If you’re hungry enough to eat a horse, you may be in luck—if you live in Europe, anyway.
The recent “scandal” over the labeling of beef as horsemeat began in January, when traces of horse DNA were found in hamburgers sold in British and Irish supermarkets. Since then, millions of items have been pulled from grocery shelves across Europe and horsemeat has been discovered in school lunches. At the center of the controversy is a company named Spanghero, a French meat wholesaler.
Horsemeat has been strictly illegal in the U.S. since 2007, when the last official slaughterhouse closed. Historically, the situation was very different. Horse was very popular in this country during the 19th century, and the American vogue may well have touched off the craze for eating horsemeat in Europe. By 1889, there were 132 horse butcheries in France.
I ate horse several times in 1970s Paris. The texture is similar to beef, but the taste has a pleasant gaminess that beef usually lacks. There are still restaurants in Paris (and elsewhere) that serve it, without apology. According to nutritiondata.com, horse is far healthier than other types of meat. It contains more than twice as much iron and vitamin B-12 than beef, and nearly 30 times the amount of omega-3 fatty acid concentration.
So what’s all the uproar about? On a basic level, people are being told they’re eating one thing while they’re actually consuming another, which is fraud—even in a country that craves horse meat. However, if you accept the fact that horse may be better for you than beef, and probably has a more interesting taste, the reasons for the controversy may be more complicated.
The debate over eating horsemeat goes to the heart of our carnivorous culture. Even the most confirmed meat-eater maintains a psychological hierarchy about animals—it’s acceptable to kill and eat cows, but the family dog is sacred. This schizophrenia may be difficult to navigate at times: Are cows less lovable than horses? Apparently so, or at the very least they seem to have less emotional importance to many people (when was the last time you bet on a thoroughbred cow race?).
No such dichotomy exists in France, where the demand for horsemeat actually increased 15% as a result of the recent scandal. The Parisians lining up to buy dinner at the horse butcher seem to have things pretty well sorted out: There’s a time to ride them, a time to watch them race, and a time to eat them.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.