By Carolyn Bahm

Daily Journal

A few of Northeast Mississippi’s finer dining spots are taking a walk on the wild side, and Woody’s restaurant in Tupelo is leading the pack.

Since last year, the North Gloster Street business has added to its regular menu … with ostrich burgers and specially seasoned buffalo London broils topped by the chef’s garlic-sautŽed mushrooms. Game meats and other exotica vie for space on a constantly evolving “Hunter’s Bounty” menu of two or three game meats daily.

Recent choices include:

– Tilapia and mako shark

– Emu with caramelized pears and a peach glaze

– Grilled elk and venison

– Rabbit and rattlesnake jalape–o sausage served on a bed of grilled peppers and onions

– Rattlesnake fajitas

– Fried quail

– Stuffed pheasant

– Fried Florida gator tail served with New Orleans-style crawfish etouffŽe

– Kangaroo meat with a cracked peppercorn bordelaise sauce

– Ostrich, either in grilled tenderloin cuts marinated in Worcestershire sauce and spices, or as an ostrich burger or even ostrich meatloaf

Woody’s manager, Feather P. Burns, said, “We also make unusual sauces and dressings to complement our game dishes. Lingonberry sauce, Grand Marnier vinaigrette, raspberry-walnut dressing and roasted chestnuts have all made an appearance on our menu in the past months. In fact, we probably have the most varied wild game selection north of Jackson, and we intend to add more.”

Upcoming dishes include buffalo prime rib, buffalo ribeye steaks and by special customer request musk ox.

Why stray from traditional menus?

“Here at Woody’s, we try very hard to venture out of the ordinary to present some of the most unusual and different dinner items in Northeast Mississippi,” Burns said.

The trailblazing is part of a national trend toward alternative meats that are better for the consumer’s health, better for the environment and an exciting change for bored diners. One exotic meat supplier reports seeing game sales double over the past two years.

“The whole idea is they’re supposed to be leaner and healthier,” Burns said. “… You can go out and still have a ‘steak’ dinner and stay on your diet. All of these have less calories, and sometimes less calories AND fat, than chicken.”

Burns provided a few statistics: Buffalo round has 32 percent fewer calories and 48 percent more protein than ground beef has. Ostrich has half the calories of beef, as well as 40 percent less cholesterol and one-eighth the amount of fat. In fact, the USDA says ostrich has less cholesterol than any meat, less fat than both turkey and chicken, and more protein than beef.

Commercially grown ostrich and other exotic meats are legal to serve, and they are USDA approved, Burns said.

Plucking a winner

The bird is out of the bag when it comes to ostrich meat. Commercial breeding of the big birds took off in the 1980s, and investors have high hopes that the ’90s will be the decade that the ostrich flies onto restaurant menus.

It’s got a beefed-up chance internationally since fears erupted about tainted British beef. Worries about the so-called “Mad Cow Disease” leading to a similar brain disease in humans have led to a search for an alternative meat in Britain. Ostrich meat is filling some of the gap. One supplier predicts that ostrich shipments will increase to about 100,000 pounds per month. (Have an ostrich burger, anyone?)

The ostrich also meets political correctness standards: It is not endangered and is raised on farms and ranches. Organic food lovers enjoy the fact that no antibiotics, hormones, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or dyes are used in the meat. (Compare that to this statistic: An estimated 55 percent of the pesticide residue in the U.S. diet comes from meat.)

Need more? How about the fact that raising ostriches is Earth-friendly? A pair of ostriches can be raised on a quarter-acre, while it takes 10 acres per head of cattle. The ostrich requires only one pound of feed to produce one pound of meat, but cattle require three pounds of feed to yield one pound of meat. Ostriches can yield 28 offspring per year, compared to one per year for cattle.

Nirvana for the ostrich investor is getting closer, but it’s not quite here yet. People are wanting more than there is. “Ostrich growers are about five years away from the supply meeting the demand,” Burns said.

That means prices can still be high, although they’ve fallen from their peak. Filet of ostrich costs between $16 and $25 per pound wholesale, Burns said. Buffalo has had a longer development period and is better poised for the market, but filet mignon of buffalo still can run as much as $22 per pound wholesale. Imagine what that does for retail pricing strategies.

Burns expects the demand for ostrich meat and other exotic meats to soar as prices settle down. She predicts that it’s possible within 10 years we could be shopping at the grocery stores for our ground round hamburger meat right alongside offerings of kangaroo fillets and buffalo rump roasts.

The wild game phenomenon

About seven of Woody’s regular customers frequently order from the game menu, and a steady stream of other diners sample it for the novelty value.

“A lot of people tried the kangaroo just to be able to say, ‘Hey, guess what I ate last night?’ ” Burns said.

Elaine Lowe of Tupelo said she first sampled the game menu when visitors from Connecticut about two months ago wanted a different taste treat. She started with buffalo, then ventured into kangaroo and ostrich. The kangaroo had a wilder taste than she prefers, and the ostrich was cooked a bit too rare. She said they were both all right, but she’s returned several times to her first love, the buffalo.

“It’s really tender,” she said. “And fixed with mushrooms, it’s really good.”

Buffalo is the hands-down favorite of most customers, perhaps because the taste is indistinguishable from beef and because the animal is a familiar food source, Burns speculates. She said Woody’s now goes through 50 to 100 pounds of buffalo meat per week.

One customer recently bought enough buffalo meat to treat his child’s class to a taste when they were studying Indians. Another treated his daughter to a buffalo meal for a similar class project, and now she’s a regular buffalo believer; the nine-year-old dines on buffalo every time she comes to Woody’s.

Another customer converted to Woody’s when he passed the restaurant’s Columbus location, advertising kangaroo meat; he’d been driving all the way to Jackson to satisfy his craving for game dishes.

Others are more hesitant: Kangaroo? Aren’t those the fuzzy cute animals at the zoo? And ostriches, aren’t they on the cover of National Geographic now and then? A few diners also are unsure whether they want to risk testing and possibly disliking a novel food.

Burns said, “If you’re going out for a nice dinner, sometimes you don’t want to take a chance.”

She assures the more timid customers that the recipes are all thoroughly taste-tested for weeks before being put on the menu. “We’ll deep fry it, grill it, sautŽ it, whatever,” Burns said. “We’ll do everything we can to see what happens to it before we serve it.”

It’s been a learning process, she said. The game meats have to be cut differently because of the grain, and they have to be cooked differently because of the low fat content. Handling in general requires special knowledge. Fresh emu, for example, handles much better than the frozen emu does. Market tastes also vary from expectations: Rattlesnake hasn’t been a big seller, maybe because some people dislike the snake’s ill-tempered image.

Price is another customer sticking point. Most restaurants offering the expensive exotic game dishes have average per-meal prices of $35 to $40 per customer, Burns said, and Woody’s shies away from that kind of pricing. Instead, they’ve tried creative presentation of the food to have smaller game meat portions paired with the right side dishes for a full meal.

Burns listed a few of the game prices at Woody’s: Kangaroo, $18.95 entrŽe or $7.95 appetizer; pheasant, $16.95 entrŽe; alligator, $11.95; ostrich, $19.95 entrŽe or $8.95 appetizer, or an one-third pound ostrich burger for $6.95; buffalo London broil, $17.95 entrŽe or $7.95 appetizer.

She preducts the food will grow in popularity, and she expects to continue expanding her menu along with the demand. “We probably have the most varied wild game selection north of Jackson, and we intend to add more.”

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