I’m so hungry I could eat a…
Horse meat is off the menu at New York’s M. Wells Dinette. The restaurant’s celebrated French-Canadian chef-owner scuttled plans to serve horse meat tartare in response to outrage from animal rights advocates and concern about legal and health ramifications.
Last year Congress lifted a ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption. Until the ban went into effect just five years earlier the U.S. was one of the world’s largest horse meat producers, mostly shipping it to overseas markets, and had been for more than a century. But we’ve never been much for eating it.
Horse meat has long been taboo in the U.S., mostly for sentimental reasons.
It’s like the pets-or-food problem we have with rabbit; we don’t want to eat potential companions. There have been two notable exceptions in horse meat history: a widely mocked government promotion as a beef substitute when meat rations became scarce during World War II (earning Truman the nickname ‘Horse Meat Harry’); and the chicken-fried horse meat cutlets served at the Harvard Faculty Club until 1985.
Animal protection groups pressed Congress for the 2007 ban, but animal welfare was also one of the reasons for the ban to be lifted. Incidents of horse neglect, mistreatment, and abandonment had soared in the following years—animal welfare organizations have reported as much as a 60% spike—with most blaming the recession, since the proper maintenance of a horse is such a huge expense.
Even so, a horse slaughterhouse is a tough sell, and not just to New Yorkers. A new slaughterhouse has yet to open since Congress cleared the way; one application was withdrawn when a Missouri community protested, another is languishing in New Mexico with strong opposition from legislators; and in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie signed a bill that bans not just slaughterhouses, but even the transport of slaughterhouse-bound horses on his state’s roads.
Even with its new legal status, there is virtually no U.S. market for human consumption of horse meat. Horse meat is not kosher, questionably halal, and it’s forbidden by some Christian sects going back to the 8th Century when the Pope declaimed it as a “filthy and abominable” pagan custom. Its cause isn’t helped by the lack of a culinary cognate—meat from a pig is called pork, from a cow it’s called beef or veal, but meat from a horse is horse meat (although the practice of horse-eating is called hippophagy).
In case you’re curious, horse meat is said to taste similar to beef only sweeter and gamier with a mineral finish.
You might be surprised to learn that beyond horse meat, you can legally buy everything from camel to yak to zebra. Read all about it in Gigabiting’s How to Cook a Lion.