President and First Lady spotlight healthy meat raised by family-owned operations in all fifty states...
A week after the State Dinner honoring British Prime Minister David Cameron, America's bison producers are still thrilled that President Obama and First Lady Obama put an elegant spotlight on their small but vibrant industry. The Bison Wellington that anchored the Winter Harvest menu was hailed by Executive Chef Cris Comerford as a "marriage" of American and United Kingdom culinary traditions, thanks to the use of bison raised in North Dakota in a classic 19th century British dish. It also ended the First Couple's longstanding custom of serving glorious cuts of beef at every high-profile dinner, including four previous State Dinners. (Above: The President and Mr. Cameron at dinner)
Bison are raised in all 50 states, primarily on family owned ranches and farms, but the industry is small compared to the multi-billion dollar US beef sector. Bison sales were about $250 million last year. The beef industry processes about 125,000 head of beef every DAY, while the bison industry processed 45,000 head last year in total. (Above: The Bison Wellington at the State Dinner; the White House declined to release a photo, and this was tweeted by a guest)
"We're very excited," said Dieter Pate, President and CEO of the North American Bison Cooperative, based in New Rockford, N.D., which donated the meat for the dinner. Membership includes 100 ranches with operations of every size.
"It's a huge plus that our product was served by the President," Pate said.
Actors George Clooney and Carey Mulligan, billionaire Warren Buffett and Homeland star Damian Lewis were among the notables seated at the Head Table with the President, First Lady and Prime Minister in the dramatically lit pavilion on the South Lawn; Sir Richard Branson, Downton Abbey stars Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, the world's #1 golfer Rory McIlroy, Vogue's Anna Wintour, and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein were among the more than 320 guests who enjoyed bison as they celebrated the Special Relationship. (Above: Mrs. Obama with Clooney)
"Boy, America now knows that when you have important guests over, you can serve them bison!" said Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association.
"We greatly appreciate the President and First Lady drawing attention to this uniquely American meat."
Bison have roamed the North American continent for more than 10,000 years, but were almost extinct a little more than a century ago, when there were just about 700 left alive, Carter said. A combination of public herds in National Parks such as Yellowstone and private herds, Tribal efforts and federal efforts have rebuilt the population to about half a million today.
Chef Comerford used tenderloin for the Bison Wellington, and described the entree as "a really good pairing of both countries, because politics divides men, but food really unites them." She wrapped the bison in puff pastry, and served it with a red wine reduction, French Beans and Cipollini Onion. The wine paired with the course was also a nod to America's western heritage: Leonetti Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, from Walla Walla Valley, WA. (Above: Executive Sous Chef Tommy Kurpradit holds a tray of Bison Wellington during the prep for the dinner)
The tenderloin would sell for about $35-$40 a pound for home cooks, Carter said. Bison is an "incredibly healthy" meat, and right in line with Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign, Pate said. A piece of bison sirloin has 30% less fat than a breast of chicken, more protein, less sodium, less cholesterol, and about 35-40% less calories for an equivalent portion. Bison are raised for market without hormones--these are illegal--and without antibiotics. Vegetables used for the dinner from Mrs. Obama's South Lawn Kitchen Garden included baby kale, Brussels sprouts, micro cabbage sprouts, and spring lettuces.
The British Beef Wellington was originally created for war hero Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who is most famous for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. His eponymous dish has a history at the White House, too: President Richard Nixon served it at a number of his State Dinners. And while Bison Wellington was a first for the Obamas, bison has taken center stage at a State Dinner before. President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama's predecessor, served pumpkin seed-crusted bison, "Bison con Empanizado de Pepitas," at his very first State Dinner, honoring Mexico's President Vicente Fox, on Sept. 5, 2001. Comerford was then Executive Sous Chef at the White House. (Above: Comerford on the day of the dinner, previewing the menu)
Pate and Carter both noted that the US bison sector is still rebuilding from a collapse a decade ago, when oversupply caused prices to drop, and farmers and ranchers stopped raising bison. The Presidential spotlight is very encouraging for hardworking American families who live all over the nation.
"There are bison ranches in every state, including the Big Island of Hawaii and in Long Island, New York," Carter said. "Around Washington, there's bison in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland."
So why wouldn't the White House source its bison locally? Pate said that North Dakota, the second largest bison state in the US (South Dakota is #1), has the most production facilities. Bison can be shipped either fresh or frozen, but neither Pate nor Carter knew how the White House bison arrived. An East Wing spokesman declined to identify the specific ranch or discuss shipping, citing security concerns.
Cooking with bison at home...
Carter noted that Farmers Markets account for much of bison sales across the US. He suggested that those interested in eating like the President check with their local markets; bison is also available at grocers such as Whole Foods. Carter added that bison is very versatile, and can be used from "nose to tail." (Above: Inside the pavilion during the dinner)
"The President could enjoy a good bison hotdog when he's watching the NCAA playoffs," Carter said, chuckling. "We make burgers, short ribs, bratwurst...."
As for the difference between buffalo meat and bison meat? There isn't one, Pate said. But the proper word is "bison," to distinguish from water buffalo and cape buffalo. The species of bison raised in North America is bison bison.
"We can blame the French" for the term "buffalo," Pate said. When they were "visiting" the continent more than two centuries ago and saw the millions of bison roaming the Plains, the French played on their word for beef, boeuf, and came up with "buffalo."
Home cooks hoping to dine on the historic, cross-cultural dish served at the State Dinner will have to come up with their own recipe: The White House has declined to release the recipe for Bison Wellington. A recipe for the dessert served at Mr. Cameron's dinner, another nod to British culinary tradition, Steamed Lemon Pudding, IS HERE. It was made with Meyer lemons, and served with Idaho Huckleberry sauce and Newtown Pippin Apples, originally grown in New York, in more homage to America's regional bounty.
The UK State Dinner was the sixth and largest the President and Mrs. Obama have hosted. As is a longstanding "policy," the White House did not release a photo of the historic entree or any other plated dish from the dinner. The photo at the top of this post was tweeted by dinner guest Christine Teigen (@ChrissyTeigen). She is the fiancee of singer John Legend, who performed at the reception following the dinner. The full guest list.
For links to all posts about the Cameron Official Visit and State Dinner, CLICK HERE.
A video of the UK State Dinner preparations in the White House kitchen:
*Photos: President and Prime Minister by Getty; Bison Wellington by Christine Teigen; Comerford by Eddie gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; pavilion by Pete Souza/White House; video by the White House.