Once, when on vacation in Rome, I found myself scavenging for baby food in a grocery store. There were rows of familiar bottles – mush of spinach, chicken, pasta – and then an entire section of tiny jars featuring a picture of a beautiful palomino horse. Pureed horsemeat baby food. I felt my stomach heave, and the baby did not eat cavallo that night – or any night afterward.
Why the squeamishness? On that trip, I ate the flesh of pigs – both wild and domestic – lambs, cows and fish. At other times, I’ve eaten kangaroo, crocodile and guinea pig. (Should you ever find yourself contemplating a roasted guinea pig, consider eating your own foot instead – it would be tastier.)
I love horses. I rode when I was younger and have spent far too much of my adult life at racetracks. But I quite like pigs, too, yet nothing will come between me and a BLT. Why not horse? It’s lean, healthy and by most accounts quite delicious.
Britain is in the grip of a full-blown horsemeat panic. Some of the prepared meals and burgers sold in its grocery stores have been fraudulently labelled as beef and are in fact horsemeat. It’s a complicated deception involving nefarious meat traders and clueless processing plants, all hinging on supermarket chains’ demand for ever-cheaper food (almost all the bogus meat was in “value meals”). Horse meat has also been found in school and hospital meals.
Disgust and black humour, a particularly British cocktail, immediately followed the outbreak of the scandal. “All who ate horseburger are in stable condition” was one of the jokes galloping around Twitter. Traces of a horse painkiller known to be harmful to humans have been found in some of the meat. British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to prosecute the fraudulent horse traders. “If there has been criminal activity, there should be the full intervention of the law,” he said.
The wave of revulsion that followed the deception is in one way understandable – nobody wants to have the mane pulled over their eyes – but, in another, baffling. Being a vegetarian is a completely worthy moral choice, but if you’ve gone the way of the flesh, why value one meat and shun another?
“It is completely irrational,” says Pierre Desrochers, who teaches food-policy courses at the University of Toronto, when I phone to ask him about the origins of culinary taboos. Prof. Desrochers grew up eating horse in Quebec, and it was quite nice. “What’s the difference between a horse and a goat?”
One of the differences, of course, is that no one ever rode a goat into battle. The sanctity of the horse is ingrained in some cultures, Prof. Desrochers says, because of its magnificence and nobility and usefulness. Vikings, not known for their picky appetites, refused to eat horses. And starving Gauls, besieged by Julius Caesar, let theirs escape rather than slaughtering them.
The descendants of the Gauls threw off that prejudice, and by the mid-19th century, horse was popular in France, the soup made of its bones considered un bouillon supérieur to beef broth. It’s been suggested that one of the reasons the British are so repulsed by horse is that it’s such a very French thing to eat.
The British diner, historically, has not been among the world’s most adventurous. “He wants none of your foreign kickshaws, frogs, and snails in fricassees, or sea slug, or bird’s nest soup, or horse flesh steak,” wrote Peter Lund Simmonds in The Curiosities of Food, published in 1859, one of the earliest surveys of international carnivorism (young porcupine is quite delicious, apparently, as is camel tongue, properly prepared). Even then, the British were horrified by the prospect of serving Black Beauty in pies. English Canada has traditionally shared that loathing.
Interestingly, the recent scandal is probably not the first time the British have probably been duped into eating horse. As Mr. Simmonds wrote more than 150 years ago, “There is very little doubt that horse-flesh, besides its application for ‘cats’ meat,’ enters, even now, largely into surreptitious use in certain quarters in this country as food for bipeds.”
Culture is fluid, and taboos change over time. One man’s horse or cow or embryonic duck egg delicacy is another man’s invitation to vomit. The horsemeat scandal erupted just as the Catholic world was preparing for Lent and the carnivals that accompany it (from carne vale – “farewell to the flesh”). Maybe it’s a cosmic hint about admiring our animal friends – and not eating them. Or, more likely, it’s an earthly hint that something’s out of whack when the cash-strapped have to resort to mystery meat to make ends meet.