishware reminded me of the kitchen stuff featuring friendly cows, pigs, chickens / roosters. Let us know if there’s another particularily interesting way of preparing bison.

    Many warm, bright wishes for happy and safe holidays as you all visit / share meals. Rest well too for 2011!

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  4. micki says:

    Yes, I rarely eat red meat, mainly are chicken breast and seafood, especially fishes. I have not had bison meat; however, I tasted BBQ elk meat in one of our friends’ place. It tasted really like the beef! Happy Holidays to you~~

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  5. Jean says:

    I’ve had elk sausages from a gourmet sausage maker where they do careful blending of different meats and herbs with more innovative flavours. This may offend vegetarians– but if the animal has been used in its entirety and not left to waste, then the food is a gift to us..

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  6. wow bison! looks great! i had a very dry steak…

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