For Alaskans, that giant yard decoration lighting up the cul-de-sac looks like Santa being pulled by an eight-piece Reindeer buffet. The magical ungulates, famous since Clement Clark Moore published “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823, are - as anyone from Sitka will attest - terrific in a red-wine marinade. But for the rapidly growing Reindeer industry, the annual explosion of interest in domesticated Caribou is a double-edged butcher’s knife. Alaskans want to find an audience for their product so the publicity doesn’t hurt, but you can’t tell a kid you want to eat Rudolph.
If that problem sounds minor, think again. It’s significant enough that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game lists Santa’s Reindeer (Saintnicolas Magicalus) as a separate species from Rangifer Tarandus. A little government-sanction humor? Sure, but also an attempt to finesse the message on the state’s bloodiest export.
“We always say that we wouldn’t kill or eat those reindeer,” says Brandi Harmon, whose family runs American Pride Foods, which traffics in all manner of Reindeer flesh, out of Anchorage. “Still, Christmas is our busiest time of year. Orders increase 80% around the holiday because people buy it for the novelty. But the interesting thing is that sales level off but don’t go all the way down. Once people try it, they get hooked. Our year over year growth is phenomenal.”
Harmon says the only other time of year when there is a predictable bump in sales is late summer, when travelers returning from Alaska put in their orders, a further illustration of the meat’s ability to win repeat customers.
The reason serious eaters love Reindeer is fairly simple. The 350-pound animals store fat on the outside of their muscles. That means there is no marbling, only incredibly lean meat, which true connoisseurs often consume raw. The reason Alaskans feel comfortable doing this is that Reindeer meat is extremely clean because Reindeer, shipped over from Scandinavia a century ago to combat hunger, aren’t so much raised as herded on Alaska’s tundra rangeland, specifically on St. Lawrence, Unimak, and Umnak Islands.
Thanks to the 1937 Reindeer Act, Native Alaskans have 20,000,000 acres on which to graze Reindeer at minimal cost. That land (North Carolina is smaller) represents the nascent industry’s incredible potential, but there’s a catch. “We don’t have the stuff people in the lower 48 take for granted,” says Dr. Greg Finstad, who runs the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska. Specifically, he’s talking about roads.
“In rural Alaska, there isn’t much opportunity beyond Reindeer,” he says. “It’s a poor place and we want to see the industry grow so that there are more jobs and so that we can control our state’s food system, which is currently run from the outside. It helps that there is high global demand for the meat. Demand isn’t the problem.”
Dr. Finstad points out that Reindeer antlers are also a natural resource. The calcareous appendages (used for light sparring come mating season) contain what he calls a “slurry of hormones” proven to positively affect health. That’s why your dog’s chew toy is probably a Reindeer antler and why some indigenous peoples consume antler as an aphrodisiac.
Chef Kelly Strut, who famously serves up northern meats at Deer Lodge in Alberta, doesn’t have antler supplements on the menu, but his Reindeer (sometimes he serves Caribou instead) is his most popular dish. “People love it,” he says. “They come back for more all the time.” And he claims it’s immensely cookable: Keep it on the rare side and it’s good to go. As for whether he expects it to become more common in warmer climes, his thinking is simple: “Whoever eats it is going to want to eat more.”
Industry experts unanimously agree. If they can get Reindeer meat on your plate, they think they can do it again and again and that they can change Alaska for the better while they’re at it. If enough Americans try it, maybe Reindeer will finally fly out of the picture books and land on the table. Maybe we will all stop feeling so bad about slaughtering Rudolph. Maybe Santa just buys a flashlight.
Photos by Kim Heacox