SAVANNAH was all about lions last week, and not just because Katy Perry kicked off her sexy Super Bowl halftime spectacle by riding in atop a ginormous feline robot.
There was another reason big cats were on everyone’s lips, for some literally: Meat from the Panthera leo species was on the menu at Cohen’s Retreat during Restaurant Week, and it’s caused what can only be referred to—please forgive me—a huge uproar.
The Skidaway restaurant received so much negative feedback it took down its Facebook page, and legions of shocked citizens have vowed a boycott. But while many have expressed dismay and disgust, others had no qualms ordering the appetizer, a slider made with farm-raised ground lion meat mixed with pork belly, topped with smoked gouda and served on a warm bun.
“Hey, the damn thing would eat me if it could,” shrugged one delighted diner, who described the taste as akin to “really good Kobe beef.”
(Some reportedly ate it thinking it was a typo and they’d ordered loin burger. These are probably the same people shunned at the water cooler the next morning for discussing Katy Perry’s loins.)
Though a bit shaken from the vitriolic skewering he’s received, Executive Chef Kirk Blaine stands solid with his decision to serve lion, which he asserts is sourced from a farm in California and approved by the USDA.
“We wanted to do something different to draw in the culinarians and epicurious diners,” he says of the special menu, which also included crème brulée thickened with emu egg. “It was an amazing success.”
Indeed, Chef Blaine and his kitchen staff plated over a thousand lion sliders, selling out the prix fixe dinners that also serve as a fundraiser and allowing Cohen’s Retreat to make a sizeable donation to Second Harvest Food Bank.
Considering the backlash, would he serve it again?
“At this point, I would not put it out for the public, but I have had special requests for private lion dinners,” he divulges.
Listen, I don’t want to judge. I’m a gal with an adventurous palate and will pretty much eat anything, including giant snails, barbecued rattlesnake and a cherry pie recovered from a Whole Foods dumpster (hey, I was young and poor and it had only been expired for one day!)
But lion? First, it’s an apex predator, risky because carnivores carry parasites like trichinosis, grody worms that spiral into your intestines. Then there’s the undisputable majesty of lions, serving for millennia as icons of strength and courage.
To eat them just seems...sinful.
Which is what makes it attractive, I suppose: It’s a notch on the foodie belt, an assuagement of an epicurean itch.
Yet even local gastronomic sage Tim Rutherford, who is kind of like our own Andrew Zimmern but a better cook, has his reservations.
“Doing what I do, I’ve eaten lots of stuff,” sighs the longtime moderator of the Savannah Foodie newsletter, ticking off armadillo, ostrich and alligator.
“Everyone has their own moral compass. Me, I wouldn’t advocate eating lion any more that I would horse, even though horse has been regulated and on menus in Europe for decades. Most of us don’t want to eat things that we have an iconic Disney image of.”
Simba aside, let’s examine this from a different standpoint. My apologies to Chef Blaine, who I believe would not knowingly serve anything he didn’t trust was of the highest possible quality, but it does not appear that the USDA inspects or regulates lion meat.
After many phone calls and a deep delve into the Food Safety Inspection Service website, I found out that the Federal Meat Inspection Act specifically regulates a dozen types of edible animal flesh. Rare ones like bison and yak fall under the Exotic Animal Inspection directive, for which inspections are voluntary and must be requested, for a fee.
But I was not able to track down anything at all applying to the regulation of lion meat. One USDA public affairs specialist even asked me to forward my notes as her department “would be very interested in that information to consider whether investigation is appropriate.”
Still, God bless America, lion meat is still legal to serve in all 50 states and has popped up in restaurants all over the country, from burgers in Mesa, AZ to tacos in Tampa, FL. Each time the concerned folks at Big Cat Rescue flood the market with educational materials.
“Restaurants will tell you these lions are raised on a farm in California, but nobody knows where these farms actually are,” cautions Susan Bass of BCR, which operates an animal sanctuary in Tampa and picked up on the Cohen’s Retreat dish.
Bass believes lions that end up on plates may come from “pay to pet” places like Miami’s Jungle Island, where the public can hold cute cubs for a fee. Those babies eventually grow sharp teeth and claws, and those teenagers must be dispensed with somehow.
But again, this is America, and legislation is on the way: The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act was recently reintroduced to Congress and would forbid such direct contact between humans and big cats as well as ban their breeding except at accredited zoos and educational facilities.
Most folks are surprised to learn that African lions are not considered “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed to up their status, which would not only prevent the Hemingways from bringing home their African conquests but also outlaw the domestic sale of lion meat.
That’d be bad news for Anshu Paphak, who owns ExoticMeatMarkets.com and sells not only lion stew meat for $500 a pound through his website but also squab, frog legs and flamingo.
To my utter shock, I was patched right through to him when I called.
Originally from India and a Hindu of the holy Brahmin caste, Anshu told me he forswore his vegetarian upbringing decades ago to become a merchant of the highest quality meat. In spite of some people’s moral objections, demand for exotic flesh is booming, and he sees his business as an affirmation of life’s bounty.
“What is ethical and what is unethical?” he asked.
“Meat is meat. I am not violating any state or federal laws. I am an animal lover. I am not going to kill anything that is endangered. I am not doing this for publicity, not even for the money. I’m doing it as my passion.”
He claims to be the mysterious lion farmer but remained vague about the farm’s actual locale other than it is “near Las Vegas” because he doesn’t want any poachers sniffing around. He acknowledges that the processed meat isn’t inspected but offers DNA testing to show that his lions are domestically raised and certainly aren’t gamey old circus lions or cast-aside teenagers.
“I have invited the USDA here many times! I’m willing and ready to pay the fees so I can export all over the world!” he exclaimed, adding that “people buy from me because they trust me.”
His other products—beaver hot dogs, anyone?—are processed at USDA-approved facilities, shown explicitly on his Facebook page. When it comes to his lions, Anshu promises they enjoy good lives up until the end.
“If you come to my farm, you would see how lovingly how I take care of them. I treat them as VIPs,” he insisted, offering me an open invitation for a farm-to-table lion dinner anytime.
I declined, but as usual, I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. Is it fair to vilify a chef for fulfilling the demand of his customers? If Anshu is for real about the self-governed practices of his happy lion farm, does that mean the meat is safe to eat?
And just because we can, does that mean we should?
All I know is I’m cooking lentils tonight.