For some, horse meat ain't all bad

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Although most Americans would never think of chowing down on a horse, their distaste is not shared by the French, the Belgians, or many other continental Europeans. Not to mention the Japanese. The reasons for such varying tastes were analyzed by Marvin Harris in his 1985 book, Good to Eat. The following information is from Harris' book.

As a pile of fossilized horse bones three feet deep and several acres across in eastern France attests, Paleolithic people relished fresh horse steaks. Once the animals were domesticated, however, they could not be used primarily for eating - unlike cattle, sheep and pigs. Horses are not efficient enough at converting grass into meat to be raised for that purpose.

Horses transformed human society, creating wealthy elites and carrying predatory hordes that changed the map of Eurasia. They were too valuable as engines of war to be treated like other livestock; but since horsemeat is redder and sweeter than beef, and stays tender right into the animal's old age, many ate it when they could get it.

During the reign of Louis XIV, when France was importing 20,000-30,000 horses a year to keep its armies in the field, royal edicts forbade the eating of horsemeat. In a society starved for protein, this ban, among others, helped lead to the Revolution. During the Reign of Terror, as the aristocrats' heads were falling into baskets, their horses were going into the cooking pots of Parisian housewives.

The British, on the other hand, could eschew the eating of horses because they imported so much meat from their far-flung empire, an empire maintained, at least in part, by a superb cavalry.

Americans seem to have inherited the British distaste for horse flesh, although they didn't mind feeding it to their pets earlier in this century. Oddly, few complain about the thousands of domestic horses, many of them from racetracks, that end up in slaughterhouses. Last year this nation of horse lovers produced nearly 113 million pounds of horsemeat - most of it for export.