Phyllis's Monthly Real Food Book Review - Buffalo for the Broken Heart August 02 2017
Yes, it matters. It really does. It matters how our food is produced and who produces it. And do they earn a fair wage? If you missed Slow Food Nations in Denver in mid-July where focus was on the how and the who, read Buffalo for the Broken Heart, published in 2001. The book is part memoir, part philosophy, part ecology, part wildlife biology, part history, and a lot love story of the Great Plains and of what and who belongs there.
In 1978 author Dan O’Brien put money down on a small cattle ranch near the Black Hills in South Dakota, and named it Broken Heart. Unable to make a living off cattle after several years, O’Brien took teaching jobs at nearby universities to stave off losing the ranch. He hit bottom when his marriage ended in divorce, and the losses from falling cattle prices and the drought kept him in endless debt.
Fortunately, he had friends worried about him. They lured him to a weeklong buffalo roundup at the 777, a ranch that had converted some years before from a traditional cattle ranch to buffalo. His friends wagered he and bison were a perfect fit, a way for him to revive his life and the grasslands of the Great Plains he loved. The roundup ended with O’Brien buying 13 puny young buffalo calves left over from the 777 roundup. They had all been born very late, some barely a week old, under 50 pounds, and still on mother’s milk. O’Brien hauled them home with a steep learning curve ahead of him.
By his second winter as a buffalo rancher, it was clear to O’Brien that buffalo were being cattle-ized. O’Brien was used to seeing cattle in a feedlot, but the day he saw buffalo there, it hit him hard. Their coats were unhealthy. They had broken horns and gouged ribs from fighting in the close quarters. Like cattle, they stood in their own waste. But unlike cattle, “their posture was that of the condemned. Not condemned to die, because wild animals understand better than humans that death is a condition of life. Their malaise came from the fact that they were condemned to confinement, deprived of the respect that was rightfully theirs.”
This book makes it crystal clear what an insult it is to apply the cattle model to bring buffalo back as a food source. O’Brien reminds us that buffalo and the plant species they depended upon co-evolved on the northern plains. Great Plains plants evolved to be healthiest when herds trampled and grazed them intensively and then moved on. Buffalo did just that, and still do when given the chance.
O’Brien laments that we have ignored that a million years of coevolution produces communities of species whose relationship is symbiotic. That includes man’s relationship to buffalo as a food source. Bison naturally has a low-fat, low-cholesterol nutrition profile. Finishing buffalo in feedlots destroys that healthy nutrition profile and renders inferior meat. That model also continues the destruction of the grasslands.
O’Brien’s secret dream had been to treat his buffalo in the respectful way they were treated by the Lakota: fattened on the native grass, killed with honor on the range where they were born, and never exposed to a feedlot and the accompanying chemicals. Suggestions from friends and phone calls to various regulatory agencies led him to realize his dream. He got to know new neighbors, a couple transplanted from California, who had the same dream, and together they formed Wild Idea Buffalo Company.
This summer, Dan O’Brien and his wife, Jill, received Rapid City, South Dakota’s Sustainability Award for a local company dedicated to land stewardship, promoting local foods. O’Brien accepted the award, saying “I have dedicated my life to preserving and restoring the Great Plains grasslands. By returning the bison to their native homeland, we’re not only re-wilding a threatened ecosystem, we are keeping prairies intact, with carbon stored safely underground, and producing the healthiest red meat on the planet.”
Buffalo for the Broken Heart has set me to thinking about the message we urban meat eaters asking for 100% grass-fed buffalo could send to keep buffalo home on the range.
Phyllis (dedicated local food eater and Back to Basics Kitchen customer)