Bison trail leads from Mo. ranch to kosher butcher

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By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

So how does a herd of bison end up in a meat case at Kohn’s Kosher Meat and Deli Market? To quote Paul McCartney, it’s a long and winding road—a road that begins in bucolic Potosi, Mo.

“Innovation is a great thing,” local dentist Dr. Ethan Schuman said when we first spoke about the kosher bison trail. “The first time I visited that ranch and saw those bison, I just knew there were possibilities. After all, bison are one of the animals Jews are permitted to eat.”

“To be kosher,” Schuman explained, “an animal must have split hooves and chew its cud. These ruminates, which include deer, cattle, goats, sheep, and bison, qualify.”

As he stood there at the ranch, Schuman imagined that kosher bison could be a great thing for the St. Louis Jewish community. It would benefit everyone from the Vaad Hoeir (which provides kosher certification in St. Louis) to it’s head shochet (Rabbi Avraham Bloch) to St. Louis’ only kosher butcher, Kohn’s Meat Market and Deli (10405 Old Olive Street Road; 314-569-0727), and, most important, to the Jews who observe the laws of kashruth.

To understand the evolution from concept to reality, let’s begin at the beginning. Skip and Connie Sayers have been raising bison on their ranch, Sayers Brook, since 1976. The ranch, which spreads over four thousand acres, is surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest and Ozark Mountain Range.

Following his initial tour of the ranch, Schuman met with Thirza Sayers, one of the Sayers’ five adult children, all of whom are active in some part of the bison business. He asked her whether she was familiar with the laws surrounding kosher meat. Her answer surprised him. Not only had she heard of kosher, she was an ordained Presbyterian minister who had taught Hebrew to her fellow students while in the seminary. She also routinely discussed Hebrew words from the Old Testament in her sermons.

“I spoke with Dr. Schuman and told him that Jewish culture and religion have always been interests of mine,” Thirza Sayers said. “I was excited to be able to provide bison for some of G-d’s chosen people.”

While Sayers was not entirely familiar with the details of the koshering process, she recalled that her father had once, many years back, participated in a kosher slaughter.

“We were excited about the prospect from the beginning,” Sayers said. “In terms of a business model, it’s good because I know where my meat is going and that it will be sold within three months.”

Schuman was touched by the immense respect, admiration, and appreciation the Sayers family had for Jewish tradition. “After all,” said, “they already had plenty of customers for their bison.”

Schuman began thinking about what it would take to bring kosher bison to St. Louis. A trained shochet himself (one who does kosher slaughter) he was familiar with many of the challenges of working with bison.

“Even if an animal is properly slaughtered,” he explained, “its meat cannot be eaten if the animal is diseased or has died as a result of something other than the shochet’s cut. That is actually an enormous benefit with bison, since their disease rate is so much lower than cattle. While the kosher “pass” rate for cattle is 50 percent, the rate for bison is 90 percent plus. The discrepancy may be due to the bison’s natural selection, which favors the healthiest animals, and man’s manipulation of the cattle gene pool.”

He continued: “Bison are much larger animals than cattle. And, because Jewish law only allows 50 percent of the animal to be eaten, a single bison will yield much more edible meat than a cow. Though a single animal takes one and a half years to mature, a herd of 500 will result in 120 bison per year, more than enough for our community, and plenty left to be shipped nationwide. Observant Jews are limited as to what we can eat. Think about how excited we get about flanken. Bison would broaden our culinary options.”

Schuman then met with Lenny Kohn, owner of Kohn’s in Creve Coeur. Kohn had previously processed kosher bison from a supplier in South Dakota. Indeed, he had developed a nationwide clientele before that source went out of business. He thus knew that the demand for bison was there.

“I let Ethan know that I would process and market the meat from my store if he could put this deal together,” Kohn said.

The next step was to locate a slaughterhouse near the ranch that could accommodate kosher slaughter and also keep the kosher carcasses segregated from the treif (non-kosher). Enter Rabbis Zvi Zuravin and Avraham Bloch of the St. Louis Vaad Hoeir, and Rabbi Zvi Fishbane, head of the Chicago Rabbincal Council.  Schuman invited the group to meet with him at Swiss Meats, a slaughterhouse in the town of Swiss, Mo., about 90 miles west of St. Louis. Following a tour and lengthy discussions with the facility staff, the group determined that Swiss Meats met their criteria.

“We were excited by the challenge of providing kosher bison to our community,” Rabbi Zuravin said. “It would be interesting and would bring us national exposure.”

The next challenge involved the actual slaughter. Under Jewish law, the prescribed process for shechita (slaughtering) requires that the animal be “gently restrained.” It’s important that the animal not move, since the laws of kosher require that the animal be killed swiftly with one swipe of a very sharp knife. But bison, unlike the more docile cattle, are strong and short-tempered. Thus the restraining box used for cattle would not suffice. Schuman, along with two of his friends Mike and Jeff Wolk, designed a metal hydraulic box that would be strong enough to restrain the bison. The Wolks, who are metal workers and welders in Saint Genevieve, built it.

While the bison would all be slaughtered according to Jewish law, only the meat from the 12th rib to the head (the forequarter) can be kashered. Eating meat from the hindquarter is strictly forbidden.

Thirza Sayers said this works well for her business. “We have no trouble selling the meat from the hindquarter, which includes the tenderloin, strip loin, sirloin and trim items. We sell them to local meat markets and grocery stores. Some even goes nationwide.”

And the forequarters that Kohn’s picks up for kashering?

“We currently process 10 to 12 forequarters at a time,” Kohn said. “The Vaad Hoeir oversees the entire kashering procedure (removing veins, tendons, and certain fats, washing or rinsing the meat, soaking it in water, salting it, and rinsing it three times). Of the meat we process, we ship 85 percent of it out of state. Once our nationwide customers learned from our website that we had bison again, there was a flood of online orders.”

In addition to rib eye steaks and brisket, Kohn’s sells short ribs, London broil, French roast, ground meat and store made bison sausages.

As for the price of bison, Kohn says it’s fairly steady. “It’s about two and a half times the cost of beef. Bison meat is 97 to 98 percent fat free where beef is 40 percent fat. That means you get more meat for the money with bison. We generally keep most of the cuts, along with the sausage, frozen. We try to have fresh ground bison available on a daily basis. People should definitely call in advance for availability.”

Kohn says the flavor of the meat is delicious. “I love it,” he said. “It’s not gamey, but it does taste different than beef. It’s also much leaner. Our local customers who have tried bison regularly come back for more. I don’t think it will be that difficult to get people eating it. The more available it is, the less exotic it will become. It’s a nice little niche for us.”

Taste is not the only reason to eat bison. According to an article on bison meat in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Mother Earth News, bison compares favorably to meats that are recognized as the healthiest options: grass-fed beef and chicken. An equal portion of bison has less fat than grass-fed beef, and has only slightly more fat than a skinless chicken breast. Furthermore bison has high levels of omega 3 fats, the “good fats,” which can help lower blood pressure and reduce heart attacks.

As for cooking bison, Connie Sayers of Sayers Brook Ranch offered this advice:

“You can substitute bison for beef in just about any recipe.  Be aware that the bison will cook faster and does not have the fat content that beef has.  In general we cook bison for less time when grilling and at lower temperatures when roasting.

And as Kohn explained, the meat is already tender. The only reason to marinate it would be to infuse it with different flavors.

Included are two of Connie Sayer’s favorite bison recipes.

From the story: 

Kohn’s Kosher Market: 314-569-0727;

SayersBrook Bison Ranch: 573-438-4449;