Saturday, March 19, 2011

Give me a home where the buffalo roam.

During a particularly tough hike last weekend, I suddenly had a craving. “I really want a giant cheeseburger,” I said to my husband. And truly, I had never wanted a cheeseburger more in my life than at that moment. This led to a long discussion amongst our hiking group about where I could find an ethical burger on short notice.

One option was Fuddrucker’s. There was no way I’d eat their beef, but they do serve so-called exotic burgers made from ostrich, buffalo, elk, or wild boar. I didn’t know anything about the practices on ostrich or buffalo ranches, but my craving got the best of me. I figured there can’t be a large enough market for buffalo meat to necessitate large CAFOs in the style we use for beef cattle or to significantly contribute to climate change (through the release of methane) or groundwater contamination. It was a gamble, I know, but that buffalo burger really hit the spot. In fact, two of my hiking buddies also opted for the buffalo burger.

Once my meat-mongering had subsided, I started wondering about how buffalo are actually raised. I started at the Fuddrucker’s website. About the exotic burgers, they state: “Our all-natural, free-range, grass and grain-fed game burgers are 100% antibiotic and hormone free”.

Let’s dissect this statement. Here is what “all-natural” means according to the USDA:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as - no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”

Well, that’s nice, but it doesn’t address any of my concerns.

To be called free-range, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Although it only says poultry, I am assuming that the definition applies more broadly. “Access” is not further defined, and free-range can describe conditions during any part of an animal’s life.

That the animals are fed grass or grain pretty much covers all of the options, although apparently, there have been studies on how well CAFO cows tolerate stale chewing gum (still in the wrapper) and old phonebooks [1].

Lastly, they state that the animals are raised 100% free of antibiotics and hormones. This is actually a good sign. Large feedlots have to use antibiotics because disease is so rampant. Also, antibiotics are used to treat a potentially lethal condition called acidosis (affecting the rumen) that is caused by feeding grain to cattle. If these animals were raised without antibiotics, they can’t be on massive feedlots although they may still be confined on a smaller one. As for acidosis, one way of avoiding it is to simply kill the cattle sooner – shortening their lives to avoid the illness.

I wasn’t able to find any information about sourcing on the Fuddrucker’s website, and they have not yet replied to my email inquiry. Instead, I looked for general information on raising buffalo, buffalo meat sources, and the potential for buffalo acidosis. The first thing I learned is that what we call buffalo are actually bison.

Because bison are grass-loving ruminants, they are prone to acidosis when fed grain, just like beef cattle. Acidosis can contribute to E. coli, and last year, an outbreak of E. coli was linked to some “natural” bison meat [2]. Still, most bison are grain-fed on a feedlot for some time, usually the last 100 days or so of their lives [3][4]. Below, is a figure from the Bison Feedlot Production Factsheet from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture showing the major production practices.

Despite the picture I have in my head when I think of buffalo – wild creatures roaming the prairie - bison are generally raised in feedlots and on a diet that includes grain (see [2] for a good description of the contrast). The feedlots may be smaller, and certainly the lack of antibiotic usage is a step up from most CAFO beef. However, the bison are still being force-fed a diet that makes them sick. These wild animals are still confined in pens, the runoff and pollution from which do not appear any more restricted than for a cattle CAFO. In short, in terms of ethical implications, most bison meat is about the same as cattle meat raised on a small CAFO. Also, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA does not require inspections on bison meat [3].

The bottom line, here, is that just because an animal is “exotic” or “wild”, doesn’t mean it was ethically-raised. Sadly, alternative meats are not a free pass, and sourcing ethical bison requires as much vigilance as beef, pork, or poultry. Until I know the actual source of Fuddrucker’s buffalo meat, I will treat it like any other restaurant meat, as something to avoid.

More ethical bison sources: Some 100% pasture-raised, grass-fed bison meat is available. Full Circle Bison Ranch, for example, allows their buffalo to roam on certified organic pasture eating grass and never meeting an antibiotic, hormone, or pesticide throughout their lives. Northstar Bison is also 100% pasture-raised and grass-fed. I would be wary of The Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Company. They say their bison are 100% ranch-raised, and the website makes their production sound really ethical. However, they do grain finish their bison on corn.

Cited sources:
[1] Summary of research on CAFO feed from Eat Wild.
[2] Putting Bison on Feedlots: Unnatural, Unnecessary, Unsafe by Andrew Gunther.
[3] Bison production guide from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
[4] Bison Feedlot Production Fact sheet from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Super Squash, For the Win!

Last November, the produce stand at J.E. Perry Farms was full of squash. In addition to the classic butternut, distinctive acorn, and traditional pumpkin, there were about half a dozen squash varieties I didn’t even recognize. Most of them were huge!

On our last visit before the stand closed for winter, we were gifted one of these enormous alien squash for being loyal customers. It’s a nice perk of participating in a neighborhood business, but honestly, we were quite intimidated. Here’s a picture of our squash with some excellent wine for scale:

We came up with a few fun names for it. Gargantu-Juan, Gourdon, and finally settled on Oof – for the sound I made when the guy at the farm stand handed it to me. Since we had no idea what to do with such a giant squash of unknown variety, Oof made a fine doorstop for about six weeks.

Finally, through a fair bit of Googling, we felt prepared to take on the Super Squash, which is actually a Blue Hubbard variety of winter squash. In this post, I will tell you:

1. How you, too, can process and roast a fine winter squash like Oof.
2. A general recipe for roasting squash.
3. A recipe for squash soup, which can be made with roasted squash or canned pumpkin.

Dealing with a giant squash was actually a lot easier than I had feared. And, because squash is pretty inexpensive, you can eat of whole lot of it for only a few bucks. Roasted squash does well in the freezer so you can incorporate it into soups or stews for several months. We have made soup twice and still have some squash left. Just make sure to store your squash in a sturdy container. We put some into the thinner, cheaper kind of plastic-ware; the lid shrunk in the freezer, and some of our squash got frostbite.

The Super Squash Challenge!

Step 1: Wipe down your squash to remove any mud/dirt. Set it on a sizable and sturdy cutting board. Select a sharp cleaver or other heavy sharp knife. Yelling your best possible “hi-yah”, whack the squash as close as you can to its center with one swift motion. If you only make it part way through, you can push on both ends of the knife and work it through the rest.

Step 2: Scoop out the seeds and pulp and discard. Chop the squash into smaller pieces and arrange with the rind facing down on foil (or Silpat) lined baking sheets.

Step 3: Roast in a 375° oven for about 90 minutes or until the squash is tender when poked with a fork.

Step 4: While the rind is still warm, scoop out the squash. Store in the freezer in a durable, airtight container, or sprinkle with a little cinnamon and brown sugar for a tasty treat fresh from the oven!

For a smaller squash, like a butternut, that you plan to finish off the same day, you will want to alter this recipe slightly. First, halve the squash and scoop out the seeds and gunk in the center. Arrange the halves rind down on a lined baking sheet. Brush the flesh of the squash with a little olive oil and sprinkle it with brown sugar (about 2 tsp). Roast the squash in a 400° oven for about 25 minutes, until you can easily stick a fork into it.

Smoky Squash Soup

Servings: About 6 bowlfulls.
Prep time: 10 min.
Cook time: 35 min.

1 large onion, chopped
4-5 large leaves of chard, coarsely chopped
2-3 jalapenos, diced
4-5 cloves of minced garlic
5 medium red potatoes, coarsely chopped
2 cups pureed cooked squash or 1 cup canned pumpkin
1 (15 oz.) can pinto beans
4 cups vegetable broth
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp oregano
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp chipotle powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/3 cup soy milk
Chopped cilantro or parsley (optional topping)


- If using frozen roasted squash, let it thaw overnight and then puree it in a food processor. A blender can be used in a pinch, but then chop the roasted squash into smaller pieces first. Alternatively, you can follow these directions for microwaving a sugar pumpkin to create the pumpkin puree or use canned pumpkin, which can be found in most grocery stores.

- Despite all the spices, we have never found this dish to be spicy. If you really don’t like spicy food, you can use less of the chili and chipotle powders and skip the cayenne pepper.


1. Chop all vegetables; set aside onions and garlic.

2. In a pot or large skillet with high sides, saute onions and chard in olive oil over medium-high heat for several minutes, until onions become translucent. Add garlic and cook about a minute.

3. Add broth, squash, potatoes, jalapenos, and beans. Stir in oregano, chili and chipotle powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil; then reduce heat and simmer for 30 min.

4. Remove from heat, and let cool for several minutes. Then, stir in soy milk. Top with parsley or cilantro and serve.

All of these recipes were developed with help and inspiration from some other hard-working food bloggers. You can check the original soup recipe at Fat Free Vegan Kitchen and some more info on the Blue Hubbard squash from Dave's Cupboard.