by Claire & Monte Montgomery
In which Claire & Monte stick their necks out and devour a rara avis.
"Are we actually going to eat one of these things?" we wondered as we stared across a wire fence at 1,400 head of apprehensive-looking ostrich on the hoof. They had every right to look apprehensive, for this was indeed the purpose of our visit to Brandywine Ostrich Ranch in Hemet, California: to learn the ways of these outlandish birds, to spend some time among them, and to ingest them.
But that's what being a crack investigative reporter is all about. You never caught George Plimpton in a Barcalounger, daydreaming about how it might feel to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions. No, the old boy—God bless him—hoisted his creaky frame out of the chair and actually did it, and even lived to write about it.
But would we? After all, the birds, which tip the scales at well over 300 pounds, can deal an aggressor a lethal forward kick or, if that fails, peck him into submission. (Claire learned this early and painfully when one mistook her thumb for a cocktail frank and tried to detach it at the second joint.)
Don't worry, said Chip Polvoorde, owner and operator of Brandywine, the birds aren't all that dangerous. "Once you get 'em by the neck, they're helpless. You smack 'em on top of the head and it gives 'em kind of a headache, and then, boom, they're gone." Right, Chip. You take care of it. We'll stay behind the fence.
Polvoorde has been in the ostrich business for three years. Before that, he ran a chain of muffler shops in Philadelphia. Having cornered the Philly glasspack market, his restless mind turned to such exotic pursuits as buffalo ranching, but when it occurred to him that this would inevitably result in the nickname "Buffalo Chip," he chose ostrich instead and headed west.
At present, ostrich commands only a tiny part of the meat market, but Polvoorde hopes to catch a wave of increasing popularity similar to the recent turkey boom. According to industry literature, ostrich contains less fat, calories and cholesterol than chicken or beef. The meat—almost all of which comes from the bird's massive legs and thighs—is actually red in color, and is touted as being a better substitute for beef than for chicken. "It's delicious," boast the brochures.
But is it? We asked Polvoorde whether he really eats the stuff, and he answered with genuine enthusiasm. "Sure, three or four times a week. I kind of had to trick my kids into eating it at first, and they were pretty mad when they found out, but now they fight over it."
Standing face-to-face with these charming if ungainly birds, the prospect of actually devouring one was far from our minds. Heck, they were kind of cute. The malefactor who had nibbled on Claire was now coyly batting his long lashes at her in an obvious attempt to atone. We shared a look that said, "no way."
On the other hand, it was getting along about noon, and our stomachs were starting to growl.
Putting thoughts of lunch aside, we concentrated on Chip's informative lecture on the facts of ostrich life:
- Mature males are blackish with white necks, females a dusty brown. During mating season, the male's "beak," or "bill" (actually they look more like lips) turns a bright red, signaling that it's time for a little he-in' and she-in'. We weren't lucky enough to witness any ostrich romance, but Polvoorde assured us that it's a sight to see.
- Between February and April, the female lays a "clutch" of twelve to twenty eggs in an unassuming hollow in the ground. In the wild, she shares eggsitting duty with her husband (he takes the night shift, she the day), but Brandywine uses an oversized incubator to do the job.
- Upon hatching, the chicks mature in pens, where they're segregated by age to keep the younguns from being trampled by their older siblings. Dining on a rich feed of corn, alfalfa and soy beans, they grow to their full height of eight feet in less than a year.
- Brandywine is experimenting with a "foster-parenting" program, where a breeding pair is bamboozled into raising, in addition to its own offspring, 100-plus adoptees who are sneaked into the pen while mom and dad aren't looking.
- The ostrich has not two, but four eyelids. The inner lids are for blinking and keeping the eyeball moist, the outer for casting come-hither glances at other ostriches.
- The meat is still on the expensive side—ground ostrich sells for about $4 per pound, prime filets for upwards of $14—but prices are expected to drop as it becomes more widely available. Dozens of restaurants already feature ostrich on their menus, notably Huntington's in the Westin Galleria Hotel in Dallas, where Executive Chef Chris LaLonde serves up over 200 pounds a month.
- Until a few years ago, the industry was located almost entirely in South Africa, but now the U.S. market rivals it in size. In addition to meat, there's a brisk trade in feathers (where would Vegas showgirls be without them?) and, increasingly, leather. Ostrich is starting to turn up in belts, wallets and high-end clothing, and a top-quality pair of boots can sell for well over a thousand dollars.
- The ostrich's three-foot long esophagus is a weirdly twisting tube; watching one swallow is like watching a kid slide down a spiral staircase.
- The "head-in-the-sand" bit is a total myth. During a movie shoot, a friend of Polvoorde's had to use feed to lure an ostrich's head into a pre-dug hole, then hold it there by brute force while the camera crew got the shot.
It was now well after noon. "Just out of curiosity, Chip," Claire asked, "how do you cook ostrich meat?" "Well, any way you can cook beef," he answered. "My favorite is steaks on the grill, seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic. You don't want to cook it beyond medium; the meat is so lean that it gets kind of leathery after that."
He went on to enumerate culinary variations that nearly eclipsed Bubba's list of shrimp recipes in "Forrest Gump": ostrich sausage, ostrich hot links, ostrich frankfurters, ostrich fajitas, ostrich jerky (a South African favorite), ostrich kebabs, ostrich fettucine, scrambled ostrich eggs, and the mouth-watering "brochette of ostrich marinated in whiskey, apricot nectar and peppercorns with yellow peppers, roma tomato and crimini mushrooms, served with wild rice and sweet potato pancakes." Ostrich Helper hasn't hit the market yet, but it can't be far behind.
At this point we piled into Chip's Jeep and headed out to round up some strays. The scene wasn't quite as dramatic as the heart-stopping rhino chase in "Hatari," but it was nip-and-tuck for a moment there. After a 40-m.p.h. sprint down a dusty road, we dismounted and continued on foot, cornering the truant fowl one at a time in a pincers operation (it wasn't really so much like a pincers operation as it was like getting a runner in a "pickle" between first and second base) and returning them to their pens with nary a ruffled feather.
Back at the ranch, we discovered that bird wrangling can work up quite an appetite. One o'clock had come and gone, and the chuckwagon was nowhere in sight. Our reluctance to try ostrich meat was drying up fast in the afternoon sun—on top of which, Claire's thumb was starting to swell painfully, and we found ourselves picturing her attacker not as the star of a petting zoo but as the centerpiece of a serving tray, surrounded by roasted new potatoes and glazed carrots.
But before we could expire from malnourishment, the long-awaited dinner bell rang. Chip rustled up an assortment of filets, tenderloins and some ground round, and in short order Kate Heyhoe, eGG Executive Editor, was sautéing like a thing possessed. We gathered in the dining room (Claire had to be retrieved from the barnyard, where she was found chasing one of the luckless bipeds around with a knife and fork), dug in to our first bites of ostrich, and...
...And it was good. Very good. The prime filet, almost completely un-marbled, is as succulent and moist as veal. The somewhat gamier burgers, on the other hand, created a certain amount of controversy at table. eGG publisher Thomas Way found the first bite somewhat off-putting, but subsequent bites better; Kate felt the ground meat was better-suited to loaves, meatballs, pasta sauces, chili, etc.; Monte had trouble getting past the aroma, which reminded him (but nobody else) of liver. Claire alone wolfed her burger down with abandon, spurred on perhaps by the twin incentives of hunger and revenge. All four of us agreed that the filets were far superior, and well worth the higher price.
Being both lean and dense, ostrich meat is surprisingly filling. We retired to the bunkhouse and settled in for a siesta to digest the exotic viands, rather pleased with our adventuresome spirit. We came, we saw, we consumed; the only journalistic goal left unaccomplished was saddling up one of the beasts and riding it around. If you want to find out about that, you'll have to ask George Plimpton.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Copyright © 2007, Forkmedia LLC. All rights reserved.
This page modified February 2007