UNTIL we tasted it the other night...


UNTIL we tasted it the other night at the Brass Elephant restaurant, we'd thought of emu as the "flightless Australian bird" of a thousand crossword puzzles. (It's a good Scrabble word, too: more vowels than consonants, excellent for the end game.)

But there it was on the BE's menu, and our waiter explained that emu meat was really quite tasty, nothing like poultry and not quite like beef, either.

We decided to try it, and our waiter was right. The closest we can come to describing the taste of emu, which the BE serves under a delicious sauce, is that of sweet sirloin. And it's very tender, excellent with a red wine and low in calories.

Some people we know won't partake of veal or any lamb dish. They'll devour a steak without qualms, but with veal or lamb they envision the innocent little calf or lamb, fleece as white as snow.

No such problem with the emu, which is a small cousin of the ostrich and really quite an ugly creature. It has no breastbone. Almost all of the meat is taken from the thigh (foresaddle and hindsaddle meat) and from the drumstick (drum).

The only exception, our Brass Elephant hosts explained, is a small strip of meat lying along the backbone and called the "striploin." Emu can be substituted in almost any red meat recipe, and the oil from the bird's body fat has cosmetic and medicinal possibilities as yet unexplored by American entrepreneurs. (Ready for "Essence of Emu"?)

Emu ranching may be the thing of the '90s. A friend is trying to raise the money to start a ranch in northern Harford County. (A good breeding pair of emus currently goes for more than $25,000). The BE is getting its emu from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, which has an importing agreement with the largest government-controlled emu ranch in Australia, run by members of the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Community.

Word got around the Brass Elephant that we were partaking. On a powder room break before the dessert course, we passed a table of eight. A friendly woman called out, "Emu killer!" She was smiling, just kidding.

Or so we thought.

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