My mom and I were reminiscing the other day when I mentioned Cocoa, a Shetland pony we briefly had when I was four.
“You remember Cocoa?” she asked.
“Sure. We sold her to the Olafssen’s.”
This was my best friend Ingrid’s family down the street. Her dad Leif was a jolly, strapping fellow and Swedish immigrant; they had about a million kids.
Mom: Yes, well, we gave her to them. She was permanently lame, so that’s why we had to get rid of her. And then, of course, Leif was going to eat her.”
Me (incredulous): Say what?
Mom: He was planning to feed her to the family. Dad didn’t know that when they took her. He just thought they wanted a pet.
Me: Mr. Olafssen was going to cook Cocoa?
Mom: Well, he asked Dad how long it would take to fatten her up enough to feed the family.
Me: Oh, come on. Leif was always kidding around. I’m sure he was joking.
Mom: Nooo…he grew up eating horse meat, and he had a lot of kids, so he was just being practical. Dad told him, “I think you’d better talk to your family about that idea, first.”
This, of course, led me to wonder what would have happened if Mr. Olafssen had actually carried out his unholy plan. I’d burst in their front door, as I did every afternoon. “Hey Ingrid! Let’s go visit Cocoa!”
“Um…..how ’bout a ’roast beef’ sandwich?”
The first time I realized that horses may be something other than beloved family pets/forms of transportation occurred when I was ten. My dad—equine vet, breeder of Quarter horses and mules—had taken a sabbatical and my mom, brother, and I were spending the summer in Europe, traveling around in a borrowed, pea-green VW camper van.
We had just arrived in Paris, and were wandering the Left Bank in search of a suitable place for dinner (meaning, an establishment that served french fries, because that’s one of the few foods I deemed acceptable at the time).
I was dawdling behind my family, taking in the strange Parisian sights, sounds, and smells. I heard a racket coming from a brightly-lit shop with a wide glass window and open doorway. And that’s when I saw it. I was looking straight into the back room of a boucherie chevaline, where a freshly-dispatched bay horse–hide, mane, tail, and all–dangled by its right hind leg from a hook on the ceiling. It was so big, its velvety nose nearly scraped the ground. A portly man in a white apron and rubber boots stood next to the carcass with a large knife, ready to do unspeakable things.
I stood, frozen, on the sidewalk; I probably resembled a midget version of “The Scream.” Then my parents yelled at me to hurry up, and I ran after them, too traumatized to mention what I’d seen. It didn’t help when, while they perused a menu minutes later, I alone noticed a gentleman emerging from yet another boucherie (was Paris nothing but dead animals?). The furry, comically large feet and hind legs of a hare protrouded from a paper bag in his hand (I also raised champion show rabbits–not for the table–at the time, so this added yet another session to my metaphorical therapist’s couch).
Allow me to explain: I wasn’t in the least bit disturbed by the concept of eating horse, and I’d actually had rabbit before. What bothered me was seeing these creatures in such a raw, primal (aka dead) state. While a whole lamb carcass wouldn’t have caused me to bat an eye, there’s something very disturbing about seeing a 1,200 pound horse on a hook. Ditto the intact hare; as an American, even one who lived on a ranch, I had a hard time identifying with the purchase of something resembling road kill for dinner.
I’ve always been very matter-of-fact about meat; I think it comes not just from traveling as a child, but from assisting my dad with necropsies of his former patients from the age of about eight on. A good time was Dad and I, dissecting one of my rabbits, trying to figure out what mysterious circumstances had caused her to keel over and die in the night. Boast-worthy was overseeing the necropsy of Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter’s pet pony (for some reason, my classmates didn’t think it as cool as I did).
No, my issues with meat have and always will lie with the treatment of said animal in life and handling before what should be a quick, merciful death. But that’s a whole other topic altogether.
What I really want to address is horse meat. Viande chevaline, basashi (think horse sashimi ), or lo’i ho’osi (Tongans apparently do have an appetite for meat other than SPAM); whatever you call it in your country of origin, the fact remains that much of the EU, Central Asia, Latin America, and Japan have the good sense to eat horse. It’s delicious, with a slightly sweet flavor and bright red color, lean and low in cholesterol. Why the hell can’t Americans get onboard with the other red meat?
Blame anthropomorphism and our fervent equestrian culture. Horse meat had a brief domestic moment in World War II, when beef prices rose and supply dwindled. By the eighties, however, it was no longer okay, even if purchased for “pet food,” and in 1998, California Proposition 6 outlawed horse meat and slaughter for human consumption.
When I was growing up, however, there was a well-known horse abbatoir in Chino, in Orange County. As with many countries that don’t consume horse meat, the U.S. still slaughtered them (the old and sick, as well as retired racehorses and wild horses and burros) for export to countries that do, although the meat was also used to feed zoo animals. In 2007, the last horse slaugtherhouse in the U.S., in DeKalb, Illinois, was shut down by court order, and that was that–but new legislation suggests that horse slaughter could soon become legal again Stateside.
But hold your horses (sorry). Is this a good thing? The result of these closures means that there’s no outlet–humane or otherwise–for horses that can no longer be used for work or pleasure. Few people can afford to keep horses as pets due to age, illness, or injury, and horse rescues are at capacity or struggling to find funding. It’s also necessary to thin wild horse and burro populations to keep them sustainable (as well as protect their habitat from overgrazing and erosion); starvation and predation are cruel deaths. Fortunately, these animals are protected species and legally can’t be sent to slaughter, so they’re put up for adoption. The downside? What happens to aging and unsound animals, now that rescues and sanctuaries are at capacity and struggling for funding?
I’m not disputing the lack of humanity previously displayed by auctions and transport companies taking horses to slaughter. Fortunately, the 1996 federal Farm Bill mandated more humane conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t go into effect until 2001.
Humane treatment aside, the loss of horse abbatoirs is a divisive issue. I’m of the opinion that it’s unbeneficial and inhumane to not have an outlet for surplus horses. This, of course, assuming the transport and facility abide by regulations; I’m also not a fan of large abbatoirs, which I believe cause undue stress to the animal.
Isn’t it ultimately more kind to put an end to their suffering, and make good use of the meat? Proponents frequently make the comparison to the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized daily in the U.S., because their owners were too irresponsible or lazy to spay or neuter. Where do these sad creatures end up? Cremated. What a waste, in all regards.
“Right,” I hear you saying. “As if you would eat dog or cat [assuming it hadn't been euthanized and was fit for human consumption]!”
Actually, I have eaten dog, and it’s really not a big deal…with the glaring exception of how those animals are raised and treated. But as a food and travel journalist, I also have a job to do, and at times, that means your personal ethics need to keep their big fucking mouth shut.
It never fails to amaze me when “food writers” refuse to eat what’s put in front of them simply because they find it personally distasteful. Allergies are one thing, but a refusal to at least taste is a. rude, and b. lacking in journalistic integrity. Have religious limitations? Then you probably shouldn’t be food writing for the general public.
The incident that led me to this opinion occurred on the final night of a very high-end press junket to Parma, Italy. One of the city’s finest restaurants had organized a special dinner for our group, to commemorate the anniversary of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. The chef had prepared a set menu: ten courses of Parmigiano-enhanced regional foods, specifically chosen to impress and show us what Emilia-Romagna was all about.
The seventh course was fileto di giovani cavallo, a rosy filet of young horse. As our trip organizer translated what was being served, an uneasy silence fell over the table. “My Friend Flicka is on the menu?” asked an editor, her voice trembling. Within minutes, eleven of my twelve tablemates had requested beef as a substitute. I was mortified.
Believe it or not, Seabiscuit tasted pretty damn good.