I’m just going to come out and say it: I love horsemeat. It’s lean, yet tender, it is flavorful but not gamy; it’s delicious. Those IKEA meatball-eaters have no idea how lucky they are.
I was first introduced to it in the Uzbek restaurants of Moscow, where they serve kazy, the horse sausage eaten across Central Asia, with translucently sliced onions and warm, naan-like bread. I was skeptical at first, but eating kazy is a conversion, that first moment of doubt melting away into a long “mmmmm” as you chew. But this was no mere staple of exotic Central Asia. By the time I got to Zurich, I was totally ready for the horse steak my hosts ordered for me. For the sake of comparison, we got one steak steak and one horse steak, and both slabs of raw meat came out on hot stones that sizzled and cooked the meat to the degree you wanted. And you know what? It wasn’t even a contest. Compared to the sweet richness of the horse, the cow tasted bland and dry. If I ever come across horse on a menu again, I would order it: I still crave that horse steak.
And that’s just the flavor part. Horsemeat is healthier than beef or other red meats: it is less fatty, and, unlike its more socially acceptable counterparts, less doped up with hormones and, likely, raised in better, less crowded, and more sanitary conditions. It’s rich in vitamin B12, which is key to blood production and the healthy functioning of the nervous system. “If someone were anemic, horsemeat might be a good way to get iron into that person’s system,” says LeeAnn Weintraub, a Los Angeles dietician. “You’re still getting the iron without all the saturated fat of other commercially raised meats.”
Yet much of the West is having a freak-out over the appearance of horsemeat in dishes like Taco Bell tacos, things that we probably assumed were made of meat far baser, if we assumed they were made of meat at all. Moreover, why are producers pulling these products off the shelves, as if they were found to contain plutonium or, worse, rat?
To someone who has spent time living in Russia, this may smack of the pampered squeamishness of the West. The aversion, however, has far deeper roots.
Horses, both wild and domesticated, have been an important source of protein for ages, especially in Central Asia, where they teemed on the steppes. It was a different story in Europe, where horses were scarce by comparison (this was one of the reasons that menaces like Attila the Hun, galloping in from the steppe, were such a potent threat). The early Christians, clustered around the Mediterranean, ate fish and lamb. Horseflesh they associated with the heathen savages, the Teutons who lived in the forests beyond the reach of Rome and were known to eat horse. In 732, Pope Gregory III declared the practice of eating horsemeat unclean and unchristian. This was not a hard edict to abide by: The forests were far better for raising pigs, and the European grasslands for ruminants, like cows. Horses were treasured work animals too expensive to eat, who would end up on the plate when they were too old for any other purpose.
In the modern era, horses became the meat of Europe’s underbelly, the meat of the hungry. Napoleon’s starving troops were infamously instructed to eat horse on their campaigns. In 1866, French authorities legalized the production and sale of horsemeat as a way to get protein to the malnourished working classes, but this was a controversial and very classist move: the wealthy, for whom horses were not just transport but pets with names and personalities, found this to be a deeply repugnant practice. It was considered a basse viand, a base meat. Not because of how it tasted, but because of who ate it and who had the luxury to pamper it. (Horsemeat, by the way, is still eaten in France, even if it is not nearly as popular as other meats—or even, ironically, snails.)
But the Anglo-Saxon tradition, of which we are the heirs, is different, and here’s where the French come in. The Anglo-Saxons may have eaten horse when Pope Gregory was fretting about their paganism, but when the Normans conquered them, in 1066 a certain gastronomic duality entered the lexicon, a cognitive dissonance made flesh. The Normans are responsible for introducing much of the French that today floats around the English language, especially when it comes to food. When one spoke of food, one spoke in the language of the French conquerors, rather than the language of the Anglo-Saxon hoi polloi. (Or, as it was then known, Angle-ish.) And so we came to eat not cow, but beef (boeuf), not pig, but pork (porc), not lamb, but mutton (mouton), not calf, but veal (veau). It is a pretension and a prudishness that we have internalized and unconsciously propagate to this day.
The next layer, of course, is the Angle-ish obsession with the horse as a noble beast, a beast that bears us into battle and a beast we bet on and cheer in derbies. (Why it’s okay to race these horses and then euthanize them when they break a knee, but not eat them is, frankly, beyond me.) Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, American girls dream of ponies, and if they grow up swaddled in money and privilege, like Georgina Bloomberg, they can live the fantasy of every other young woman who shops for the equestrian look at J. Crew. Horses are the stuff of myths and dreams in America, and, because we’re not hungry, we have the luxury of adding them to the list of animals we are too guilty to eat, foie gras, veal, rabbit. One friend of mine, for instance, loved burgers but could not, for the life of him, eat duck. It was too cute, he said.
For some reason, non-vegetarian Americans can live with this nonsensical ethical code. Cows, chickens, pigs—we feast on their flesh without wincing or imagining them marching into the slaughterhouse, their lives racing before their big, dumb eyes. But tell them that there may be some horse in their dead cow patty, and you get theatrical retching and indignation. In part, it is deep-seated historical and cultural taboo going back centuries. But in part, perhaps mostly, it is because we are spoiled: we are spoiled to not only have the option of eating meat on a daily basis—unheard of before the 20th century—we can pick and choose. And we’re sated enough to have animals as pets, as sacred companions whom we feed with meat, placing them in a strange plane above other animals.1
More news is sure to break in the coming days and weeks about horse meat found in this or that product, and it would be nice if, just for a minute, we recognized that it is simply the flesh of one dead animal mixed in with the flesh of another dead animal, and that it is by cultural coincidence that we prize one over the other, and that we do it because we are so supremely, absurdly sated. It would also be nice if we realized that having some horsemeat in those tacos might not be such a bad thing. It might even be the best thing in there.
Some of the most horrifying images from World War II came out of Leningrad. Besieged by the Germans for two and a half years, the city slowly starved to death. Residents ate shoe leather and made soups out of wallpaper glue. They even resorted to cannibalism. But those who kept records of the grinding hunger would note with dismay when they had to give in and eat their beloved pets.