By Tara Crosson
Owner Will Ford was fortifying himself for the Saturday night rush at Eight Mile Creek on Mulberry Street. He bit into a medallion of skewered, char-grilled meat, one of the restaurant’s best sellers. It looked like lamb and smelled like beef, but it was neither. It was kangaroo.
Ford, who hails from rural South Australia and specializes in Australian haute cuisine, said American attitudes toward food have broadened “from sustenance to pleasure. People are looking for new ways to please themselves,” he said.
Ostrich, rattlesnake, emu and other exotic, or specialty, meats are appearing on more dinner plates in the United States. High-protein diet fads, the mad cow threat and more adventuresome palates are helping to spur their popularity.
A typical American eats 195 pounds of meat (red meat, poultry and fish) a year, or 57 pounds more a year than in the 1950s, according to a 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Availability, affordability and dual-income households have all contributed to the increase, the report said. And while beef, poultry, pork and veal are the market leaders, specialty game and meat are beginning to share refrigerator space in supermarkets across the country.
Martin Klein of New York is a keen advocate of such food alternatives. He has tried cuts of ostrich, turtle, alligator—even impala, during an African safari. “It was fabulous,” said Klein, an employee with accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, who said he likes to eat what the locals eat when he travels.
Russ McCurdy, owner of Seattle’s Finest Exotic Meats in Shoreline, Wash., said his company has grown between 20 percent to 40 percent a year for each of the past five years.
Myra Charleston, at-large director of the 600-member Dallas-based American Emu Association, said the demand for emu is through the roof. Business picked up so much that farmers who “haven’t hatched [birds] in the last couple of years have fired up their incubators,” Charleston said.
Farm-raised exotic animals are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the inspection of slaughterhouses for cleanliness. Inspection is a voluntary procedure, and producers pay $43.60 per hour for the service, said Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the food safety office. “The industry wants to show the public that the meat is safe and clean,” McCurdy said. “This gives protection to all of us.”
Specialty meat is marketed as a healthful alternative to meat and poultry—especially to those animals injected with steroids and antibiotics. Most ostrich, buffalo, emu and other specialty animals are raised on grass diets and are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Proponents extol the meat for its clean, pure flavor, while beef advocates counter that Americans prefer the best cuts from steakhouses because they taste better, with animals fed not only on grass but corn and oats as well.
The health-conscious consumer points to other differences, however. A 3.6-ounce serving of hamburger meat has about 18 fat grams and about 87 milligrams of cholesterol. The same serving size of skinless emu has 3 grams of fat and about 45 milligrams of cholesterol, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Chefs added that careful preparation is required. Specialty meat “dries out much easier because of the low fat content,” said Mark Lahm, the chef and owner of Henry’s End, a restaurant specializing in exotic game and meat in Brooklyn.
Currently, though, the high price tag of exotic fare puts it out of the reach of many consumers. A typical sirloin London broil costs about $8 a pound; a similar cut of kangaroo will set a buyer back about $18 a pound.
Game and specialty meats are nothing new to some local markets. Byerly’s and Lund’s, the high-end Minnesota supermarket chains owned by Lund Food Holdings, have sold specialty meat for over 20 years. “Our customers see these items as beef alternatives,” said Scott Ruth, vice president of purchasing for Lund Food.
Sales of buffalo meat have helped spur sales of other specialty meats in some markets. “Ground buffalo has grown in popularity,” said Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegmans Food Markets of Rochester, N.Y. Natale said venison, ostrich and poussin are among Wegmans’ best sellers.
True believers also are enjoying some hard-won success. Ariane Daguin, co-owner of D’Artagnan, a leading purveyor of specialty foods in the United States, started knocking on chefs’ doors more than 20 years ago, trying to convince them to buy her organic game. “Little by little, chefs increased the volume. They said they could shine with these products,” said Daguin. Before long, she said restaurant customers began to ask their butchers and supermarket managers to carry exotic meat.
At the end of the day, said Lahm, the Brooklyn restaurateur, “people just don’t want to eat chicken all the time.”