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Where the Buffalo Moan

They’ve been worshiped, they’ve been slaughtered. Now bison are back—so why won’t you buy some burger?

It takes someone with a bit of a culinary wild side to try the appetizer of sliced buffalo tongue with caper sauce at The Fort in Morrison. Even the bay-leaf-and-black-pepper seasoning doesn't change the fact that you are about to bite into, well, the tongue of a buffalo.

But, hell, this is Colorado. And when you're in Colorado, you do as a Coloradan would, or at least as you think a Coloradan would: You dig right into the rattlesnake medallions, the elk steak and, yes, the buffalo tongue.

Sam Arnold knows how this thought process works; he's been making a living off it for 38 years, not only with his landmark restaurant -- modeled after Bent's Fort in southeastern Colorado -- and a TV cooking show, but with a series of cookbooks that feature recipes from both the Old West and the New West, some of which he created himself. "We sell something around eight to ten tongues a night, and these are sliced in three to five slices for each order," he says. "Buffalo tongue has a history all its own. It was one of the greatest gourmet delicacies available right up until 1880.

Buffalo Will: The Denver Buffalo Company's Will McFarlane thinks the bison industry is over the hump.
Buffalo Will: The Denver Buffalo Company's Will McFarlane thinks the bison industry is over the hump.
Gastronomical proportions: Bison fan Sam Arnold holds down The Fort.
Brett Amole
Gastronomical proportions: Bison fan Sam Arnold holds down The Fort.

"We serve buffalo testicles, too," he adds happily, "about 3,000 a week. That's the full gift from 1,500 unhappy buffaloes. The world is becoming much more gastronomically oriented. The people who can afford to eat at my place usually have the intellect to enjoy experimental types of food and aren't the people who are intellectually stuffed up and say, 'Ooh, I could never put a buffalo tongue in my mouth -- just bring me an omelette.'"

Adventurous eaters arrive every day at The Fort from all over Colorado, the country and the world to try the delicacies that Arnold serves, and they're not afraid to pay the price (that buffalo tongue appetizer runs $9.99). After all, can you really put a value on the opportunity to eat the wild, wild West?

"We serve just over 50,000 buffalo entrees a year: New York strips, filets, tenderloins and prime rib. We also make our own buffalo sausage, called boudie," Arnold says. "In addition, we serve buffalo marrow bones, which the French delegation during the G-8 summit kept coming back for, because they are superb eating."

The most popular cut of buffalo is the tenderloin -- $34.95 at The Fort -- "considered by many people as the finest piece of meat in the world," Arnold notes. "And I agree."

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Shannon County, South Dakota, where thousands of Oglala Sioux live in poverty, they are also eating buffalo meat, but not the finer cuts enjoyed by The Fort's diners. They're eating ground buffalo meat, what the bison industry calls "trim." There's not much bay-leaf-and-black-pepper seasoning around here, and not a tongue in sight. But since the meat is part of the federal food-distribution program, it's free.

"Shannon County is the poorest county in the country," says Craig Forman, regional public-affairs director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food and nutrition service based in Denver. "I've never seen people this destitute who walked in looking for their monthly allotment."

Most of the Pine Ridge residents who participate in the USDA's food distribution -- about 6,000 people each month -- pick up the bison trim (packaged in one-pound portions) and other food such as ground beef, beans, flour, fruits and vegetables at a giant warehouse on the reservation.

"Anyone who falls under the income guidelines is eligible," explains Pine Ridge program director Joe Bluehorse. "People really like the buffalo; it's real lean, good for you, and we have a lot of diabetics here, so it fell right in line with our fight against diabetes." A traditional food for Indians, the bison meat is made into everything from hamburger and sausage to stew and goulash, as well as a Sioux meal called wasna, for which it is dried like jerky and mixed with fat and berries.

The prime cuts of the buffalo -- steaks, prime rib and roasts -- are snapped up by restaurants like The Fort, but this meat accounts for only 50 percent of the animal. The other half, the half that went to Pine Ridge, is essentially just a bunch of burger. And although the people who raise and sell buffalo like to compare it to lobster, veal, lamb and other specialty meats, the average customer at the supermarket still sees ground buffalo as expensive ground beef.

At a wholesale cost of about $3.30 to $3.60 a pound and a retail cost of about $4.50 to $4.99 a pound for trim, the bison industry couldn't sell this meat because it couldn't -- wouldn't -- compete with beef, which sells for about a third less. Instead, bison boosters begged the federal government to buy more than two million pounds of ground buffalo at market rates in order to keep the price from collapsing, a disastrous prospect for what is still a fledgling industry.

The USDA, which buys a minimum of $500 million of excess food every year, complied; it bought more than $8 million worth of excess trim in 1998 and 1999 and shipped it to dozens of Indian reservations all over the country.

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