The buffalo roam at the National Western Stock Show

When Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, stood up to address the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week, he gave a special shout-out to John Hickenlooper, who'd met with him in Denver the week before — and cooked dinner for him. "As you know," LaHood told the crowd, "John is a restaurateur, a very successful one, but I had no idea when I arrived in Denver that we were going to have dinner at his home...so this is a little clue for all of you when I come to your community: John actually cooked dinner. We had a wonderful steak, cooked perfectly, medium rare for both of us, and salmon, and a salad, and a bottle of wine. This guy is not only a fantastic mayor, he knows something about the restaurant business. So we had a great time in Denver."

There was good reason for the meal's setting: Hickenlooper's wife, author Helen Thorpe, had an appearance for her book, Just Like Us, that night, and Hickenlooper was in charge of their seven-year-old. "Maybe a year from now, he'll be cooking something for me at the governor's house," LaHood continued, then added, "Now, as a Republican, I'll probably get in a lot of trouble for saying that."

Not with this group, though, and the appeal of a home-cooked meal wasn't lost on mayors hungry for federal money to help out their cities. During the question-and-answer session, several of them invited LaHood to dinner, offering their own home-turf version of surf and turf. From Clearwater, Florida, came this invitation: "We have stone crab and grouper as soon as you want to bring that money." From Mesa, Arizona: "I can outcook Hickenlooper any day." And from Laredo, Texas: "You'll have the best Mexican food, best enchiladas and tacos. We'll have a darn good meal, and also some barbecue." And maybe some Pepto-Bismol.

But when he asked a question of LaHood, chef Hickenlooper revealed the perils of inviting a Cabinet member to dinner. "Trust me," he said. "I was so glad you showed up the next day at the job summit without any indigestion or food poisoning."

A lot of bull: A Canadian took the gold last weekend in a winter event that Olympics organizers could only dream about: the Gold Trophy Bison Sale at the National Western Stock Show. The winner was a two-year-old unnamed bull from the Silver Creek Bison Ranch in Alberta, Canada, purchased for about $8,000 by Steve Wilson of the Kentucky Bison Company near Louisville, Kentucky.

"He'll be enjoying warmer weather where he's headed," National Bison Association director Dave Carter says of the bull, and his future life of leisure as well, since the big buffalo will be spending a lot of time with the ladies, helping to build the herd.

Wilson also owns the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, which was just selected as the best hotel in the United States by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. And the hotel's restaurant, Proof on Main, serves plenty of bison steaks, Carter says.

Although the $8,000 price tag was well up from last year's winning $5,750 buffalo, it was nothing compared to the $101,000 that Kentucky buffalo rancher Robert Allen paid for an animal named Chief Joseph in 1998. That was back when the bison meat industry was just taking off and there was huge demand for good bulls because speculators were trying to get rich quick. Two years later, the market crashed, and the top bison bull sold for a mere $2,500. Yes, even bison have a bubble. Today's prices are much lower, but they reflect a more stable industry, Carter explains. All told, 85 buffalos sold at the bison association's annual event, for a total of $135,000.

 
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