There are about 400 emus on Clover Quinn’s Wild Rose Emu Ranch in Hamilton. Quinn is raising emus—large, flightless birds from Australia, distantly related to Africa’s ostrich and the South American rhea—for meat and oil.
In Australia, emus were long considered a nuisance, sweeping across the Outback en masse and destroying sheep fences and fast-moving cars—one man claims to have totaled 12 cars (and as many emus) in 12 years. Such incidents prompted a government bounty on the emus’ heads.
“In 1983, a man named Peter Clark watched an aborigine kill an emu,” says Quinn. Clark says the aborigine made use of most of the emu’s parts and slathered the fat all over his body. Three days later the aborigine is said to have bathed in a river, at which point his various burns and scratches were healed. Clark convinced the Australian government to remove the emu bounty, and he set up a 65,000-acre emu preserve.
As Quinn showed me her pens, the air pulsed with a weird thumping sound made by an air sac above the lungs of mating-aged females.
Some emus walked toward us. Others sat hunched like vultures on branches, staring philosophically into space. Those that approached looked me in the eye plaintively, with an expression that seemed to say, “Who the heck are you; give me some food.” As I scaled the fence for a clear photo, they pecked at me through the slats, hard enough to hurt.
There was a dirt track devoid of grass around the fence’s inside perimeter. “They like to run along fence lines,” explained Quinn, “no matter how big the enclosure. Clark’s emu preserve has a track around the fence, too. Clark says that sometimes they escape his fence—and then they run a track around the outside of the fence.”
Scientists believe the emu has changed little in 80 million years, says Quinn. They can run over 30 mph, aided by their wings, which ironically help keep the flightless birds low to the ground. Without a lot of wing beating, emus don’t have much breast meat. Most of the meat, which is dark red, comes from the legs and thighs. Leaner than beef, deer, elk, buffalo and turkey, according to the USDA, emu is also higher in protein and in 14 out of 19 vitamins and nutrients tested for.
Quinn explained that while emu meat is great tasting and good for you, she’s just trying to break even on it. Her profits come from emu oil.
As she listed emu oil’s many benefits, I wondered if she was actually selling snake oil. Quinn says it’s good for mosquito bites, bee stings, earaches, dried nasal passages (“firefighters love it”), all kinds of burns, cuts, and any piece of dry, chapped, or otherwise unhealthy skin.
Quinn and her fellow emu-boosters in the American Emu Association (www.aea-emu.org) are not alone in praising emu oil. Oil chemist Robert Nicolosi of the University of Massachusetts came out of retirement to study emu oil and found that the oil, taken internally, lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in mice by 25 percent. When applied to inflamed mouse ears, the inflammation went down between 42 and 71 percent. Nicolosi speculated that emu oil could be useful in treating inflammation-related diseases like arthritis, so he tested the oil’s transdermic capability—its ability to pass through the skin—and found it substantial.
Very interesting, to be sure, but Chef Boy Ari comes from food, and to food he always returns. That day I went home with emu meat and began experimenting.
While an emu steak marinated in soy sauce, pepper, red wine and garlic, I sautéed some morels in butter and sherry. When the mushrooms were done, I kept them on low heat and fried the steak on high heat in a mixture of bacon grease and grapeseed oil—this was my effort to compensate for the leanness of the meat, but if you want to stay lean, fry it in extra-virgin olive oil, or grill it.
When the meat was bloody rare in the middle, I took it off the heat, sliced it thin and stirred it into the mushroom sauce. I cooked to medium rare, tossed in a handful of spinach and served.
The number-one rule of emu cooking is that if you overcook it, it gets tough. In addition to mushrooms and greens, it’s good with sweet and fruity marinades.
I asked a real Australian, my friend Jim, for some Aussie tips on cooking emu.
“Cook it loyke kangaroo meat,” he recommended. “Rub it with salt, peppa and gahlic. Toss in some eucalyptus leaves for the aroma, and wrap it in foil paypah. Then, throw it on the barbie.”
If you can’t find eucalyptus leaves, you can obtain a similar aroma with bay leaves. If you can’t find an emu, try the Wild Rose Emu Ranch in Hamilton (firstname.lastname@example.org; 363-1710) or the Good Food Store.