I have one hobby. It centers around a green oblong object that sits in my yard. It is two and a half feet tall and weighs as much as a grown man. I spent nearly a full month’s mortgage payment when I decided to take up this hobby a few years ago. It was an impulse buy. I wasn’t far from turning 40, with one kid already here and a second soon to be, so I guess you could call it a mini midlife crisis.
Over the years, I’ve put pretty much every food possible on my Big Green Egg to see how it turns out: burgers, brats and steaks, of course. But also macaroni and cheese, creatively topped pizzas, slabs of salmon brined then marinated in butter and herbs. Thanksgiving turkeys soaked in an herb brine for days before being mopped with melted Cajun butter as they went on the grill. A whole duck I made for the Minnesota Vikings’ playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles last year (I figured that was as close to an eagle as I could legally get).
It’s become less hobby, more obsession. I’ve sweated over my ceramic cooker on steamy summer days. I’ve put on my snowsuit and ski mask to fire it up in subzero temps. The challenge is part of the fun. So are the stories. One of the first times I loaded up my grill with charcoal and wood to smoke some ribs, our neighbors called the fire department.
My biggest grilling failure came last year. I had heard of a butcher that sold exotic meats just on the other side of the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. I intended to order a small suckling pig, but when I called, I got talked into a small wild boar. This was a butcher shop that had in its freezers snake and alligator and kangaroo — I figured they knew what they were talking about.
I defrosted the boar in our refrigerator (my wife was thrilled when she opened the fridge at breakfast), brined it, stuffed it with some boar sausage, and fired up the grill. Five or six hours later, after two couples and their children had arrived, I pulled the boar out of the grill, stuffed an apple in its mouth for presentation, scooped out the sausage and layered it onto crostini with cheese, and sliced up the meat for our adventurous dinner party.
We ate. After 30 painfully quiet seconds, my 5-year-old son was the first to pipe up: “Daddy, this is disgusting!”
And it was: tough, flavorless, thin meat that was barely edible. One guest said he liked it, though I suspect this was a matter of politesse. Still, I sent him home with a Ziploc bag full of disgusting boar meat. He thanked me. I’m not sure he meant it.
I pride myself on being an adventurous chef, and part of being adventurous is failing on occasion. But this was a spectacular failure, made worse by the weeks of hype that I’d put on this boar’s tiny shoulders.
How could I redeem myself for a bad boar that’s become part of family lore? Why, by throwing another boar on the grill. And upping the ante. How about a wild boar rack of ribs and a couple ostrich filets and a 12-pound bison roast and some long, thin kangaroo loins and — what the hell, even though it risked divorce from my ophidiophobic wife — a boneless python filet?
It would be a full-on exotic meats fest centered around what I came to call the Redemption Boar. As if that wasn’t enough, I decided to up the ante even more by inviting my in-laws — not just my wife’s parents, but her cousins and aunts and uncles, all of whom are equipped with palates well-versed in steak and potatoes. And I wanted to have it on Thanksgiving. My wife, reminding me how stressed I’d become over my first Thanksgiving turkey, convinced me to have it the weekend before. That was smart.
First, a problem: That Wisconsin exotic meats dealer that had spurred on so much culinary creativity had gone out of business. So I set out on a nationwide hunt for bizarre meats. I found a treasure trove at a place in New Jersey called Fossil Farms, which has an eye-popping selection of things I’ve never before tasted.
“I call it a meat candy store for adults,” says Lance Appelbaum, who founded the company more than 20 years ago. “But it’s more than that. People think of it as exotic. I think of it as knowing where food comes from, the way it was done 100 years ago.”
He and his older brother, Todd, wanted to start a business together, and over a meal in 1995, they found their calling. They were at dinner on a Colorado ski vacation when a waitress offered up ostrich, a delicious, healthy red meat they’d never before tried. Todd went to a couple Midwest farms to learn about ostrich farming, while Lance went around New York City to gauge chefs’ interest. Then they started raising the birds on a 13-acre farm. Their corporate office was their parents’ basement, and the shipping department was the garage.
In time, the business expanded, into bison, emu, Berkshire pork. Chefs put in special requests: “Can you do venison?” “Can you do elk?” Not every meat worked. The more exotic ones (yak, alligator, Scottish wood pigeon and, of course, python) have never been big sellers. Those are for the wow factor. Fossil Farms now has a 25,000-square-foot facility that sells to restaurants and directly to consumers. In this case, that consumer being a guy who needed to redeem himself for a disastrous, distasteful, disgusting boar.
The snake filets got stuck at customs. I received this word from the folks at Fossil Farms shortly before my massive meat shipment arrived, so my disappointment wasn’t so raw when I tore into the two giant boxes of frozen meat and found no python. (For my snake-fearing wife, her Thanksgiving had come a bit early.)
I couldn’t screw this up, so I enlisted the help of Ben Del Coro, a Fossil Farms vice president who’d been a chef for 17 years, to come up with the recipes. That night after our kids went to bed, I started my prep.
First, the bison roast. This was no traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so we decided to serve the bison as tacos. I cracked open a beer (maybe three?), grabbed a handful of slightly sweet, slightly bitter achiote chili rub and gently, lovingly massaged that piece of meat. I wrapped it in a few enormous banana leaves to create a steam environment. I lit my fire, stabilized the ceramic cooker around 200 degrees, and, shortly after midnight, put the bison roast on the grill grate. I maybe/possibly/definitely cracked open another beer. Two thermometer probes jutted into the meat so I could keep an eye on the temp on my iPhone. (A Bluetooth-enabled thermometer — told you it was an obsession.) And I promptly fell asleep on the couch.
Avid meat smokers will tell you that part of the joy of smoking giant pieces of meat is staying up all night — preferably with a friend or two and a beer or six — to keep an eye on the progress. But I have two young kids, and sleep comes at a premium. So I set my alarm for every few hours, kept an eye on the temp and occasionally went out into the cold to check the grill. This was a mistake.
By 10 a.m., six hours before people would start arriving, the roast was done — overdone, in fact, by about 10 degrees. I let it rest for a couple hours, but when I started to tear it apart for tacos, it was clearly too dry. The disgusting boar from a year ago was exacting its revenge through this bison. My mistake? Treating bison like brisket, which has a much higher fat content and therefore requires a longer smoke. I was not pleased. My Redemption Meal was headed toward disaster.
My wife calmed me, and we put the meat in a slow cooker and added some liquid and fat to moisten up the too-tough meat. In other words, we cheated. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for tacos. But I certainly couldn’t screw up the next three.
Next came my arch nemesis: the wild boar. Del Coro recommended I let the flavor shine through, especially since the rib roast is the premium cut. It was early afternoon and a few degrees below freezing when I fired up the grill again, a lot hotter than last time. I tossed together a blend of sea salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary and thyme, and basted the entire rib rack. Once I got the grill to a smoky 375 degrees, I put on the wild boar, basting it every half hour as I moved on to the rest of the meal.
For the ostrich, Del Coro suggested I sear it in butter on a “screaming-hot” cast iron and serve it over a wild mushroom ragout, which I’d made earlier that afternoon. The kangaroo, meanwhile, I marinated overnight in an Asian teriyaki concoction in preparation for searing. Why sear at a hot temperature instead of smoke at a lower one? Because these two leaner meats wouldn’t hold up to a low and slow smoke. Both were to be served medium-rare.
People started arriving. I was on edge. (And I was still sad about the python, though our guests were not.) I opened our best bottle of wine for the early arrivers, cracked beers for others and scrambled around the kitchen for last-minute preparations. My 2-year-old son kept going up to guests, saying, “Kanga-WOO!”
Dinner was served. I waited for reactions. The bison tacos turned out passable, maybe even a bit better than that, but mainly because the pickled onions and other fixings helped conceal the chef’s mistakes. The kangaroo was a bit on the chewy side but when dipped in the peanut lime sauce my wife tossed together was really good. The ostrich filet, seared rare, sliced thin and served over the wild mushroom ragout, was excellent, as if a beautifully tender filet mignon had come from a bird.
As for the Redemption Boar? The furthest thing from disgusting. It was juicy, smoky, slightly nutty. After basting it in that herb bath throughout the 90-minute cook, I sliced it into individual pork chops. It was everything that had been promised during the first, disastrous boar experiment: pork, but better.
As my in-laws’ bellies became full, I asked for their thoughts. That’s when something special happened: My dinner guests gave me a rousing ovation. Afterward, I passed around notecards and asked for tasting notes.
Bison: “Brisket with a backbone.” “Reminds me of grandma’s hand-ground beef sandwiches.”
Ostrich: “Tender and delicious. My favorite.” “Surprisingly beefy in both taste and texture.” “Envy mixed with regret. Tastes like an awkward Thanksgiving dinner.”
Kangaroo: “Tender. Reminds me of liver taste and texture. I like it.” “Tender, chewy — really chewy. Like meat bubble gum.”
Wild boar: “Smoke was perfect. Permeated the meat well. Herbs were not overpowering.” “I’ve had boar before that was very gamy/beefy. This was more like a pork chop.”
Even my older son, who’d been the honest one during our disastrous first go-round at wild boar, was pleased. There would be no boar for him — I think I scarred him for life — but he loved the bison. Every father wants approval from his son. And every chef wants approval from the dinner table. The tasting notes were reassuring, and the ovation was a first for me. Maybe it was politesse. I didn’t care. I was redeemed.