It began, as these things so often do, with antelope steak.
One fine autumn morning a couple of years ago in Washington, D.C., I was lazing around the house reading O. Henry stories. The rough-and-ready characters in an especially well-crafted tale, "Hostages to Momus," find themselves deep in a serious discussion about what constitutes a proper breakfast and the best city in which to get one:
"Now, if we was in Muskogee at the St. Lucifer House, I'd show you some breakfast grub. Antelope steaks and fried liver to begin on, and venison cutlets with chili con carne and pineapple fritters, and then some sardines and mixed pickles; and top it off with a can of yellow clings and a bottle of beer. You won't find a layout like that on the bill of affairs of any of your Eastern restauraws." [sic]
Why are there no antelope steaks at my supermarket?, I wondered. An innocent beginning to an obsession.
Bird watchers keep a life list of every species they have ever spotted. My life list is of species I have consumed. Both hobbies have the same root: It's the impulse of a born collector who doesn't like to have stuff lying around. All that remains is the memory of a flavor, wrapped—as taste memories always are—in the sights, sounds, and smells of the meal, the company, and the conversation.
Since that fateful day, I've nibbled on caribou filet, alligator jambalaya, elk medallions, yak dumplings, buffalo burgers, crocodile stir fry, ostrich burgers, emu jerky, and kangaroo loin. These memorable meals have all been interspersed with the merely interesting—frogs, ducks, rabbits, turtles, and deer—and the downright domesticated—cow, pig, and lamb.
I've had more than my fair share of eel, as well. Most of it was barbequed at sushi bars, though once I tried ordering it in a dim Russian restaurant in Boston. (They were fresh out of eel that night. Go figure.)
But there's something different about adventurous seafood eating. It has a different tone, a different timbre to it than eating the flanks of beasts recently on the hoof or paw. It's more of an effete stunt, less of a primitive exercise in carnivorousness.
A few fish allow meat-level bragging rights. I would like to offer honorary membership in the exotic meats sisterhood to former Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who once held an Endangered Salmon Bake as a fundraiser in her Idaho district. A woman after my own heart, surely.
The New York Times recently ran a trend article about how women have started ordering steaks on dates. The new conventional wisdom is that "ordering a salad displays an unappealing mousiness." Needless to say, I could destroy these pathetic petit filet eaters—and even their slightly more impressive rib-eye snarfing sisters—with a single swipe of my grease-covered hand.
As luxury goods become staples, and the rare becomes common, thanks to fast transit, wealth, and free time in America, the quest for unique experiences and attendant bragging rights becomes more and more rarified. And bragging rights are certainly central to my exotic meat eating campaign.
But there's more to it than that. It's an exercise in enjoying the most notable fruits of globalization. I can have anything I want to eat, anywhere, anytime, with just a bit of effort. A keystroke on my Mac sends a man out to drag a crocodile from its watery wallow, conk it on the head, and send me a filet from its tail, just so that I can have a novel dinner. Such power was once reserved only for the very rich and very powerful. Now, anyone with a strong stomach and a collector's instincts can have what Louis XIV and his ilk enjoyed exclusively while their subjects ate plain bread day after day.
My first real exotic meat encounter was at 2941, a fancy joint in Falls Church, overlooking a lake and an office park. I'd heard tell of kangaroo on the menu, and headed over to investigate. I was crestfallen to discover upon arrival that there was nary a kangaroo loin on the premises. Fortunately, caribou was on offer, and my dining companions and I contented ourselves with flavorful, lean slivers of venison-like flesh.
Once you get started down the exotic meat path, it is hard to stop—opportunities crop up everywhere. I once happened upon a country fair in Virginia. It was one of those places where prizes are given to fat pigs and large melons. But this one featured a revolutionary variant on that theme: Emu was being touted as the Next Big Thing—low-fat, low-cholesterol red meat from birds. Someone had turned them into an especially bold jerky. Many of the farmers in the area were switching to emu, the healthy, efficient red meat of the future, according to a veritable avalanche of emu-related promotional materials on display in barns and at farm stands.
Alligator jambalaya used to be a menu staple at the now defunct Cajun Bangkok in Old Town, Alexandria, and a cheese shop nearby sells ostrich steaks. Juicy, gamy buffalo/bison burgers are the specialty at the Cheyenne Diner on 9th Avenue in Manhattan.
In the near future, I might be able to expand my geographical reach without ever leaving home. Internet hunting, using a Webcam and remote-controlled rifle, could soon be a possibility. Providers would simply swoop in once the killing was done, butcher your prize, and FedEx it anywhere in the world on dry ice. The Delaware State Legislature is apoplectic at the thought, though I'm quite charmed by it. Even though no such service currently exists, they've passed a bill banning it: "What if someone started one of these sites in the six months that we're not in session?" State Rep. Melanie George Marshall fretted to The Wall Street Journal on August 10.
The quest for strange foodstuffs is a fun way to make friends. I once wound up in a very serious discussion with a taxi driver about the best place to get goat in D.C. His firm belief was that his wife, who got her raw materials from the Florida Avenue Market in Columbia Heights, made the best goat in town. "You can get a big box of goat there very cheap," he said. And he was right. Those unwilling to buy goat meat in bulk can find an outstanding curried goat at Montego Bay Café in Adams-Morgan.
My campaign to consume bits of increasingly bizarre animals led me to ExoticMeats.com, where I bought crocodile and fragments of several other strange beasts. My freezer became a veritable menagerie. Despite a somewhat racy-sounding name, the site is wholesome and Texan, and the staff very friendly.
Snapping turtle was available—boneless for $22.50 per pound, semi-boneless for $6 less—but I decided to give it a pass. Rattlesnake beckoned, but I quailed at the last moment. Everyone has her limits. Next time, perhaps.
After placing my order, there was some sort of procurement delay. To make up for the dreadful inconvenience of tardy delivery of bits of dead mammal, the fine people at ExoticMeats.com sent some extra kangaroo with my order.
I decided to pay the windfall forward by having a kangaroo dinner party, a fairly bold decision considering that there was a decent chance the meal would be inedible, either through native nastiness or ineptitude of preparation. To up the ante, I even invited a gen-u-ine Australian to the table.
I stocked up on cheese and crackers, made extra large portions of side dishes, plied my guests with (Australian) wine, and crossed my fingers. And lo and behold, the kangaroo was outstanding. The tender, extremely flavorful, appealingly rosy meat was wolfed down (apologies for mixing species) by one and all.
Discussion at the table revolved around whether a kangaroo was, in fact, a giant rodent and its status as a pest Down Under—all of which were basically efforts to keep ourselves from feeling bad about eating such a charismatic megafauna. (One friend wailed, "You ate Joey?" when she heard about the dinner after the fact.) Perhaps in a nod to this concern, some ranchers have proposed calling kangaroo "australus" when it appears on a plate, in the same way that we call cows "beef" and pigs "pork."
Not every exotic meal can be as triumphant as the kangaroo dinner party. I hate to say it, but crocodile really does taste like chicken. Maybe chicken with a touch of the spongy fishiness of swordfish. But basically chicken.
Yak steaks formed another component of the ExoticMeats.com shipment, somewhat humorously labeled as New York Strips. In Tibet, the yak is central to life and to cuisine. A popular beverage is yak butter tea, a horrifying salty tea drink with butter made from yak's milk churned into it. Far more delicious, though, are traditional Tibetan yak meat dumplings called momo.
Nepal also lays claim to these tasty dumplings, and I first tried them at Mt. Everest Restaurant on S Street in Washington. Their warm-spiced filling and slightly fluffy skins have haunted me ever since. Once I had actual yak in hand, another craving hit. It seemed serendipitous, so I made my first-ever foray into dough production in an effort to recreate the magic. Masked by spices and buried in dough, it was hard to discern any real yakiness about the final product, but the dumplings were delicious all the same.
But what about the answer to my original question? Why aren't there antelope steaks in the supermarket meat case?
It's not as if mankind was destined to limit ourselves to such a small menu. Consider God's input on this important question:
And [Peter] saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. (Acts 10: 11-13)
Self-proclaimed "radical" journalist Alexander Cockburn has called the Bible "the meat eater's manifesto," and he's quite right. We're by nature omnivorous—anything that doesn't kill us makes us stronger.
But humans don't usually eat animals that eat each other. There are a variety of reasons for that: pathogen vectors, taste, muscle fiber, and the difficulty of hunting animals who are hunters themselves. Even pigs, which are considered unclean by quite a decent swath of the world's population, don't make it a habit to dine on flesh, so many of us eat them happily. It is more than a mere accident of history that cattle became our staple, and not big cats or small rodents.
A little carnivore here and there in our modern, hygienic era never hurt anyone, though. The ultimate in impressively carnivorous animals is the lion. Last summer, a friend claimed to have a freezer full of lion meat (and no particular taste for it) after returning from a stint in South Africa, but he left town again before I managed to snag some. To this day, I weep bitter tears at the thought of the one that got away.
I can only assume that the main reason humanity domesticated cows, and not kangaroos, is that cows are easier to catch in the first place—and happened to be on the appropriate continents—since kangaroo is delicious. It is, however, very lean, and would have been prone to drying out under most primitive cooking conditions. Cattle have been domesticated since at least the early Neolithic period, and are often referred to as the first form of wealth.
But the reason we mostly eat cows and pigs is that we have spent a huge amount of time and cultural capital making them taste perfect. Like Goldilocks' porridge, beef is just right: fatty but not greasy, rich but not sickening, tender but not mushy, and flavorful but not gamy. This wasn't always the case—the Neolithic ancestors of the placid bovines in roadside fields were a bit spunkier all around—but our ancestors, also a pretty spunky bunch, must have seen or tasted something in cattle that made them decide these slow, bigheaded beasts were worth the effort of domestication.
In "The Pimienta Pancakes," another tale from the same volume of stories, steaks cut from the carcasses of fleet-footed, even-toed ungulates get another name-check. Our narrator comes upon the camp cook who, in order to chat, "laid down his six-shooter, with which he was preparing to pound an antelope steak."
Perhaps surprisingly, I have yet to dine on antelope. But my partner in pursuit of strange beasts managed to find some in Williamsburg, Virginia. Perhaps ironically, he was ducking out of a conference on the obesity epidemic ravaging our nation. He and his companions, scoffers all at the conference's dire predictions, feared the lunch would be too sparse for their tastes, or worse, too "foofy." As luck would have it, a nearby restaurant was offering the least foofy meal imaginable: antelope. Any meal where the recipe might plausibly begin "pound the steak with the butt of your six-shooter until tender" should be manly enough for even the most carnivorous diner.
The wide world of odd meat is far from conquered. My esteemed colleague at Reason magazine, Ron Bailey, has publicly declared a filet of springbok antelope consumed in Johannesburg "the tastiest meat I've ever eaten."
Fox-hunting may be outlawed in much of Britain these days, but a friend from Boston, claims to have eaten fox at home in Shanghai. So now, I'm on a foxhunt of my own, so to speak. But my campaign doesn't require a red coat, rising at dawn, or much you-hallooing. And I've sorely neglected the fox's other small rodentine cousins: Squirrel, groundhog, opossum, and beaver all remain untasted.
But there's reason, after eating my way though much of Genesis, I still wind up with the domesticated basics in my fridge and on my plate on the average Tuesday. I could get the flesh from nearly any animal anywhere with surprisingly little effort and no more expense than a nice dinner out. Beef is what's for dinner precisely because it has been what's for dinner for millennia.
The narrator in the O. Henry story that started it all wasn't convinced by his companion's description of his perfect breakfast. He, too, prefers the familiar:
"Too lavish," says I. "I've traveled, and I'm unprejudiced. There'll never be a perfect breakfast eaten until some man grows arms long enough to stretch down to New Orleans for his coffee and over to Norfolk for his rolls, and reaches up to Vermont and digs a slice of butter out of a spring-house, and then turns over a beehive close to a white clover patch out in Indiana for the rest. Then he'd come pretty close to making a meal on the amber that the gods eat on Mount Olympia."
Of course, now we can eat anything we want, anytime, thanks to refrigerated trucking, preservatives, and FedEx. We have the Food Network to take us into the kitchens of New Orleans for a demonstration of just how much chicory to add to a perfect cup of coffee, and into a Norfolk grandmother's kitchen for a step-by-step guide to perfect rolls. Culinary sleuths at the New York Times food pages delight in informing readers where to get the best fresh Vermont butter—on a weekend trip to Vermont, or from the new dairy in Chelsea Market in Manhattan. With HoneyLocator.com, White Dutch Clover Honey from La Fontaine, Indiana, (or any of a dozen other varieties) can be yours with the click of a button.
But O. Henry's original hearty eater of antelope steaks and cling peaches takes further exception to the narrator's fanciful meal. Even if geography permitted the assembly of this ideal meal, he says, such a breakfast is "too ephemeral." Recognizing that some familiar and common things in life are popular for a good reason, he says simply: "I'd want ham and eggs, or rabbit stew, anyhow, for a chaser."
Kangaroo with Fig Sauce
(The sauce would be brilliant with pork or beef as well. So if you can't lay your paws on some kangaroo, you can still give it a whirl.)
2-3 tablespoons fig preserves
1 small onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 inch fresh ginger, minced
4 generous tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon French mustard
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons fig vinegar or balsamic vinegar
(It will seem like there is a lot of oil in the marinade. Kangaroo is very lean, so many recipes recommend variations on an oil bath before cooking. And since the meat is so lean, it will dry out if you try for anything more the medium-rare—thus the quick sear and little else.)
Pour marinade into a freezer bag and add:
1-1 1/2 lbs. of kangaroo loin filets
Marinate for as long as possible. I marinated mine overnight in the fridge, but longer wouldn't hurt.
About 1 hour before dinner, removed the bag from the fridge and bring the kangaroo to room temperature.
Heat on high in a non-non-stick pan (Cast iron or aluminum is best. If all you have is non-stick, it will still work, it just means a little less tasty brown crust on the meat):
1 scant tablespoon oil
When the oil begins to shimmer and smoke, remove the kangaroo from marinade, shake off excess, and add to the pan. After 3 minutes, turn the filets. After three more minutes, move the filets to a warm oven (250 degrees), and keep them there until ready to serve.
Meanwhile, reduce heat, and pour the marinade into the pan. Deglaze with a little wine or water if things are too dry. Reduce the juices to a thick, syrupy sauce and serve in a little pitcher or gravy boat alongside the kangaroo.
Tibetan Momo (Yak Dumplings).
First make the dough. Combine in a large mixing bowl:
3 cups flour
3/4 cup water
pinch baking soda
Mix the dough until crumbly, then use your hands to knead the dough into a coherent ball. Add additional water a tablespoon at a time as necessary if the dough refuses to cohere. When a ball has been formed, cover the dough with a damp cloth, and let it rest for about an hour.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Combine:
1 yak rib eye steak, approx 1 lb., trimmed of fat and minced (ground or minced beef would work too)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small handful fresh cilantro or coriander, chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cumin
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or microplaned
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons oil
Let this mixture rest for the remainder of the hour. When the dough is ready, remove it from the bowl, knead it for another minute or two, then divide it into 1-inch diameter balls. Roll the balls between your hands, then flatten them into 4-inch circles. I used a rolling pin dusted with a little flour, but some recipes prefer momo skins made by patting each ball of dough flat with your hands. Your call. Put 1 tablespoon of the yak filling in the middle of the skin, then fold the skin in half and pinch the edges to seal them, making semicircular dumplings.
Put the dumplings into a bamboo or metal dumpling steamer lined with cabbage leaves or lightly oiled to prevent sticking. Steam for 20 minutes. Eat with soy sauce or jarred chili sauce for dipping.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor for reason.