Last winter, I had my first taste of bison meat. I was surprised its delicate flavor and lean texture. The history of the herd animals intrigued me too. There's just something about eating the same meat that native populations once thrived on that sparked my interest.
In 1527, Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca recorded one of the first historic encounters with the wild American buffalo. Under the king’s orders to “conquer and govern” the land of Florida, de Vaca led five boats to the coast of North America. Things didn't exactly work out according to plan. Within five years, the expedition’s original group of 300 men was tapered down to only four.
Cabeza de Vaca was one of the surviving four. Finding himself in the middle of Texas, he decided to occupy his time with writing, recording observations such as this about the native bison population:
“Cows come here, I have seen them three or four times and eaten them,” he wrote. “It seems to me they are about the size of the ones in Spain … [but] they have more and better meat … These animals come from the North all the way to the coast of Florida, where they scatter, crossing the land more than four hundred leagues. All along their range, through the valleys where they roam, people who live near there descend to live off them.”
Between this early recorded sighting — when herds stretched as far as the eye could see — and the end of the 19th century, the bison population fell nearly to the brink of extinction. As the American frontier grew, bison were hunted in vast numbers for their hides, the meat often left to rot. By the late 1800s, less than 300 remained in North America.
Very few bison roam the open plains today, though their numbers are recovering. The vast majority of today's existing bison population comes from private breeding. There's simply not enough wilderness to support large wild herds today.
No animal does well with less space than it needs. Bison have an especially difficult time adapting to overcrowding. In a sense, this is their saving grace — they don’t fare well in mass-production situations. Their sheer size demands space, as does their rustic disposition. Mature males, weighing in at more than 2,000 pounds, require specialized handling when privately bred, mainly by providing plenty of space to range free.
Wanting to visit the source of the meal that made such an impression on me, I arranged to make a trip out to Carolina Bison in Leicester. Late summer there is special; the light is low and gentle, the goldenrod is exceptionally ochre and the monarchs flit along lazily on their way south.
Seeing the animals on their native turf struck a deep chord. Being so close to an animal that roamed free more than 10,000 years ago in these very mountains, looking almost exactly the same today as they did then, gave me a jolt. There are few such prehistoric connections these days. The bison rock when they breathe and make unnerving noises. These animals will put your human size immediately into perspective.
Frankie King, Carolina Bison’s COO and knowledgeable fifth-generation family farmer, showed me around the extensive, several-hundred-acre farm. In the mid-’80s, King became so taken with the history of bison that he began privately breeding a small herd of 23 prized stock to support the animal’s comeback efforts. The effort soon produced a robust herd of more than 500, the largest in the Southeast. Carolina Bison is now able to supply the WNC community with high-quality meat.
While we hand-fed a few of King’s massive animals from the bed of the truck, I was surprised to learn that these bison breed freely. Insemination and assisted birthing are not practiced here, he says. The herd is given free rein on reproduction and rearing, and does so very efficiently. Clearly, the herd was operating under its natural pattern. The young bedded down next to their mothers with the large males grazing the perimeter.
Since that first meal, I have learned more about the unique health benefits associated with eating bison. As a nutritionist, I’m rarely surprised when grass-fed, local meat is proven superior in some ways to mainstream versions. For one, bison’s genetic code is naturally strong, and they are therefore less susceptible to disease than other domesticated ruminants. This makes them less likely to require synthetic support questionable to consumer ingestion.
Carolina Bison’s animals are raised without antibiotics or artificial hormones. They are given access to spring water while grazing, and are finished with mineral-enhanced beer mash from local breweries. King, also the founder of KingBio Homeopathic Pharmaceuticals, has been known to administer homeopathy when treating his animals. The bison, he says, are also humanely harvested. Such progressive practices set the farm apart, as well as a deep reverence for the herd.
Research by Dr. Marchello at North Dakota University reveals that bison meat is “a highly nutrient-dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, minerals and fatty acids compared to caloric value.” When compared to other red meat, bison contains higher levels of iron and other essential fatty acids needed for proper physical health and fitness. The American Heart Association recognizes bison as a heart healthy meat because of these characteristics. I should also mention it tastes like a dream.
Raised on venison and elk, I am used to eating meat with gamey flavor. Contrary to what one may think, bison is just the opposite. If anything, I would describe the meat as sweet.
What I love most about this newfound relationship with my food is the full-circle element of Cabeza’s written account: “All along their range, through the valleys where they roam, people who live near there descend to live off them.” 500 years later, I am proud to be one of these people.
For more information, visit www.carolinabison.com.
— Rachel Brownlee is a certified health and nutrition coach who practices in Asheville. Visit her blog at girlinanapron.blogspot.com.