Commentary: Wild and woolly

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In most big cities, there’s a proliferation of food trucks parked on downtown streets and serving hordes of lunchtime diners. And a few are pushing the boundaries of what’s on the menu.

Spend any length of time working as a journalist in any meat industry and whether at trade shows, food fairs or even on assignment, you’ll be regularly challenged by various purveyors and marketers to “Try some of this!”

“This” being an edible sample of what are euphemistically called “exotic species:” Kangaroo, camel, ostrich, bear, alligator, rabbit, goat, rattlesnake, not to mention game meats that nobody even bothers to labels as exotic anymore — bison, elk, quail and venison.

Over the years, I’ve eaten sparrow in Italy, tripe in France, emu Down Under and even monkey in China — at least I was guessing that a sample from some small, simian-like carcass hanging in a wet-market stall in Guangzhou was some species of primate.

Most of that dining was done on a dare, rather than from desire. But now there’s a mini-movement emerging right here at home that is both fascinating and potentially powerful for the conventional meat producers.

It’s happening as a result of the growing popularity of food trucks. Spend any time in the downtown area in most larger U.S. cities, and you’ll find designated blocks close to the office towers full of food trucks lined up shoulder to shoulder at lunch time. It’s easy to see why those operators are thriving: No bricks-and-mortar buildings. No parking lots. No big back-end kitchens. No wait to be seated.

Just a side street packed bumper-to-bumper with mini-serving stalls on wheels. And just by strolling along, you can choose from Cajun, Caribbean or Chinese. Tacos, tapas or Thai food.

The choices are usually impressive, and the quality more than acceptable for a get-it-to-go luncheon entrée.

A gourmet appeal

Now, an interesting addition to the typical culinary choices has arrived: Exotic meats. As is true in the traditional restaurant business, a few food trucks are capitalizing on the appeal of game meats from species more commonly considered wildlife, rather than food animals.

One such newcomer to the scene is Tyrone Green, president and purveyor-in-chief of a food truck business called Dark Side of the Moo. He was featured recently in a CNBC online business profile, probably because he parks his truck each day outside CNBC headquarters in Englewood, N,J., which for those who know their way around northern New Jersey’s labyrinthine suburbs, is a short drive from Manhattan across the GW Bridge, then north for about 20 minutes (or more, depending on traffic problems in Fort Lee).

Green said that he considers his fare, sold under a banner that reads, “The Exotic Meat Emporium,” to be “gourmet,” not just exotic. But it certainly qualifies as the latter, judging from his menu.

From his truck he sells sandwiches, sausage platters and various cooked entrees made from kangaroo, llama, camel, elk, alpaca and wild boar, among other choices.

“It’s taken a while [to build the business], but in Hoboken and Jersey City they always seem excited to try new stuff,” he told CNBC, referring to the cities where he sets up shop. “Some people will go out with their friends, and while their friends get pizza, my regulars will come get kangaroo burgers.”

His kangaroo supply comes from Australian importers, obviously, but he said that most of his meat besides elk — everything from alligator to yak (I guess he doesn’t carry zebra) — comes from domestic suppliers. In fact, Green’s yak supplier is WoodsEdge Wools, a farm in Stockton, N.J., only two hours west of New York City.

Brent Walker, the owner of WoodsEdge, was quoted in the story as stating that yak meat is one of his strongest sellers.

“They’re bigger and easier to process,” he said.

Walker said that the health benefits of wild and exotic meat links to the emerging trend of consumers wanting to know where their food comes. That’s what has made his business successful, he said.

“As fast as I can raise them, I can sell the meat,” he claimed, noting that yak meat is 96 percent lean and is the only genetically unaltered red meat left in the world. That may well be an accurate statement, although his marketing pitch leaves a lot to be desired: “Yak are raised with no antibiotics or growth hormones and are grassfed,” he told CNBC.

Meaning that nobody has yet bothered to attempt crossbreeding, or put up the capital to manage quality by developing and deploying supplemental feed rations. In other words, yak are “grassfed” out of necessity, not because it’s an alternative production strategy developed as an alternative to modern livestock science.

But that’s a minor complaint, given that the contemporary appeal of eating meat from wild animals should be considered a positive dynamic as far as the meat industry is concerned. Along with the “adventure” of eating something exotic, dining on game animals is a visceral reminder of how our human ancestors managed to stay alive for eons prior to the arrival of civilization.

That fact remains the strongest argument for maintaining animal protein as an essential component of the optimal human diet.

Call it, “Meat: It’s What’s for Survival.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Graybull    
July, 07, 2014 at 12:09 PM

No idea what Mr. Walker mean when he says "….. is the only genetically unaltered red meat left in the world" Your explanation does not let me know either. Yak have been crossbred for centuries. They WILL eat grain and supplements. Otherwise……….great article.

Robert    
Kentucky  |  July, 10, 2014 at 07:27 PM

Greybull is right - and I'm equally confused. On another note, I have to take issue with Dan's comment: "dining on game animals is a visceral reminder of how our human ancestors managed to stay alive for eons prior to the arrival of civilization." In fact, most humans until the nineteenth century ate very little meat unless they were herders, who were a minority of humankind even before the advent of settled agriculture. Yes, wonderfully entertaining shows like "Game of Thrones" makes it look like meat dominated, but in fact this was only the case for the minority elites - the vast majority of people were peasants and workers and ate largely grains, pulses and veggies (though probably not by choice - and often not enough of that). Before settled agriculture hunting was hard, dangerous, and not particularly successful. Gathering kept people alive for the most part and women did most of that! Just thought I'd inject a little historical perspective into the discussion....:)

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  July, 11, 2014 at 08:27 AM

Nice vegan type note but a bit wrong. Watch "The Walking Dead" and the red neck will show you how it was done.

Robert    
Kentucky  |  July, 11, 2014 at 09:35 AM

Silly comment. What is there in seriously researched history that's "vegan." Looks like it's hard for you to get off your "politically-correct" hobby horse Craig.


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