When I met bisons and fell in love with the Great Plains

Wild Buffalo Ranch Dan O Brien South Dakota

The chicken barn

I am completely mesmerized by the color of the grass,” I tell Dan who is sitting next to me in his red Chevrolet pickup. The road is fairly bumpy and dusty but I don’t pay any attention to it. My eyes are glued to the scenery that slowly unveils as we approach the ranch where he and his wife Jill live.

The closest connection to any country store is an hour away. “And this is the last place to get gas,” Dan adds while pointing at a small shabby-looking gas station along the endless interstate highway that connects us to Rapid City. I cannot help but smile. Even if I still have no idea of what is waiting for me ahead, I already know I am going to really like it.

It’s my first time in South Dakota.

Good,” he says with a friendly smile.

I like the way he speaks. The pace of his words sounds peaceful and quiet. They mimic the appeasing feeling that runs through my body when my eyes catch sight of the yellow rolling hills which surround us as we drive along.

I cannot believe the weather here either,“I add. “Everyone had told me it was going to be so cold!

All of a sudden, the long gray winter jacket, the woolen hat and gloves I am wearing feel inappropriate and uncomfortable. I am dying to change into lighter mid-season clothes.

It can change quickly though, so you never know. It’s good to be prepared.

I realize that Dan is right when, a few days later, we wake up to 20 F, wind and a light veil of snow covering the plain.

But the light. Oh the light! that colors the Great Plains.

Every day.

Over and over again.

I’ve never stayed on a ranch before. I’ve never seen buffalo before either. But deep inside, I know one thing: the week I am going to spend in South Dakota to work with Dan and Jill O’ Brien will be amazing.

Jill and Dan O’ Brien are the force and talent behind Wild Idea Buffalo. I am only arrived on their ranch, getting to know them more, that I quickly understand that their vision is not just about selling buffalo meat. Their goal is about making sure that their animals are kept happy in the Great Plains, that they receive the best foods, and that the environment is preserved.

They believe in a sustainable eco-system.

They believe in a better place.

And it shows.

I’ve come to teach Jill food styling and photography. And so during the entire week, she and I cook, style, and photograph food.

Jill and Dan O’ Brien, photo credit by Jilian Maguire

Jill has a beautiful smile and a generous laughter.

I love working with her in the kitchen. I love hearing her story.

When she tells me that she grew up on a South Dakota dairy farm, and that she learned to cook because this was what you did when you came from a large family, I cannot help but think about my father, his upbringing on the farm, and the long communal table in my grand-mother’s kitchen where family and workers would always sit to refill on hearty dishes my grand-mother had prepared.

As I feel curious to know more about her family, I keep on asking: “Did your mother and grand-mother like to cook?

By looking at her energy and strength in the kitchen, I can guess the answer.

Oh yes!

No wonder you are such a generous cook!” I tell her as I watch her serving us bowls of steaming buffalo stew that reminds me of my mother’s boeuf bourguignon. The food is so delicious that I close my eyes with the attempt to slow the moment down. I want to keep the taste of it in my mouth longer.



Jill educates me to buffalo meat. And to my surprise, I even don’t mind eating more meat than I am accustomed to.

The flavor is really delicate. The meat has great character,” I tell her when, one night to celebrate Jilian’s birthday, she prepares a cut of buffalo tenderloin for dinner. The words “délicat et léger float in my head.

Each buffalo dish I eat leaves me feeling light.

To refill our energy and creative spirit, between photo shoots, Jill takes me to see the horses and chicken.

I want to raise Araucana chicken!” I tell her, laughing, as she hands me a couple of warm blue and white eggs we’ve just fetched from the henhouse.

We take walks with the dogs. I particularly enjoy watching Henry-our French hunting dog as Jill enjoys reminding me–run freely through the fields and between the hills.

We observe antelopes and coyotes in the distance. We watch sun sets and moon rises.

Every day, I marvel at the sight of the blond grass. And of cotton trees set against bright blue skies.

I really want to swim in it,” I tell Dan and Jill each time we walk or drive by a field–to which they laugh.

I cannot get enough of the oranges and yellows of the light that embraces the Great Plains every day at the same time, comes four O’ Clock. It has an intensity I’ve not seen before.


Dan takes me to see the buffalo herds by the majestic Cheyenne river near their ranch. I help him to feed the baby buffalos that he and Jill have rescued.

These are only three months old,” he tells me as he points at small buffalo that are more red than the others. “You can tell by the color of their hair.

They are still frail but we are planning to let them join the older ones in a week.



With Dan, I enjoy talking about writing too.

I didn’t know that you were such an accomplished writer!” I tell him with admiration when he humbly acknowledges the numerous novels he’s written over the years.

As we chit-chat more, I soon find out that not only Dan is a talented writer, but that the French have also befriended him warmly. His ranch and admirable work with the wild buffalo have been featured in many French magazines, including Géo, my utter favorite when I was growing up!


I learn a ton over the course of my week.

I discover an American state with delightful landscapes that transport me to old cowboys movies once watched when I was young. Papa, tu adorerais !

I learn that life can be much simpler. Quieter. I learnt that when need be, you can always make do with what you have at hand.

I fall asleep while hearing the howling of coyotes.

I watch the moon rise. And the sun set.

I eat scrumptious country foods. I eat the best buffalo burger with homemade red potato chips. I dine from elegant dishes.

I make new friends.

And I return home with the recipe of a delicious Vietnamese Bison Salad.

Photo credit: Jill O’Brien


Vietnamese Bison Salad

Thank you Jill and Dan for welcoming me into your home. I cannot wait to come back to see the grass turn green. And to show P. and Lulu the buffalo, the Great plains, and have them watch a moon rise and fetch fresh eggs.

Lulu will love to meet you and pet the cats.

She will love to run freely on top of the hills.

I am convinced that she will really enjoy the taste of buffalo meat too.

Wild Idea Buffalo Company Tartine Gourmande

My own variant of Jill’s Vietnamese Bison Salad

Of course, when I returned, I could not help but recreate my own variant of Jill’s salad in my kitchen. Mine had zucchini and carrots, and I used veal instead of bison. It didn’t take long to become a real favorite.

They were P.’s words. I could not agree more.

Vietnamese Bison Salad
(Recipe by Jill O’ Brien from Wild Idea Buffalo)

Serves 4

Dressing Ingredients:

  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, lightly packed
  • 2 cloves of garlic, about 1 tablespoon
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
  • ¼ cup pure cane sugar
  • ¾ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ½ cup Asian fish sauce
  • ½ cup hot water
    • In a blender, purée the cilantro, garlic, sugar and lemon juice.
    • While the motor is still running, add the remaining ingredients. Refrigerate the dressing until needed.

    Salad Ingredients:

    • 1 8 oz. package tri-tip buffalo (bison) minute steaks
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • ½ small red cabbage, finely julienned
    • 1 red onion, finely julienned
    • 1 yellow bell pepper, finely julienned
    • 1 cucumber, diced
    • ½ cup fresh mint, julienned
    • ½ cup fresh basil, julienned

    Steps:

    • Rinse the bison medallions and pat them dry. Place them in a glass dish and drizzle with
      ¼ cup of the dressing. Place in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight.
    • Heat ½ tablespoon of olive oil over medium to hight heat, and quickly sauté the red cabbage for about two minutes. Remove from the pan and toss with the red onion.
    • Mix cucumber, mint, and basil together.
    • Drizzle dressing over vegetables and toss. Arrange julienned vegetables on 4 plates.
    • Remove the bison steaks from the marinade, shacking off the excess.
    • Over high heat, heat the remaining ½ tablespoon olive oil and sear the bison steaks for 30 seconds on each side.
    • Place the seared steaks on top of the julienned vegetables, and sprinkle the cucumber and herb mixture over the salad.
    • *Optional: Rice Noodles may also be added to this salad. Prepare as directed and place the noodles in the center of the plate.

    93 comments

    1. Pingback: When I met bisons and fell in love with the Great Plains | Shelterholic Now Food

    2. Pingback: When I met bisons and fell in love with the Great Plains | Mark Solock Blog

    3. It is so wonderful to read your magnificent words of admiration for the Great Plains where I grew up (though my youth was spent in the other Dakota a little further north but just as marvelous and beautiful).

    4. Tes photos sont aussi délicieuses que tes assiettes.
      C’est magnifique. Quelle chance as-tu eu ! Waouh !
      Je n’ai pu voir des bisons que dans le Golden Gate Park de SF, jusqu’à maintenant ;)
      A très bientôt. Bises gourmandes.

    5. Ooooh, the Great Plains!! I would love to see them SO MUCH… I would really love to see buffalos! You’re really lucky!
      P.S.: I ordered your book… it should arrive in march, I can’t see the time!
      P.P.S.: I tried quinoa for the first time! I had a quinoa salad and I liked it. And I’m also going to grow quinoa shoots!

      Teresa

    6. Et voilà, j’ai envie d’aller voir les bisons, les paysages somptueux, la lumière incroyable et ces fantastiques éleveurs et protecteurs de la Terre.
      Merci pour ce beau voyage!!!

    7. You are one lucky women to see and experience all these! Beautiful photography and wonderful post!

    8. Voila tu m as redonne envie de decouvrir cette region des USA.C est somptueux. J adore le pays ds lequel tu vis .J adore tes articles .je les attend avec impatience.
      Merci Merci merci

    9. Bea- stunning. k and i love it there, and buffalo is my favourite animal to photograph. the way you describe the sun drenched plains is so poetic. yes the sunsets at four o’clock i know what you mean, it happens here too more subtle but oh so beautiful!

    10. Wow! You are so good at capturing the gorgeousness of nature! South Dakota went straight on my list of must-see places. Thanks for sharing!

    11. WOW I love bisons!!! Since I had history of prehistory classes I’m in love with this animal!!! They’re so cute and plushy but then so impressive! I love them! Wonderful pictures!

    12. Oh Bea! What stunning photographs! Sounds and looks like you had a wonderful time.

    13. Welcome to my part of the world! So glad you had a great time. Buffalo meat is superb, our family hasn’t eaten beef in years. We get our meat from a local rancher as well, makes such a difference, as you said, knowing how your meat was raised. Our family spent a week last April in the Badlands, just south and east of Rapid City, hauntingly beautiful, especially knowing the history there. You captured the endless blue skies and the seas of grass of the plains beautifully. Thanks for sharing.

    14. so beautiful and free. i once drove from colorado all the way to north dakota through bison country. it was breathtaking – the open space, the big sky, the colors… you captured it perfectly.

    15. This is great. I love everything about this post. South Dakota is a magical place and bison are just fantastic in every way.

    16. That is my favorite post of yours, ever. Very well done. Make sure you get that in front of the people who give the awards. Thanks for writing that up. – pt

    17. Gorgeous photos and writing. I need to visit there! This gets me through my desk job…

    18. You truly captured the beauty and Americana feeling of the Midwest where I grew up (Nebraska and Kansas)! I love your photo of the bison licking his chops! Well done as always.

    19. wow, I’m definitely impressed. I’m always struggling with meat when I have to take a picture of a meat dish, and there you are, you managed to make attractive and succulent also a piece of raw meat.
      I will bookmark this story – not only for the amazing landscape photos, admirable project and delicious recipe – but also as example of how taking that kind of pictures!
      Brilliant Béa!

    20. The photos are amazing, the light, the sense of freedom… but I also love your story, the yummy dishes… Thanks Béa fort these beautiful moments.

    21. C’est vraiment un de mes billets préférés!
      Quelles magnifiques photos, on aimerait y être et on est vraiment transporté le temps d’une lecture!
      Merci !

    22. You have painted me a beautiful picture of a place and animals I know very little about, thank you

    23. Magique cette atmosphère et ces couleurs ! Un véritable sentiment de liberté se dégage de ces paysages !

    24. What a fabulous bond you two have! So sweet to teach her styling and photography. She couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.

      And, as always, this is a marvelous post… stunning pictures, beautiful writing. You are captivating.

    25. Really enjoyed this. I am from Oklahoma (though like you in Boston now), and out on the wildlife refuge it was easy to get a good view of buffalo (and longhorn cattle, whose origin as the runaway cattle of the Spanish I always found interesting). A great book about the Great Plains is, plainly enough, Great Plains by Ian Frazier. It’s old now and dated in spots but still fascinating and incredibly well written. Thanks for this post!

    26. Haaaa voila que tu viens de m’offrir quelques minutes d’évasion vers de South Dakota. Un vrai bonheur.
      Quelles belles photos ressemblent a un poeme et nous donne tout le sentiment de cette belle semaine .
      Merci
      Elisacanada

    27. I enjoyed so much every single word on your post. Your writing made me feel I was there. My son is currently doing a documentary on Bisons and spent 2 weeks filming over at the Medano Zapata Ranch in Colorado. Bison is such an intriguing animal. Thank you for sharing so beautifully.

    28. Stunning! I just visited the Bison in Golden Gate park here in San Francisco yesterday!!! So much more regal on the gorgeous plains.

    29. What a glorious place to live.

      The photography is out of this world. I’d want to swim in the tall grass too I think!

    30. You’ve captured my home state beautifully! I never tire of the grasses, sweeping expanses of sky, and always the buffalo. South Dakota really is a special place to live. The peace and solitude sinks into your soul.

    31. This is such an amazing post! Your photos are simply stunning. Reminds me so much of my home state, Colorado. The sky out there is the most vivid shad of blue. Your photos capture it so perfectly. Thank you for such a lovely post.

    32. I had a love affair with the Midwest and wanted to drop my plans for a east coast school and go to school at SDSU so that I could follow my heart (and a man I’d met in Brookings). It caused a rift so deep in my family (and with my father) that I didn’t follow my heart. But, like you, I’ve never stopped being amazed by that color of grass. Like the fur on a soft animals back, but more vast and with life like an ocean. I loved this post, more than you know. (You might enjoy Willa Cather’s short story: “A Wagner Matinee”…The images here are spectacular…thanks for soothing the homesickness of an American living in Italy.

    33. If you’re looking for something closer to home, there’s Long Hollow Bison Farm in Hadley, MA.

    34. Bea, your photos are absolutely stunning! You captured everything so beautifully and I was just so completely mesmerized by each one.
      Breathtaking.
      Thank you so much for sharing!

    35. Love your photos, so striking and stunning. I feel the same way about the beauty of the plains (altho I’m deathly afraid of buffalo!). I was blessed to be a guest at the Devils Tower Nat’l Monument when I won a writer’s residency and each day as I’d walk the trails I found myself completely captivated by the grasses! We drive from MN to SD every summer and love the rolling hills and seas of prairie grass. Love it so much we are hoping to quit our jobs and buy a business in SD this fall. Can’t wait to see the moon rise and sunsets there every day! Thanks for sharing such a beautiful post!

    36. Beautiful, beautiful as always. I love the expansive shots, and the magnificent animals. As always, you capture moments with such beauty and clarity.

    37. Je suis allée dans le North/South Dakota, Wyoming et Wyoming en 1998, c’est magnifique. Je recommande aussi Yellowstone.

    38. My lord! I am speechless at the beauty of these pictures! Simply stunning. Thank you so much for sharing. And the recipe just tickles my toes!

    39. Oh those bisons are stunningly beautiful! I can’t help but love those wide open spaces and the feeling of freedom.
      I’ve never had the chance to eat bison meat but that buffalo burger looks beyond delicious.

    40. .. Je ne sais par quel bout commencer .. je suis encore “dans” la lumière de tes photos et dans “l’esprit” des grandes plaines … j’ai vu un reportage sur Jill et Dan et j’avais déja voyagé la bas par la pensée toute entière .. Tu as su (une fois de plus ) allier la magie de la gourmandise, des couleurs, des rencontres et des lieux !
      Rien que pour ça, merci … je passe très souvent sur la pointe des pieds .. et cette fois ci, je te laisse un petit mot ..

      PS : il me tarde que ton livre de recettes paraisse en France, illico presto, je me le procure !!
      Douce journée !

      Nedj from Bask country

    41. So stunning! I had a dream about Bison last night so I had to look! :) I’m so glad I did. All the photos are perfection. Now I want to go :)

    42. Avec Des origines maternelles Sioux Lakota le bison a une signification très particulière pour moi , mon snack favori est le buffalo jerky qu’on m’envoit des US sinon j’adore la viande que l’on trouve en France aussi (quoique moins facilement que chez vous )j’adore ce billet ! Bonne Année
      Garance

    43. Because bison is a leaner meat, I find that it is very easy to overcook them. And when bison is even a tad bit overcooked, it becomes dry and bland. Your burger and salad looks divine, though! Your photographs of the Great Plains are really pretty! It gives a sense of drama :)

    44. Oh this is so stunning. Now I want to head out to South Dakota too. I have always loved Bison ~ but now ever more :)

    45. What a beautiful homage to a part of the country few of us have probably seen. I remember seeing buffalo when I was a young child living in Ohio and how majestic they stood out against the landscape. I have only seen one lone buffalo since then in Golden Gate Park. Enjoyed this post so much.

    46. Is the public able to buy buffalo meat from them? Your photography, recipes, writing and ideas make Martha Stewart pale in comparison, We should all spend a week with Dan and Jill….

    47. These are familiar colors and landscapes! My dad owns Dan O’Brien’s book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart. I have picked it up many times and looked at it . . . now I really must read it. Thanks for sharing about your week.

    48. These are familiar colors and landscapes! My dad owns Dan O’Brien’s book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart. I have picked it up many times and looked at it . . . now I really must read it.

    49. Until you have had buffalo, you really don’t know what you are missing.

    50. The stew looks amazing and I love all the farm photos. The farm I grew up on was not nearly so…well, poetic looking. But it brought me back, nonetheless. Thanks so much!

    51. Lovely, Bea. So glad you found the essence of this region. Though I was born and raised there, I no longer live there and your words helped me remember…

    52. Hi Bea –
      Thank you for writing such a lovely story about your stay on the Cheyenne River Ranch. You were a wonderful guest. We wanted to share your story with our followers too – so have posted an introduction to your site. Also, I am really enjoying reading your cookbook and the recipes are fantastic and inspirational! Everyone sends their regards, including baby buffalo’s and chickens.
      Thank you for everything. See you this summer? Jill
      http://wildideabuffalo.com/category/ranch-updates

    53. Thank you so much everyone. I loved reading each comment and hear your stories, whether you are from SD, lived or traveled there.

      Jill, yes! :-) I have to see the green of the grass…and also see how Henri is doing! Thanks again for such a warm welcome.

    54. This was a truly magical post! The scenery, the food, the story — and especially the chickens! :) Thank you!

    55. It was great having you B! Amazing pictures too! Hope to see you soon..

    56. We loved revisiting your ranch through the eyes of Bea. What a beautiful tribute to you both! It is another “LOVE SONG TO THE PLAINS”.

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    58. Beautiful photographs. So calming looking at them. You make me what to go there and try those sumptuous dishes and run around outside in the plains like a child.

    59. Esta região dos EEUU é simplesmente deslumbrante. Os bisões fazem parte da história de todos nós,em qualquer lugar que a gente possa viver,seja nos EEUU, ou no Brazil como eu. Congratulações!

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    61. Beautiful Photos. Reminds me of Eastern Washington. I had grandparents that had a ranch and I always loved roaming. This brings me back. Thank you.

    62. Ce post m’avait remplie de curiosité et je suis en train de lire Buffalo for the Broken Heart. Je m’attendais à un témoignage sympathique mais en fait c’est vraiment un bon bouquin. Je me prenais même à rêver à le traduire en français, dans une édition qui serait illustrée par tes photos… Juste un fantasme, le livre est déjà traduit en français et surtout je ne suis pas traductrice! :-)

    63. What a beautiful, heartwarming post, Bea! The story is lovely and the photos amazing = you did such a great job of portraying the still quiet wilderness out in South Dakota and all the beauty that surrounds it.

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    66. Those pictures really brought me back to the years I spent in Montana as a boy. I loved the wide open sky and, yes, the color of the grasses. I remember, when I came back East to school, it felt like the whole world was closing in on me. Everything seemed smaller, cramped, suffocating on the East side of the Mississippi. I need to go out West again to breathe.

    67. I never thought I’d say this, but now I want to go to South Dakota! Thank you for the beautiful pics – they really give a sense of place

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